My mother would have been 69 years old today. She has been gone, at least from this earth, for 14 years.
When I told her I wanted to become an artist, while a junior in high school, and that I would go to an art-only college, she put up a mild fight. Over the course of that year, she softened to the idea and ultimately drove with me to Baltimore where I had been accepted to the Maryland Institute College of Art. I rented a small UHaul truck to carry my few possessions. We set out early on a Saturday morning in August of 1988 from our home in Westport, Massachusetts. The warning to not drive more than 55 miles per hour was pasted to my side mirror and I dutifully kept to that. My mother would periodically ask if I wanted her to take over driving and then couldn't hide her relief when I repeatedly said no. In Baltimore, we moved me into a 15th floor apartment, leased by the school, and met my roommate and her family. The very next morning, I took my mother to the train station for the day-long ride back to Providence. I remember she carried only a purse and a paperback. We said goodbye and my glee at being left alone to start what I knew would be a huge, unsupervised adventure could not be suppressed. If she had any anxiety about leaving me in a completely new city, a fairly decaying and dangerous urban environment, she never showed it.
That first year away was awkward for me as I made connections with classmates and teachers. I was often confused about what each of those relationships meant and how to assign their appropriate importance to my life. Foundation year at MICA was also rigorous: five days a week of all day classes, plus electives, plus a work-study job. I wanted the approval that I saw my classmates receiving and had to come to terms with the fact that I was not a "natural born artist" who had intrinsic talent with a drawing pencil. The truth is, I picked the idea of being an artist as a way of setting myself apart from everything I knew. I was always starting from scratch.
During that time, my mother's style of parenting me was the opposite of oppressive. She did insist on one regular interaction: the 6 PM Sunday telephone call. Inevitably, it went on longer than a quick well-being check as I attempted to communicate what was happening with me in Baltimore. She patiently listened and said "uh-huh" at the right times. I imagine that I never asked how she was or what was happening with her, raising my two brothers and working full time as a research nurse. After I graduated and later began showing and selling my work, we would touch on the subject of my being an artist superficially, but I never thought we connected on that level, at all.
Fourteen years later I got to spend a longer period of time with my mother. She was very sick and my siblings and I took turns living with her in Providence. It was a gift to have that time and a privilege to be allowed to take care of her as she was usually very private. She and I talked around the elephant in the room, cancer, but not about much more. My career as an artist was in its nascent stages and I had exhibited mostly at colleges and in juried, group exhibitions. I set up a small table in her garage where I would paint in the evening while she watched movies and smoked cigarettes.
My mother became ill so quickly that, she left work one day and was never well enough to return. It must have been co-workers who delivered the contents of her office: items from her desk, plants, pictures hanging on the wall. I don't think I ever had reason to go through any of it until after she had died and I was getting her house ready to sell. In the years before, I was in the habit of sending my mother clippings, show announcements, anything that I thought might affirm my progress as an artist, anytime my name was in print, really! Until she was gone, I hadn't known if it made an impact. Her pride was suddenly apparent, as I uncovered some of what I had sent her, framed, so that she could display it at work. Not at her home, where she didn't entertain, but her office, where people would see them. One was a large poster from a juried group show at AIR gallery in New York and another was a smaller newspaper photo of me and article from when I was a visiting artist in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Apart from the fact that I see my mother every time I look in the mirror, I also remember her when I pass that small framed newspaper article that now hangs in my studio. The larger poster was left at the curb of her home, with the slight hope that someone would pick it up before trash day. It didn't make sense to ship it back to me, in California, and even the estate sale guy didn't have use for it. Whatever happened to it, I'll never know and don't care. The benefit of retrospect and of being the age I am is that I can say with confidence that of course my mother was brimming with pride, for each of her four children. I know this now, more than ever and need no evidence to prove it.
Anne Marie Halloran Nugent, 1973
NYC 1995, the night before my wedding