Over the years I've mentioned my blue collar Dad many times on this blog, but I've never talked about my Mom. She provided the creativity gene to go along with Dad's street smarts.
And since Mom passed away this week, it's only appropriate that you know the source of the muse that lives in my mind.
While Dad made sandwiches a work of art in the deli, Mom simply created traditional versions. A ceramics teacher who wielded a mean paintbrush when confronted with a blank canvas, she taught me the sheer joy of making something out of nothing. Most of my television stories weren't anything close to artistic, but they all started with a blank tape and empty sheet of paper. She could take a lump of clay and turn it into a beautiful centerpiece for any home. She molded both me and the clay at the same time.
It's worth noting her artistic genius in the kitchen as well, though we Italians feel we are simply born with the cooking chromosome. I've been whipping up concoctions since I could see over the top of the stove. And like most Italians, the recipes were not written down. A little of this, a handful of that, and Mom always made things come out right. Thanks to a childhood as her kitchen assistant, I have no problem duplicating her recipes. They're burned into my brain, which is another blank canvas.
Despite working long hours into the night, she managed to make a comfortable home. It had the traditional Italian Catholic trilogy of pictures hanging on the wall (Sinatra, JFK and the Pope), records playing in her basement art studio (Sinatra or Dean Martin), and the smell of garlic embedded in the wallpaper. Said wallpaper, thanks to my ill-advised attempt at surprising her for Mother's Day, consisted of fish swimming upside down. (Personally, I think she got even with me for that stunt by buying me an accordion, an Italian instrument of torture if ever there was one.)
She also wasn't a Norman Rockwell Mom. While most mothers got sentimental gifts at Christmas, she was thrilled to get the Die Hard DVD collection. Loved Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, and just about any action movie. But she never forgave me for renting a copy of Alien, from then on always asking if a sci-fi movie would feature a creature exploding from someone's chest.
Going through her stuff I was amazed to find a ton of my old homework assignments from grade school. You know, the things Moms stick on refrigerators and put in a scrapbook. Book reports with gold stars, compositions on what I wanted to be when I grew up, poems that really didn't rhyme. But they all started with a blank canvas.
There must be thousands of pieces of pottery scattered across the Northeast that originated in our basement. In the evening I would hear the laughter coming from downstairs as I did my homework; it was her students enjoying the pleasure of creating something out of nothing. Those "somethings" all started as liquid clay poured into molds, or lumps of clay turned into something useful, beautiful, or both.
A blank canvas isn't always a canvas. It can be a sheet of paper, a brand new videotape, a flashing cursor on a new document that hammers your brain and dares you to create something from nothing. What she passed down to me, I've hopefully passed to some of you, so you guys know who to thank.
When you think about it, we're all pretty much a blank canvas when we're born. Our parents set up the easel, give us the paint and the brushes. Tell us to try our best to color inside the lines and not get any of it on the wall. Then it's up to us what we do with our canvas. We make choices to fill our lives with bold strokes and bright colors, to accent it with soft touches and soothing tones, to inject it with the tiny details that make it unique, to sign it so the world knows who created it.
Mom's canvas was a work in progress for over 88 years. The masterpiece now hangs on God's wall for eternity.