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.