Childhood Memories are what make us who we are today. As for me, Pies, Pianos and Brackish Life are what molded my character and passions!
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 coastal village.
Looking out from our living room window was the ever-present vision of life on the other side; where the sun shone, boats dominated the landscape, 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.
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.
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. I wanted to see what it felt like, if only for a moment to belong there.
It felt vibrant and full of possibilities. All though, as soon as I spun around, feeling lifted up, my home came into view.
Grey dominated the view in my eyes. This speck of lifelessness, poverty, appeared to be sinking below the water level of earth. My heart sank with it.
Life Makes Us Who We Are
Though the overview, looking back, imprinted a grim grey in my memory, is wasn’t all bad.
There were two things that occurred in that little shack we called home, that painted a tapestry for my life: Food and Music.
In Galesville, the little historic village of my childhood, was a country cottage-like store within walking distance of our home.
That little country store, served the seasonal boaters. It was owned and operated by two spinster sisters, (at least, that is my recollection) and their brother, the Kolb family.
It seemed to me at the time, an inviting edifice, torn from the pages of a Southern Living Magazine.
Its wooden porch, where local farmers would come to exchange stories and weigh in their grain in exchange for goods, buzzed with life.
Local ladies would visit the store, with their pressed cotton skirts, charm bracelets tinkling as they gathered their groceries.
A facade of their chatting, with their charming smiles, left an imprint on my mind.
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, the meat beckoned.
I was too young to realize how my mother and her brood must have looked to the village country folks.
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.
Our duty was to carry mother’s bags of delights. Our hope was to be given one piece of candy, before walking back home.
When Diversity Is Not Welcome
My mom was second generation Syrian, perhaps a bit too much color for this little country village.
My dad was Scandinavian, white as snow, and taught music to most of the villagers at the local elementary school.
I would often notice the way the men would look at my exotic voluptuous 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!
But, however rich I viewed the heritage of my mother, back in the 50’s, she was not… well, welcome.
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!
The pies my mom began to make where a blend of her Middle Eastern heritage and American country living. Nothing like them were being made in any other kitchen!
My sisters and I would stand on a chair and help my mom with various aspects of food preparation.
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 artists to our home each, and every Sunday. Many were musicians.
My father wrote, arranged, and played jazz with many of the (later) great jazz musicians of the 40’s and 50’s:
- Dizzy Gillespie – John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie’s effect on jazz cannot be overstated: his trumpet playing influenced every player who came after him.
- Art Blakey – Art himself told it so many times, his career on the piano ended at the wrong end of a pistol when the owner of the Democratic Club — the Pittsburgh nightclub where he was gigging — ordered him off the piano and onto the drums.
- Dexter Gordon – “Jazz to me is a living music. It’s a music that since its beginning has expressed the feelings, the dreams and hopes of the people.”
- Billy Eckstine (known as Billy Ex) – While enjoying success in the middle-of-the-road and pop fields, Eckstine occasionally returned to his jazz roots, recording with Vaughan, Count Basie and Quincy Jones.
- Connie Wainwright (female guitarist) – jazz guitarist in Billy Eckstine’s band.
- John Jackson – Blues artist, songster, and storyteller, John Jackson was the most important black Appalachian musician to come to broad public attention during the mid-1960s.
- Charlie Byrd – Charlie Byrd jammed with Django Reinhardt, recorded with Woody Herman, studied with the great Segovia, and with Stan Getz introduced the Brazilian bossa nova to international audiences. He then proceeded to form a super guitar trio with Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. His musical interests took in virtually every form in which the guitar found a prominent voice.
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!
Life Is Ever Changing
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, yes, that one.
He lived in an unhappy marriage for too many years, to a woman who refused to give him children.
One day, 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. As my sisters and I went from Rags to Riches overnight, the simplicity of food and music embedded itself onto my heart.
My childhood memories 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, Pianos and Brackish Life has kept me grounded, and has fed me to this day.
- The cover drawing is from my son Omar when he was 10 years old, now the Executive Chef of a huge 5 Star Event Catering company.
- The music is from the collection of our father’s so called ‘cheat sheets’ something every jazz musician had to give them a baseline on the melody and chords.