Q&A with Nancy L. Pressly, author of UNLOCKING: A MEMOIR OF FAMILY AND ART

Nancy Pressly Atlanta Portrait Photography

1. What is UNLOCKING: A MEMOIR OF FAMILY AND ART about and why did you write it?

Unlocking is not your typical memoir in that it looks at my life’s journey so far. It interweaves personal and professional stories, beginning with my childhood in a small rural town north of New York City as I slowly unravel family dynamics that had so long been obliterated from my memory. The memoir captures my life in the New York art world of the late 1960’s when I came into my own as a person and met my husband, a fellow graduate student, and we began our journey together as art historians. Throughout I discuss the importance of art and travel and how I look at and respond to art. Major themes include how I assumed the role of caretaker for my family, beginning with my husband’s near fatal illness early in our marriage; the challenges of being a working mother;  and how I finally overcame doubts concerning my professional worth and being comfortable with my more assertive side which I kept partially repressed, allowing me to embrace a national leadership role in the museum world. It is also a story of resilience, determination, and optimism. Interwoven throughout is the importance of family bonds. The memoir is an intensely personal and honest account, notable for its candor, and I hope it leaves the reader with a deep appreciation for the power of empathy and the transformative power of art.

While I was recovering from a near fatal illness, I discovered a treasure trove of family material in our attic including old documents and photographs and letters. Looking at the photographs I was astonished at the power of the image to unlock memories and suddenly felt a profound responsibility to create a narrative of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives. I prepared a chronological outline but did not venture further. Eight years later I was ready to return to unfinished business, and I realized in order to write my family’s story, I would have dig deep into my own past. It slowly dawned on me that I should write a memoir and incorporate my family history into my story. 

2. At the peak of your career as a nationally recognized strategic planning consultant for art museums, you received a  diagnosis of a rare pancreatic-related cancer. What was that like? Did you get angry or bitter? If so, how did you handle that? If not, what helped you during that period of your life? 

It was a difficult experience, and one I devote a chapter to in the book. When I first received my diagnosis, I was in total shock but almost immediately turned to focusing on finding the best surgeon and medical center to have the Whipple procedure, one of the most difficult and complex operations. I knew I was the one who had to make the decisions and be proactive; I did extensive research and within a week was on the operating table. Information empowers me, and I let my medical team know I wanted to be kept informed and they needed to be honest with me. In terms of my career, I told my clients I was seriously ill, and everything had to be on hold until I knew more. I was never bitter, nor did I get angry, although I felt a profound sadness that I might not live to see our first grandchild who was born ten day after the operation. The Whipple is a devasting hit to the body, and physical recovery was slow and the fatigue and weakness at first overwhelming; and I was one of the lucky ones because I didn’t have any complications. Two months after surgery, I began aggressive treatment, a radiation/chemo combo, which was totally debilitating to my already weakened body, followed by two months of chemotherapy. 

What helped me? I was given a fifty-fifty chance, and I remained realistic, stoical, and focused on my recovery. I continued to follow research studies and statistical medical information on this rare cancer. I found what I called a safe place in my house where I could comfort myself  – it was our couch with a blanket, often a snuggling cat, and a view of our backyard. At around ten months I began to spend time in my community garden where I could lose myself in mindfulness for hours. I remained a strong fighter, protected by my “warrior shield” but at eighteen months, as I got better, I let down my protective shield. Suddenly, I became fragile and lost my traction; I realized the degree to which the experience of cancer had destabilized me; had stripped me to my core. I was not prepared for the darkness and depth of depression that followed. I needed to get help. Friends and my family were supportive and kind but living through cancer is a lonely journey and at the end I was simply a different person, not better or worse, but different. I also retired.

3. What role did family dynamics play in your journey and how do you examine that in your book?

I am an introspective person, I think in a good way, and acutely aware of the subtleties of family dynamics and how they profoundly affect us at every phase in our lives. In the first section of the book, I slowly find a path back to my childhood that had been for the most part lost from conscious memory. As a teenager, my father, a loving and decent man, dealt with my first love in a terrible and traumatic way that profoundly affected me and left a deep fracture between us which took years to rebuild. But the episode literally caused a kind of amnesia. After college, I left behind the small town where I grew up and memories of the town, my friends, and my life there faded away. In Unlocking I journeyed back in time and carefully examined family dynamics, understanding them for the first time. I let old photographs help unlock memories.  I also explore, I think with candor and sensitivity, family dynamics in our marriage and in the process understood better some of the decisions I made along the way.

