When I was a little girl, we were poor. Dirt poor. My three sisters and I began our lives in a three-room shanty shack along the east coast of a tiny Maryland village.
Looking out from our living room window was the ever-present vision of life on the other side; where the sun shone, and life appeared to be happening. It didn’t matter if it was raining or sunny, color and contrast always appeared to dance off the portrait out my window of sailboat masts swaying against the sky, as the ebb and flow of the river rocked their sometimes, massive hull. Fancy cars parked and emptied with a buzz of laughter and chatter, as people entered the marina to enjoy their ‘extra’ things of life, while I sat wondering what it must be like to belong over there.
Sometimes I would meander across the road to the other side to get a closer look, and to see what it felt like, if only for a moment to belong there. It felt vibrant and full of possibilities, but as soon as I spun around, feeling lifted up, my home came into view, and grey dominated the view in my eyes of this speck of lifelessness that appeared to be sinking below the water level of earth. My heart would sink with it.
Though the overview, looking back, imprinted a grim grey in my memory, there were two things that occurred in that little shack we called home, that painted a “Miro” tapestry for my life: Food and Music.
In the little historic village of my childhood, was a country cottage-like store within walking distance of our home that served the seasonal boaters. It was owned and operated by two spinster sisters and their brother. It seemed to me at the time, an inviting edifice, torn from the pages of a Southern Living Magazine with its wooden porch, where local farmers would come to exchange stories and weigh in their grain in exchange for goods. Local ladies would visit with their pressed cotton skirts, charm bracelets tinkling as they gathered their groceries, chatting with their charming smiles. But that meat counter… oh that meat counter that sparkled with fresh meats brought in from the nearby farms in a glass refrigerated case that was so clean you could see the color of your eyes in it. I was too young to realize how my mother and her brood must have looked to them.
My mother was permitted to run up a tab for food, to which was paid at the end of the month, perhaps not always by my parents. My sisters and I waited quietly in front of the penny candy counter to both carry mother’s bags of delights and be given a choice of one piece of candy, before walking back home.
My mom was second generation Syrian, perhaps a bit too much color for this little country village. Though my dad was Scandinavian, white as snow, and taught music to most of the villagers at the local school, I would often notice the way the men would look at my mother when she turned to walk away with her little girls. Much the same way I think I must have looked at that meat counter.
Syrian women, much like Italian or Greek women back in those days, prepared all the home meals from scratch, and my mom could cook her tahootie off! The things she could do with lamb or chicken, vegetables or sugar were just not being done in the nearby homes that dotted the village!
My sisters and I would stand on a chair and help my mom with various aspects of food preparation, and then… like magic, our home transformed into a colorful buzz of people! Friends of my parents, from DC, usually artists and other musicians, would gather in our postage stamp size home, to dine and bring their talents.
These were the greatest memories of my childhood. It was then, that our home would pulsate with life, color, food, and music!
My father was a musician, a jazz piano player. And though our home was hardly big enough for the six of us, his black baby grand piano seemed the central heartbeat of our home. That piano, my father’s talent, and my mother’s cooking brought a vibrant assortment of colorful artist (musicians, dancers, and painters) to our home each, and every Sunday.
My father wrote, arranged, and played jazz with many of the (later) great jazz musicians of the 40’s and 50’s: Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Billy Eckstine (known as Billy Ex), Connie Wainwright (female guitarist) John Jackson, and Charlie Byrd, just to name a few. There was even an event of my mother’s water breaking at the onset of the birth of my sister, while sitting next to Johnny Mathis. Poor guy, it’s no wonder he never married!
Unfortunately, such an eclectic, bizarre assortment of lifestyles has its downside: Alcohol and drugs. Eventually, my mother gathered her little girls, and left.
There was a lonely older man, who had come to adore my mom and her four little ducklings, from afar. He was well known in the area, born with a silver spoon, as he was the grand-nephew to Johns Hopkins. He lived in an unhappy marriage for too many years, to a woman who refused to give him children, until he simply -moved out- and continued to live an empty, though entitled life, alone. His awareness of my mother’s plight in life gave him new hope for his own.
I will be forever grateful for those years of poverty, because as my sisters and I went from Rags to Riches overnight, the awareness of how the simplicity of food and music enliven life, in a way riches do not, embedded itself onto my heart, inspired my own creativity, and steadied the journey in what would become my own tumultuous life. This ever-present image in my mind of Pies and Pianos, has kept me grounded, and has fed me to this day.
- Cover drawing is from my son Omar when he was 10 years old, now the Executive Chef of a huge catering company – Ken’s Creative Kitchen
- The music is from the collection of our father’s so called ‘cheat sheets’ something every jazz musician had to give them a base line on the melody and cords