By Cagney Nay.
Alone at night in my mother’s house, shortly after her death, I tidy up and look around and think about how much my mom liked pretty things. This is not to say that she liked things to be fancy. In fact, her aesthetic could almost be described as plain. She enjoyed things that had beautiful lines and an elegant quality of design that, once you got to know her, was unmistakably her taste. I look at all of the things that she collected over her lifetime – her life with my father and then another life with my stepfather – and I wonder what it was all for. I am struck with the thought of “you can’t take it with you”, and I wonder why we bother collecting all the things that we will inevitably leave behind and that will, by their very nature, have little or no meaning to anyone but us. But I quickly dismiss that thought and the sense of hopelessness that accompanies it, and I start to rationalize, answering my own question “we bother with those things precisely because we can’t take it with us”. In this short life why not surround ourselves with pretty things? With things that make us happy? The artist, Betty Woodman says that she wanted to become a potter and create functional objects, “because if you have beautiful things to use, it changes the kind of person you are”. My mom would have agreed.
For creative people, it is important to constantly be visually stimulated by their environment. In another life, given other opportunities, having been adopted by different parents, having been with men who made her creativity a priority, having had more money or time, my mother would have been an artist. In my mind I can conjure up an image of what her work would have looked like – something with simple lines and only a small punch of color, perhaps even nearly abstract with an almost Asian quality to it. Recently she had become interested in mid-century architecture and design. Again, I can’t help but feel that, in another life and in another relationship, she would have been living in something out of a Julius Shulman photograph. In fact, when I cleaned out her desk I found a museum-issued calendar of Shulman photographs that I had given to her. She had requested it for Christmas. Her second-to-last Christmas. The last Christmas before we knew she was sick. It was her singular request and she knew that I would happily indulge it. Now I see that she had put the beautifully packaged portfolio of photos away and never used it. When I mention this to my step-father and lament that I wish she had used the calendar he replies simply, “she probably just wanted it for the pictures”. She wanted it for the photographs – photographs that she would never put on display. In fact, none of her interests were ever put on display.
Tugging on a loose thread in my mind, reminding myself of what she was like, I recall two long since forgotten conversations that I had with her at different points in my life. The first is one that we had while sitting in my car on the UCSD campus during one of maybe 5 visits she made to San Diego during the 8 years that I lived there. With unreliable cars and no money for hotel stays, my parents did not make the trips down from Los Angeles to attend parents’ weekends or to drop me off at the beginning of a term or to pick me up at the end of a term. Left to my own devices, I occasionally bummed rides on the weekends to and from school until I finally purchased a used VW Rabbit with $500 that my great-grandmother had left me in her will (she thought that would be enough to put me through four years at a university). During one of these rare visits, my mom and I were sitting in my car and she pointed to a female student and said “people who look like her are the reason that I had to drop out of college”. The statement was so grossly superficial and she knew I would laugh at the hyperbole and the snobbery. But I also know that she meant what she said. This girl was not particularly homely or poorly dressed but she could probably best be described as frumpy…or dumpy…or schlumpy. Definitely some kind of ‘-umpy.’” My mom did not want to be around people who wore synthetic fibers or had greasy hair (especially at the same time). My mother was nothing if not tasteful, the only exception being that she abhorred bras.
The second conversation was years later when she told me that she wished she had become an architect and with that possibility most likely behind her, that she was considering returning to school to study Urban Studies and Planning. While I was growing up my parents often talked of returning to school. They had me very young, while still undergraduates, and I know that they felt that they were not done with their respective educations. Still, I always sensed that my mother had less desire to return. She wasn’t social enough and had enough disdain for authority that I could not see her being able to sit in a classroom and show enough respect for a professor to actually learn anything. My father was much more able to suffer through the slight indignity of having a professor who was younger than him. And, in fact, he did return to college and graduated the same year that I did. This conversation was the first time my mother had mentioned her interest in architecture and, yet, I realized that it was probably her own interests that had influenced, by osmosis, my own love and more formal study of art and architecture.
The one childhood memory I have of a real attempt by my mother to further her education, also happens to be one of my least proud moments as a daughter. My mom went back to school one summer and took a chemistry class. She had a healthy curiosity about all things in this world and probably thought it would be fun to acquire a layman’s knowledge in the subject. I vaguely recall that she was entertaining the thought of nursing school and this was probably a way to see if she would be able to meet the required classes. She signed up for a morning class that probably took her away from the house and away from us for a total of three hours. As usual, we were spending the summer in Maine where there was never enough to do to keep us from becoming bored. My brother, my best friend and I tormented my mom, begging her and pleading with her to drop the class so she would be available to shuttle us back and forth from the beach all summer. We eventually wore her down and she dropped the class. Several times over the years I told her how much I regretted that we ganged up on her like that and she let me off the hook every time. For one thing, the first time I brought it up she said she didn’t even remember that she had ever taken the class. Another time, when she did recall the class, she said, “who cares? I probably wanted an excuse to drop the class anyway”. Still, I wish we all been more thoughtful and more aware of who she was and who she, still a very young woman of 35, was trying to become.
A few months before she died, I sent my mom an email with an attachment of a slideshow of the singer Moby’s house. I loved the contrast of the minimal mid-century décor he had chosen for his old Spanish-style house in the Hollywood Hills. He did not want any of that heavy furniture that one would predictably find in that style of house. I loved the juxtaposition between the architecture and the furnishings. My mom wrote back to me a simple comment that, if you knew her, was so typical in the way that it was absolutely spot on and also seemingly random: “One caution about mid-century furniture with long, exposed legs (couches, chairs): they get old and dingy-looking very quickly.”
As I go through my mother’s earthly belongings and prepare to take care of them in the best way I can, I long for a chance to say I am sorry one more time. It makes me think about mid-century furniture and the warning she had issued about how delicate it is. And I am reminded about how important it is to take care of the things we love. I wish I had taken better care of her and I ache to take care of her for just one more day.
Cagney lives in Los Angeles and is currently enrolled in UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program. She is the mother of two fabulous girls who inspire her everyday. She can be found on Twitter at @CagneyNay.