|Nancy L. Pressly, photo by Atlanta Portrait Photography|
Nancy L. Pressly is the author of the new book Unlocking: A Memoir of Family and Art. She also has written the book Settling the South Carolina Backcountry. She worked in the art museum world, including at the National Endowment for the Arts, and she lives in Georgia.
Q: Why did you decide to write Unlocking, and over how long a period did you work on the book?
A: There were two pivotal moments which occurred eight years apart.
The first was while I was recovering from a near-fatal illness and discovered in our attic a treasure trove of old family photographs, documents, and letters, including my grandfather’s citizenship papers. I was overcome with emotion looking at the photographs and felt a responsibility to preserve my grandparents’ and parents’ stories before they were lost forever. Over the next year I did extensive research and put together a chronology but was not ready to write a narrative.
The second was in 2016, when my husband and I were already living in Atlanta. I had already been helping my son care for his children for six years, living alone for a period of time above his garage. I was keenly aware of the important role I was playing in our grandchildren’s lives. I remembered how important my grandparents had been to me and thought again about the family photographs now stored in our guest room. It was time to finish my family history.
I realized to write their stories I would have to summon the courage to dig deep into my own past. I have lived an interesting and by no means easy life, and it slowly dawned on me that maybe I should write a memoir and incorporate my parents’ and grandparents’ history into my own story. It took about two-and-a-half years to write the book.
Q: How much did you know about your family history growing up, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research for the book?
A: I knew the basics like where my grandparents came from and that my father emigrated in 1905, but I did not know, for example, that my maternal grandfather had three siblings who emigrated with him.
My father’s side of the family was particularly opaque. I was thrilled when I found a photograph of his beloved brother Max, who died when he was only 18. To see Max in his handmade bar-mitzvah suit made my father’s youth tangible. It somehow opened my heart to my past, long buried, and made me want to remember and try to know my father.
I also uncovered a photograph of my grandmother’s half-sister and her family in Bessarabia circa 1915 and was able to trace the family to the town of Securani, now in western Ukraine. I discovered a memoir written by a young man who left Securani the same year as my father (1905), and this allowed me to envision his life as a young boy and the trauma of his emigration experience.
Looking carefully at early photographs revealed a great deal about my mother and father. I don’t think people realize just how much information can be encoded in early photographs.
Q: You write about some difficult experiences for you and your family-how hard was it to revisit those issues?
A: It depends on which experience. The hardest was unlocking the doors back to my childhood, rereading old letters and entries in diaries and remembering. I allowed myself to go deep; it was painful but, in the end, I understood family dynamics in new ways, and it was healing.
I tore away the amnesia that clouded memories of my parents and the town where I grew up. I was able to feel deep emotion for my father and understand him better, an unexpected and healing gift.
I also came to understand the trajectory of my life in surprisingly new ways. The experiences of my husband’s illnesses and my own brush with death when I had ampullary cancer remain vivid in my mind.
I think writing about my grandchildren and their experience with their mother’s battle with alcoholism was much harder: I relived the pain, despair, horror and sadness. I kept revising the chapter, because I wanted to protect my family and some things are better left unsaid.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In terms of writing, I am working on a series of “Reflections” for my author website - my version of a blog - which touches on themes in the book, among them travel, insights before works of art, how to be a proactive patient and family member when confronting life-threatening illnesses, the gift of seeing, and the power of empathy. I am enjoying the challenge of writing something meaningful in 500 to 1,000 words.
I am also exploring a different aspect of my creativity by working with clay. I took up pottery for the first time about 14 months ago. It has been challenging to learn the basic skills of throwing on the wheel and glazing and also hand building with clay, but it engages me fully.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: When I was finished writing Unlocking, I was, not surprisingly, nervous about how it would be received. But I also felt peaceful and strangely wise. I understood my life’s journey so far in more profound and meaningful ways and was proud and happy that I could leave this family legacy for our son and grandchildren.
Writing a memoir made me understand better some of the choices I had made. I always knew I had a great eye, but I had never focused on what I describe in the memoir as the gift of seeing. I realized my ability to see connections among artists and similar artistic impulses across millennia was linked to my capacity for empathy and intuitive “seeing.”
--Interview with Deborah Kalb