Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Indeed, what’s in the name? I suspected at the start of this remaking of Eileen McHugh that contacting people across the internet via messages signed Tony Appelbaum might not elicit the kind of response I desired. What I needed were details, personal reflections, reminiscences. Unfortunately, my own name was easily searchable and would, of course, be linked to my business, which has its own website. Given the age group of my intended contacts, I figured that a cold contact from a care home owner might not be received kindly. I could have used my mom’s name, but then that would have looked very foreign to most people who might have known Eileen. It would never have been trusted. Mary Reynolds was the perfect solution to my problem because she never existed, except as an entry on a fake Thai marriage certificate. She may have become a US citizen, but she had no passport, tax number, driving license, bank account or anything else that might be traced.

But what she does have now, because I established them, are accounts in social media, complete with fake photos and biography. In addition, she now has a following of friends who all knew Eileen, before she adopted Mary. She also has, in her own name, the virally successful He’s on the other line… with all the associated earning potential for ad placement. Both recognition and success can come in many forms, all unpredictable, but possibly not random.

The only people I met personally during this entire project were the Colbrookes in Crofton, and that was for just for a morning, and Marion McHugh in her care home. Marion had no idea to whom she might be speaking, and the staff raised no questions when I produced her daughter’s passport as proof of my links to the family. The Colbrookes told me of the existence of Marion‘s document box and the care home was glad to find a home for it, as it had languished at the back of a cupboard for all the time its owner had been a resident.

And so, I now conclude this attempt to remake the life and work of an artist, Eileen McHugh, sculptor. What I have assembled is far from complete, just a set of snapshots, reminiscences, the found objects of Eileen’s life, remade in the form they themselves have adopted. Reconstruction of her work is yet to begin. You see, Tony Appelbaum is about to take an early retirement, hence the purchase of that wooden house in Chiang Mai, which will be my vacation home. I already have a buyer for the business and the sale will be lucrative. That original house purchased by my pop is not part of the deal, however. That I will retain for my mom, in the first instance, and for the memory of Eileen McHugh, also known as Mary Reynolds, for whom the property was originally bought by my pop. The room where she lay for over fifteen years will itself become a signature work in her style, and, when everything is ready to start, my mom will move in with my family to make way for the museum. The new name will be the Eileen McHugh Foundation, the McHugh for short. I hope in a few years it will be as common to hear someone say, “I’m going to the McHugh in New Jersey”, as “I am going to the Whitney in New York” or “the Courtauld in London”. I have an architect, who has already begun the plans, and now I have identified a team of sculptors to remake those works by Eileen for which we have sufficient detail. There will be about twenty large works on display. And there will be one more item, which will complete the collection.

Eileen lived for eleven years in Agbrigg, a suburb of Wakefield in the United Kingdom. She had eight years in Crofton, a village a few minutes’ drive down the road. She had two years in London and then five in Thailand, undocumented and untraceable years because she was living on an expired tourist visa and was in almost exclusive contact with Don, my mom and a little boy called Tony. The only people with detailed memories of that time are my pop, who is dead, and my mom, who is still reluctant to mention that period of her life, let alone discuss it. As for little Tony, well, he has told you everything he can remember.

Then she lived here, in this house in New Jersey, tended each day by my mom for over fifteen years. Whether she lived during that time, only she could tell you, but she had no words, no movement, no consciousness, except for those moments when perhaps autosuggestion convinced me she might have responded.

This is clearly the right place for the McHugh. It was and remains her home and will remain so for eternity. And in the spirit of Eileen’s work, there will be one extra piece, a homage to her life and the values she cherished.

Pop told me that Eileen used to sleep in an old tee shirt of his, the one that had the nuclear disarmament logo on the front. She was wearing it on the night of the attack. Peace, Brother will be a big work. It will occupy a whole room. It will be an empty bed with a copy of the tee shirt lying crumpled on the mattress. The machines that helped keep Eileen alive as Mary, the heart monitor, the glucose bottle on its stand, the catheter, the oxygen cylinders and mask she needed from time to time, they will surround the bed. They will all be operational. Suspended above the bed, with two adjustable strings on each, will be four baseball bats, each draped with sprigs of purple Thai orchids. Visitors will adjust the strings to raise or lower the weapons.

Outside in the garden, I plan to build a small mausoleum around Eileen’s grave. This will be fixed in stone. There are some things that cannot be changed. It will bear her names, born Eileen McHugh, died Mary Reynolds, and I will put 1952 – underneath, unterminated, because her work will live on.

Without the internet and social media, Eileen McHugh’s life could not have been remade. And without the same resource, the McHugh will never open its doors. The artist who saw no recognition now needs your efforts to render her vision permanent. Please, seek out the author’s website and make your donation to the McHugh.

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