When my mother took her three- and four-year-olds to the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, she wondered if they would last until intermission. I was the three-year-old, and I stood in rapt amazement till the curtain calls. Only eight years later, I would have the opportunity to dance with the same company as a little Harlequin in Harlequinade. My mother wasn’t a stage mother and she never pushed me. She just exposed me to an art she loved; and she continued to do so with other forms.
My parents hosted fundraisers in their living room where Broadway stars from new shows would sing numbers for potential investors. My siblings and I sat on a blanket in our pajamas in the foyer, quietly thrilled. My mom brought theatre troupes to perform at our elementary schools. I can still sing the lyrics from Young Abe Lincoln.
On one family vacation to a farm in upstate New York where we saw a calf being born, we also visited Corning Glass, watching blobs of molten glass being formed into colored translucent forms.
When I was nine, they took the family to the Latin Casino to see Ella Fitzgerald. Years later when my mom visited me, she said I was playing “her music,” but she had made it mine as well. Glenn Gould’s inimitable version of the Goldberg Variations lived on their turntable. Gould’s version is what I hear in my head still.
In summer, we had unhurried visits to the library. The basement children’s section was cool in the summer and nearly silent. I piled book on top of book, taking my time selecting what I would bring home until they were all read and we returned for more. I’m not sure where my many siblings were, but my memory is of being all alone with the books, a peaceful pleasure.
I have three siblings and we’re all about a year apart. It was a noisy, competitive, sometimes battling group of kids with half the neighborhood mixed in and my mother in charge.
Our house was where you were allowed to turn over the living room furniture to make forts, use sheets and towels for any artistic purpose, and generally make a mess. Education and creativity reigned. So, the neighborhood kids piled in. Even after we left for college, my friends would stop by to see my mom for love and/or argument. During those years, she managed to also get a master’s degree and do all the coursework for her PhD in education. She also worked for a division of McGraw Hill developing learning centers for the open classroom. Mom didn’t sleep much.
She bought me a good sewing machine and lost her dining room in the bargain. I never put the machine away. Eventually, I wrote sections of a book on needlecraft that was published in 35 languages.
One summer, when I was 11, we went to Europe with my aunt and cousins. We saw Notre Dame and the Mona Lisa and my cousins and I wandered around Paris with a map and dictionary, sans parents. We thought we ordered trout in a café and got tripe instead. I had French stitches after a cooking accident.
We saw Michelangelos and Donatellos. As our home base, we rented an ancient pension with crumbly walls and weird plumbing, washed our socks in the bidets and ate artichokes for the first time. My siblings and I cherish it as the best summer of our childhood.
I gave up dance, got degrees from Tufts in English literature and from Parsons in environmental design, and I’ve been an interior and lighting designer for more than 25 years, using glass in custom fixtures and frequently lighting art collections. When I revisited Florence 29 years after the first visit, it was like seeing old friends I had never forgotten.
Now I’m the single mom of a beloved 16-year-old daughter and I’m carrying on for my mom, gone now for 11 years. When my daughter was two, sitting on the floor in a cubist gallery with a group of other toddlers, she identified one self portrait as “Pablo.” She recognized Picasso from Tommy de Paolo’s Mr. Satie and the Great Art Contest. At about three at MOMA, she struck up a conversation with a startled adult stranger while viewing Rousseau’s sleeping gypsy. She made glass forms in a glassblowers studio when she was four. She practically slept with her little easel for years.
We’ve gone to Cuban jazz, classical, and rock concerts together. Sometimes I brought tiny soft toys to dance in our laps during the show. When she got tired or bored, we departed. She sang herself through some difficult times. Now, she mostly she dances.
Who knows where all this will lead my daughter. Practically from birth, my mom introduced me to great art in all forms and it has informed my career choices, enriched my life and fed my soul. I know for certain that it will do all that for my daughter as well.