By Rachael Nuckles
When I imagined my first year of graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, I pictured myself finishing it out in my apartment in New York, going on my regular coffee date with a friend from the cohort to work on our papers, and citing all of my wonderful findings from the Riot Grrrl Archive at NYU. I packed a bag for a week of spring break, bringing an extra book or two, imagining my trip home might be slightly extended. Now, I’ve been home for over a month. My beloved archive is closed, the best coffee I can get is a pot brewed at home, and instead of the sounds of the city I am surrounded with the sounds of a quiet, Midwestern town.
As news about the world pandemic began evolving and my return to New York became a bit more uncertain, the assumption was that I would simply remain at home; though I’d be staying in the laundry room, I’d be more safe here than back in the city. My week turned into an indefinite stay.
While being home I’ve realized how much of “me” has been directly influenced by my mom. Without her, I don’t know that I ever would have been in a graduate program to begin with. I recognize how lucky I am to have her in my life at all, let alone to have someone so supportive of my endeavors no matter how far-reaching they might be. Not everyone gets to have that support system in their life. I understand firsthand what it feels like to have a parent walk out, without so much as goodbye. Some days I can’t help but wonder what he might think of my life’s trajectory: would he try to take any credit for what I’ve become? Would he even recognize me if I passed him on the street?
Mom never let me give up easily. A challenge was always an opportunity to think creatively to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes problem-solving meant standing up for the things you knew were right, the things you knew in your heart, despite what others might think of the decision. Sometimes it meant taking a break from taking care of the world around you in order to accomplish what was necessary for your personal wellbeing; and while my mother never explicitly taught me these things, I learned these traits through watching her persevere through any and every struggle life threw at her.
Therefore, I was never one to give up on my goals, no matter how far fetched they seemed to others. My first major goal was to leave my small town, attend school for theater, and to prove that a career in the arts would be a viable option. My mom supported me through all the firsts that come with moving away from home. We left for college visits far earlier than we needed to, touring campuses in Chicago. It couldn’t have been easy to send your first into the unknown.
I would ultimately decide on a school which I thought would give me the most hands-on theater experience, and my mom supported my decision fully. She came to nearly every production I worked on as an undergraduate, bringing as many family members as were willing along with her.
When the time came to determine post-graduation plans and I received an acceptance to graduate school at Sarah Lawrence, there was no question whether or not I would be going: only how. My mom helped me pay my deposit as I dealt with loose ends in Chicago, and when I moved to New York in August I gave her her first tour of the city.
In the almost year I’ve been on the east coast, I’ve been forced to take charge of my life in a way I’ve never had to before. Though I’ve been relatively independent since the time I left home, being alone in a major city can be isolating. As I’ve navigated my New York life, I’ve discovered my mom in the crevices of my personality I didn’t expect. It’s only in returning home that I’ve been able to recognize where my quirks came from, and that the answer was in front of me the whole time.
I see her in my love for Chinese takeout, affinity for Saturday Night Live, and my crafty side which prevents me from throwing out anything that could be used in a future project. I recognize our similarities when we bake barefoot in the kitchen, making jokes in a voice reminiscent of Bobby Moynihan’s “I Miss My Little Kitty Cat” or sit down to catch up on whatever the latest cooking show (or Closer Look) might be.
My mom taught me how to be me, and whether it was intentional or not she made me a feminist. She taught me that I am worthy of a seat at the table. That there is nothing I cannot do. She taught me how to respect others despite our differences. To demand more when the standards are not high enough. She taught me that when something is broken, sometimes it requires a closer examination; sometimes broken situations require reconfiguration.
I see quite a lot in my life that I am proud of, yet I also see much that is broken. Systems failing large groups of people; blatant disrespect and discrimination in the form of racism, sexism, and homophobia; injustices that many are willing to overlook so long as the situation benefits them. But if my mom taught me anything, it’s that when you’re dissatisfied with the world around you, sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands to change the view. In this degree, I hope I can make her proud and harness the skills she’s given me. It’s cliche to say I want to make the world a better place, but really…don’t we all?
Rachael is a Midwesterner at heart finishing her first year as a masters candidate in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence. Her thesis work will complicate the notion of the feminist wave and the construction of feminist “icons” while exploring the influence of the Riot Grrrl network of the 1990s in more contemporary forms of feminist activism. Some of her side interests include women’s rage, performance studies, and the double edged sword that is “cancel culture.”