Famous You: Alina Grabowski on “Three Stanzas”

Editor’s note: Last summer, when I learned ICA would celebrate its 50th birthday with exhibitions responding to shows from the museum’s past, I thought it would be great to get writers to respond to our history too. I invited poets, fiction writers, and essayists at various stages of their careers to write a new piece responding to an ICA exhibition. The following short story, by Alina Grabowski, was inspired by Mirosław Bałka, Robert Gober, and Seamus Heaney: Three Stanzas (January 16 – March 7, 1999). -R.P.


Mom had wanted to be an artist before she had me. When we played Famous You she was Patricia Goddard, a young talent taking the contemporary art world by storm. She’d had shows at the MoMA, the Whitney, the Tate. Whenever we said “Tate” Riley would cry from her blanket, and I would have to comfort her because Mom refused to break character. Patricia didn’t “do” children.

I alternated between Ella Jones, a ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre, and Lorraine Spade, a winner of seven Academy Awards. I was also mother to adopted orphan Lucia May, played by Riley.

Usually, though, I was New York Times journalist Martha, who was writing a profile on Ms. Goddard. Martha didn’t get a last name.

Ms. Goddard was very fond of talking about her influences. “I admire Mirosław Bałka,” she said. “His minimalistic forms are so striking.” I was always surprised that a woman who regularly set baked potatoes on fire in our microwave knew names like these, could think like this. It wasn’t that I thought my mother was unintelligent—I just didn’t understand in what world her intelligence was grounded; certainly not my own. “What are minimalistic forms?” I asked. “How can they be striking?”

This was the only time she ever broke character. “You know how we went to Grandma’s house after the funeral? And it was empty except for her bed that you two used to play Go Fish on?” I nodded. “Remember how you looked at it and started crying?” I looked down at my feet. “When you strip everything away you realize what’s lost and what’s left.” She leaned forward to ruffle my hair. “And sometimes what’s left isn’t enough.”

I recorded everything she said as Patricia in a notebook that she kept in her bedside table drawer, where Dad wouldn’t find it. It said Groceries on the cover in case he did. We told him that I was doing my Magnificent Multiplication worksheets all day so I would test into the gifted program at school.

At six o’ clock every evening, a half hour before Dad was due back from the office, she would clap her hands and become Mom again. I would give her the notebook, full of places I’d never seen and people I’d never heard of. As I filled a pot of water to boil pasta for dinner, I would watch her read my notes, running a finger over the words like they were braille. She was the only one they made sense to.

After a month I got tired of playing Famous You. I’d moved on to a second notebook and I was only ever Martha now. Riley was always crying because Patricia didn’t change diapers.

“How do you win?” I asked my mother one day, looking out the window. Our neighbors had set up a lemonade stand and were running through the sprinkler in between customers.

“What do you mean, ‘win’, Martha? Art is not a game.” She tapped a finger to her knee, which meant I should write that down.

“No, Mom, I mean win this.”

My mother smiled a smile that made me almost as nervous as her laugh. “You become Ella Jones. You become Lorraine Spade. Then you win.”

Riley started crying and she snapped her fingers. “Can you quiet Lucia May, Lorraine? She’s giving me a headache.”


Alina’s hand

When I was in the sixth grade I got called to the principal’s office. Something had happened to my grandfather. This was suspicious because both my grandfathers were dead.

My mother was sitting in our station wagon that she hated, sucking on a Dum Dum. “Let’s play hooky!” she said. “Just don’t tell your father.”

We drove two hours to the closest art museum—today it’s a deluxe laundromat attached to a donut shop. She had plans for us to see a show called Three Stanzas—“Three: like you, me, and Riles,” she said—but when we pulled into the museum’s parking lot there were no other cars. It was closed on Tuesdays.

That’s how it always was with my mother. All anticipation, no execution. But I was used to it—I expected disappointment.

On the drive back she read an excerpt of the poem that the exhibition we were supposed to see was based on. It was by Seamus Heaney.

Sink every impulse like a bolt. Secure
The bastion of sensation. Do not waver
Into language. Do not waver in it.

We listened to her voice instead of the radio—she looped these three lines in a near-whisper, like a chant she was afraid she’d forget. I whispered it to myself too, hoping that if I said it enough times I’d be able to find the meaning in it that she did. Do not waver, I told myself. Do not waver.

We only went to an art museum with my father once. Riley was six and I was sixteen, which meant she was impressed by everything and I was impressed by nothing. Riley danced around my mother as they viewed the artwork, my mother thrilled to have found an enthusiastic companion at last. My father joined me on the bench.

“I promise we’ll get ice cream after this,” he said.

My mother turned her head at the sound of his voice. “Enjoying the art, Sam?”

“If you can call it art, then yes,” he called across the room. My father thought he could get away with saying anything as long as he wrapped it in a joke.

“What do you mean?” She circled back to the bench, Riley hopping behind her.

He shrugged. He was never brave enough to defend his opinions. I looked around the gallery, which was home to pieces by Robert Gober. There was a giant unwrapped stick of butter in the corner that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

“Is it too weird for you, Sam?” She threw a pair of jazz hands at him. “Too out there?” I turned away from them and glanced at a miniature plastic lawn chair with a printed box of Kleenex balanced on its seat. I didn’t understand why it made me feel lonely.

“Don’t get in a fit, Nellie,” he said, getting that nervous look that meant one of us has done something unexpected.

She smiled at that look. “Being ordinary doesn’t make something beautiful.”

He looked down at his shoes. “I would have agreed with that twenty years ago.”

We went to an ice cream stand called The Dairy Twirl afterwards and ate in silence at one of the circular picnic tables. “Sometimes I just hate you,” my mother said to my father on the ride home. This didn’t surprise me; I’d already realized it for myself.

That night she appeared in my doorframe as I was braiding my hair before bed. “Look what I found,” she said. “Remember this?” She held up a notebook with the word Groceries on the cover.

“Oh, God,” I said.

“Let’s play,” she said. “One last time. Maybe I’ll make up someone new. Maybe Emma Parsons, head curator at the Guggenheim. A total visionary taking the art world by storm.” She ran to my bed and flopped onto the mattress, flipping open the notebook. “Who do you want to be?”

“You know who I think you should be?” I asked her.

“Who? Don’t say a performance artist, I never understand performance art.”

I turned to look at her. “I think you should be Riley’s mother. And my mother. And Dad’s wife.” She drew her legs to her stomach and stared at me, unblinking. “Stop playing,” I said.

She stood up and brushed off her pajama pants as though she’d dirtied them. “Well then,” she said, closing the notebook. “I guess I win.”

– – –



Alina Grabowski is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English. Born in Connecticut and raised in Scituate, Massachusetts, she is the recipient of a Phi Kappa Sigma fiction prize from Penn and was a Level 1 Young Arts winner and Presidential Scholar in the Arts semifinalist.

Seven Writers was a program of ICA@50, which is on view through August 17.

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