With each earache, my siblings and I knew what to expect. Out would come a newspaper and a lighter.
My father would roll a section of the newspaper into a cone. Then, as we leaned our heads to the side, grimacing less from pain than the thought of what could go wrong, he would tuck the pointy end of that cone into the afflicted ear.
And then we would hear it — the click of the lighter.
To this day, I can’t tell you whether the heat worked to cure our earaches or whether we healed ourselves through sheer willpower as flames slowly inched down that newspaper toward our faces.
But I know this for certain: My father did it with the best of intentions and with the belief that it would work because that’s how many Mexican American parents cured earaches. I also know this: Now that I’m a parent, there is no way I am lighting anything on fire near my kids’ heads. (Sorry, Dad, but that tradition will not be carried on).
Ah, parenthood — a universal test that comes in all languages. That’s one way to describe it. A better way is scrawled across a red arch at the American Visionary Art Museum.
“Parenthood,” it reads, “the scariest ’hood you’ll ever go through.”
I am not an art critic. I know just enough to say, “What an awesome octopus,” when my 4-year-old draws a circle with eight strings jutting from it. But when I heard about the new exhibition at the Baltimore-based museum, titled “Parenting: An Art Without a Manual,” I was immediately intrigued by the concept.
So often people feel as if their own childhoods are unique in their absurdness and dysfunction. And while there are definitely some people who were failed more than supported by their parents, even the most well-adjusted among us were raised by people who fumbled in some moments and shined in others. We all have someone to blame for our faults and to credit for our strengths.
“Most of us are children of some version of Homer and Marge Simpson — products of fellow flawed human beings who nonetheless managed to provide us some real glimpses of beautiful, unconditional love,” Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, the director of the museum and principal curator of the exhibition, wrote in a description of the collection.
The collection highlights the works of 36 artists and touches on issues that include refugee families, children with disabilities and grandparents raising grandchildren. There are heartbreaking works that address loss and hilarious pieces that capture shared parental fears.
On a wall lined with panels depicting anonymous confessions from the project “PostSecret,” one features a photo of a young person in the back seat of a car, gripping the top of the window and yelling. Written across the panel is this confession: “I’m terrified I might accidentally roll the car window up ON MY CHILD’S FINGERS!”
Hoffberger said she doesn’t think a parenthood exhibition has been done before. What struck her while doing the research for it and collecting the works of art, she said, was the universality of the subject.
“You have to remember even Charles Manson had a son,” she said. “Being a good parent or even a great parent has very little to do with a person’s finances or intellect or formal education. It’s a very democratic art. You could have gone to Harvard, smell good, look good, play great tennis and yet be the crappiest parent who ever walked the earth.”
There are plenty of works that address that type of parenting.
A piece by artist Bobby Adams, who was raised in Baltimore, features life-size mannequins with black-and-white photos for faces. In the scene he created with them, his mother, a teacher who committed suicide, sits on one end of a couch, smiling and reading a book to her child. On the other end sits his father, one arm raised and the other holding a leather belt.
A different piece, a sculpture of a mother, father and child made entirely from piano keys, rotates under a large banner. On it is a quote by Michael Levine: “Having children makes you no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist.”
Hoffberger said the exhibition, which opened in recent weeks and will run until September, has already elicited strong emotional reactions from visitors.
“It’s the only press preview where two of the press people broke into tears,” she said.
If you happen to visit, regardless of whether any or many of the pieces pull at you, you will probably find it impossible to walk through the exhibition without reflecting on your childhood.
One piece features a giant tie under the words “Big Daddy.” It is surrounded by quotes that capture the perspectives of daughters. Each is only six words.
“He wanted sons. Got me instead,” reads one.
“Dad had lipstick on his collar,” reads another.
“Told hilarious shaggy dog stories. Funny,” reads yet another.
I stood there and thought about what mine would say. I considered my dad’s incredible talent for fixing anything electronic. I thought about his diverse taste in music and how he passed on to me a love of Otis Redding. I remembered fondly his affinity for cooking Hamburger Helper.
I settled on: “My ears feel fine. Really, Dad.”