4. Your book talks about your love of family. How did that show up in your life and what advice would you have for people who have poor relationships with their family members?

I was a loving and supportive daughter to my mother after she was widowed at age fifty-eight, and she was an incredibly supportive of me and my husband and son. Love of family is about giving and caring and being there for close family members. It is a profound bond. When my brother died unexpectedly and tragically at age fifty-three, he was separated from his wife and their children chose to live with him. They were devasted when he died, and the youngest would come down every few weeks to spend a weekend with me. I never faltered and was always there for him. I have been the caregiver in my family, since my husband had his first opened-heart surgery at age thirty -one – he has had his aorta valve replaced four times. Our roles changed dramatically out of necessity. Family extended to my in-laws, and my father-in-law and I were especially close. I was his daughter. Everyone seemed to know that I would be there, fix it; organize it; and make it all good again. Whatever that is, it is who I am. When my son separated from his wife, who was an alcoholic, and had primary custody, I dropped everything I was doing and came down to help, living above his garage for two years and commuting back and forth from Washington, where we lived, to Atlanta. We moved down permanently a few years later. Friends asked how we could do this, and my response was how could we not; my son worried about what I had to give up and felt guilty and I told him not to; this was where I belonged and it was probably the most important thing I had done in my life. 

In terms of what I would tell other people who may have poor relationships with their family, I loathe to generalize; situations are so different. But my advice would be simply life is short and forgiveness is not so hard if one can find a kernel of goodness and remember it. Also exercise empathy; try to understand why things may have gone so bad or wrong. There is something very powerful about the family bond and unconditional love. We should try to do everything we can to honor it. But that said, taking care of yourself and protecting yourself is also important.

5. You also explore the challenges of being a working mother? What was that like and how did you balance the demands of your work and the demands of being a mother?

I went back to work full time when our son was seven. We moved to a new city – from New Haven to San Antonio –  so I was experiencing a cultural shock as well as a dramatic change in my life without the backup support of family and friends. It was painful; I missed  not picking my son up at school and making him afternoon snacks, and I was not ready to go back to work full time. At the time I was pretty much the sole bread winner  – my husband was in-between positions and he taught one course a semester in Austin. Although he helped with David, it was the 1980s, and I was pretty much responsible for the more traditional domestic tasks from cooking dinner to washing clothes. My mother came for periods of time and helped. I couldn’t have managed without her; day care options didn’t exist. I remained conflicted and even today regret things I missed doing with my son and not being there. At the time I had no choice, we needed my salary. For me it was not just balancing the demands of my work and of being a mother and wife; I also enjoyed domesticity in terms of cooking and gardening and making a house, a home, so I was balancing that as well. Yes, it was exhausting, and yes, I cooked wonderful meals almost every night.

6. What advice would you give to mothers and fathers about how to balance family and parenting obligations with work obligations while still taking care of themselves and not feeling overwhelmed? 

I think you probably answered that yourself. Take care of yourselves; “me” time is essential. I like that you say mothers and fathers because that is today’s world where parenting is shared so much more, and gender roles are so much more fluid. That was not the world I worked and mothered in. My advice is as follows:  At every stage of our lives we have to make choices so that balance tilts in one direction or another. I think the huge issue (and mistake) that my generation struggled with and it seems women continue to struggle with, is trying to have it all and thinking if we do it the right way and society is flexible, we can have it all.  I believe we can have it all; BUT THE MISTAKE is thinking you can have it all at the same. You can’t. This is where choices and shifting balances come into play.

7. Did serendipity or synchronicity ever play a role in your life? If so, how

I think the answer is probably no. Things seem to happen because we make choices along the way. I like quiet places – if there are two sites that offer the experience of seeing Neolithic burial cairns, I am going to go to the one off the tourist track where there will be fewer people and no tour guides. I feel I can experience the site more authentically that way. And, yes, I will be more likely to absorb the ritual setting and also meditate on man’s quest for meaning.