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My mother left me two legacies at the end of her short life, both sprung from the same idea: great art can spontaneously appear anywhere, anytime.

The first legacy was her music, which was impromptu and spectacular. She was a trained singer and a natural actress but when she became a single mother, her audience dwindled to – me. When she sang – which was daily – and often accompanied by “Music Minus Soprano” records, she expected me to behave like an audience of a thousand at the Met.  And she gave a performance worthy of that audience.  That was the deal.

Burnt Food Museum Logo

Mom's Legacy Leads to Fame

Like an artistic Dr. Jekyll, when I became her audience, she transformed into a passionate Diva.

The result is that I expect all musical performance to be a constant shift between bigger-than-life magnificence and everyday human “we’re-just-talking.” My shows – and especially my Mother’s Day Shows – reflect that.

The second legacy she left me was her cooking. Like me, she was easily distracted from everyday responsibilities by the call of artistic pursuit.  And when that happened, meals got burnt.  By the time I entered High School she’d stopped cooking entirely and our diet consisted of raw foods and Jack-in-the-Box take-out.

When I left home, I followed suit. The one big culinary difference between my mother and me is that I started collecting my burnt offerings – at first, just for fun – because it tickled me to put burnt toast in a gilded frame or mount a scorched muffin under glass.  But when Scott Simon from “Weekend Edition” came to my house for an interview, he noticed my collection, described it on the air, and soon the Food Network was calling to do a feature on what had become my “Burnt Food Museum.”

Now the “Burnt Food Museum” has its own website and receives submission offers from far and wide, but it was my Mom who first introduced me to the – er –artform.  And I’m not the only one!  Burnt Food is a legacy many mothers pass to their children – and thanks my Museum, I now get heart-warming emails like this from strangers all over the world:

“Growing up, my mom burnt everything.  I had no idea how cool that was until tonight.  You have healed my soul.” (K.C.)

… and …

“”In grade school when they asked what people’s mothers did for a hobby, I said, ‘My mom burns pots.’ I think I am one of the privileged few to witness their mom in safety glasses using a metal stripper to whack burnt gunk off a pot.” (M.B.)

Come share Mother’s Day with me at my Mother’s Day Shows:
Fri. May 7 at Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry, NH – 603-437-5100 – Tix $30 (http://tinyurl.com/TupeloDHC)
Sat. May 8 at TCAN – Center for Arts in Natick – 508-647-0097 $26 / $24 members (http://tinyurl.com/TCAN-DHC)

Because she died so young, I’m now older than my mother.  But she’s still my mother.  That’s non-negotiable.  I’m still struggling to be exactly like her and nothing like her.

Horses Running - Paradox of Mom

She was – for me – paradox embodied.  But there were two paradoxes that were most troubling:   One was the juxtaposition of the physical violence and the profound human kindness – both of them completely authentic in her.

Like the horses.  The painting of two horses that always hung in our living room – and we moved to a new house every year, so there were many living rooms, but always the same paintings .  In this one, two horses are racing, a black horse and a brown horse.  For hours, and for years I look again at the painting, sensing that one horse is ahead, then the other.

My experience of my mother, after I left home at 16,  was similarly shifting.  Like a shifting magnetic field.  She was wonderful / she was horrible,  she was deeply caring / she was violent, she was a humanist / she was a class snob.  For years I struggled in my mind to make one of each pair cancel the other out.  They were contradictory.

But they were all true.

That was impossible to accept.

The horses were racing. One was ahead.  One would win.

But the beauty of the painting is that there’s no resolution.  They’re always both winning, both losing – and maybe — it never occurring to me until this moment — that the horses might not have been racing.  Just two horses side by side.  It’s me that thinks one needs to win.  It was me who needed her to be all one thing or all another.  But she was both – of everything contradictory.

I’m blogging my Mom this month to warm myself up for two Mother’s Day shows in the greater Boston Area.

I’ve made a tradition of playing Mother’s Day shows. For one thing, it gives me a built-in excuse to talk about my mother — which I always do anyway — but when it’s a Mother’s Day show it just feels more fun.

I also love the kind of audiences who come out for Mother’s Day shows – folks with whimsy and adventure, who want to do something together that’s not entirely fattening. Not that I’m against fattening celebrations.

When I see families, multi-generations, at my shows, it reminds me of one of my mother’s deepest impulses – the shared experience, immediate — my mother grabbing me and pointing, “Oh, Debby! Look at THAT!” It could be a cow, it could be a cellist playing jazz. The point was that the experience must be shared.

Mother’s DAY, on the other hand, never meant much to me until one year I suddenly thought: wait! What does my MOM really want??? Oh sure, finger paintings are always a big hit, but … is there something else? A stinky marigold (required Mother’s Day gift by my elementary school)? Does she really like that??The idea that I could actually give my mother something about her instead of about me — that was cataclysmic.

I remember the year the light bulb went on for me. I was 9. We’d just moved to Canada. Mother’s Day came along and I decided I should really do something my mother would like. I should invest. I should take my prize 1953 Two-Dollar Bills, exchange them for mucho Canadian cash and make my mother a meal she’d never forget.

These $2-bills were the only money I personally had. My Great-Aunt Amy — or was it her sister Ruth? Or the other sister, Jean?? — well, one of them sent me a $2-Bill for my birthday every year and I’d been saving them. So I took them all and headed down the street. I made the exchange at a local shop where, conveniently, I also shopped, selecting a wide variety of impressive foods.

The next part is hazy: setting the table, artistically arranging the food into separate bowls, selecting the correct serving spoons — but what I do remember is my mother’s face when she saw the table — a sumptuous feast of licorice, jawbreakers, jellybeans, chocolates and Snow-caps. Sadly she wasn’t hungry that night, but by the look on her face, I knew she was deeply impressed.

Fast-forward 30 years. I’m in Germany on tour with my band. I’ve left the hotel early one morning, walking to the market, when I see a flower shop busy with women, each leaving the shop with an arrangement – sometimes two.

And then I remember … it’s Mother’s day! My own mother’s been dead nearly a decade by then, but I go in the store and I, too, buy a bouquet – huge, colorful, like spring.

The next part is hazy: walking who-knows-where — embarrassed, feeling indulgent, and fraudulent – knowing that everyone must see this is a fake Mother’s Day bouquet — a bouquet my mother will never receive.

And then I see her. A woman – maybe 20 years older than me – heading down the street. When she reaches me I stop her, and in my halting cow-German, I tell her why I need her to take this bouquet. Why I need her to accept it for my own mother.

In the U.S. this woman would think I was crazy, possibly even dangerous, but my German is so bad that I sound like a child. And she looks at me as if I’m a child — and with huge kindness, accepts my bouquet.

So now I know there are many ways to connect to my mother — no matter where she is.

And one  way I do it is  Mother’s Day shows. So if you’re in New England, bring your own mother, your daughter, your sister, grandmother, aunt, your inner-mom and celebrate Mother’s Day with me in two live concerts at Tupelo Music Hall and Center for Arts in Natick (TCAN).

I’ll bring the Snow-caps.

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