Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider,” a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside.”
My sister, Maria, is an artist. She is not a painter or a sculptor. However, like so many members of my family, she creates art in her everyday life. My father made wood carvings. My grandfather made wine. PJ my Cousin Annie’s son works in pen and ink. His sensitive portrait of his grandfather, my Uncle Sam, will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who knew Uncle Sam.
My cousin Rhea lives in Cazenovia and she goes for walks with her camera. She comes back with beautiful colorful works of art.
Maria expresses her art in a different way. She lives in the Netherlands and I remember a visit from a number of years ago. She wanted to make a special Thai chicken recipe with peanut sauce. As Maria went through a list of ingredients she needed to make this special food it became clear that a trip to the grocery store would be necessary. I impatiently said, “They have that peanut sauce in the Asian food aisle.” My sister replied, “No way! I’m not using some prepared sauce, it won’t even come close to the flavor I need.” So, we picked up all the ingredients mostly at the Real Food Co-op. And then I watched her make the sauce.
She didn’t use a recipe. The ingredients and method came right from her heart. It involved much tasting and mixing. She explained each step in a way that made me feel that this was not just a meal, but a life experience. I believe that anyone who tasted that sauce would have agreed, it was a work of art.
Maria at one time lived on the Canary Islands. She lived on Tenerife the largest island of this volcanic archipelago. And she had a job, growing orchids. Orchids for export are a significant industry for the Canary Islands. In the morning she would tend to the plants watering, nurturing, and trimming, whatever an orchid needs to flourish. In this Latin country the hours of 12 to 4 are reserved for siesta time. And what better way to enjoy this time of rest than a couple of hours of beach time at one of Tenerife’s beautiful beaches. It must have been during this time that Maria made some of the most beautiful postcards I have ever seen. Hand painted in water colors the volcanic mountains, the black beach sand and the blue green water, an unusual place for anyone but a great place for an artist.
Maria was a seamstress as well. She designed and made clothes for herself. Some of her creations were sold in Rotterdam boutiques. When she was young and traveled a lot sometimes money would just run out. In Europe open air markets flourish. She came up with a design for a shoulder bag that had universal appeal. Maria was able to haggle for a good price on the fabric she needed, then stitch together a practical and useful item that was easily sold in almost any market, especially in southern Europe.
I remember a photo of my sister holding a basket of grapes just picked from a vineyard in Sicily. I don’t have a copy of that photo but it struck a chord. I remember holding it and looking at it for several minutes just to marvel at my sister’s lifestyle. It was simple and close to the earth without bragging or flaunting. It was the life of an artist. Maria gave back more than she took. I have always admired her for her lifestyle but more so for the creative way she does everything.