Our Dirty Little Family Secret

As I walked out of Lifetime Fitness yesterday morning I felt depressed by the results of my metabolic basal rate test. “1400 calories is all I get to eat if I want to lose weight?  No wonder my life long battle with my weight can never be won. I have mom to thank I guess. She taught me to love food.” And then the phone rang.

“Ms. Canning? This is Chris, manager of Malibu East, where your mother lives. Someone is concerned they have not heard from her in several days. Do we have your permission to enter her apartment and do a wellness check?”

December 26, 2005. A picture of me, my brother, mom and Scooby. This was the last time I saw my mom…

As the words “yes, but of course” blurted out of me, I knew immediately what had happened. My mom was dead.  My mother and I had a horrible relationship. It had been 4 years, almost to the day, since we have spoken. But I knew something seriously had to be wrong when the birthday card- her only form of communication with me- did not arrive on my birthday- June 11th. As exasperating as it was to deal with my mom, she made this one and only communication clear, as the cards were never late. But this year no card arrived.

You may think me cruel or heartless or it unimaginable that a mother daughter relationship could implode. Trust me I did. But it was not for a lack of trying on my part.

And yet, my mother’s idea of a relationship was filled with dysfunction, threats, self-sabotage, hostility, addictions, pain filled memories and embarrassment. There was little that was consistent or positive about our relationship. And yet I learned so much about my own creativity through my mom.

My mother was an amazing cook. She LOVED to cook and the fancier and more complicated the recipe the better.  She loved a challenge and as a Polish woman who grew up eating animal innards from the south side of Chicago, who married a well to do Greek man, she quickly learned how to embed high style Mediterranean cooking into our family nightly meals. She learned how to make mousaka, tiropita, spanakopita and every other amazing Greek dish from scratch and her presentation was breathtaking.  My mother also made the best beef wellington, stuffed Cornish game hens and a killer scalloped potatoes dish I wish I had the recipe for. And on my birthday, for years, my mom made me a home made banana cream pie- my favorite. I have NEVER had one since that was anywhere close to as good as the one my mom use to make for me. Indeed, the whole back wall of our kitchen was full of recipe books that my mom studied for hours while I devoured Baermann scale books. Her cookbooks were literally falling apart, stained, ladled with butter and sauce drippings and full of her love of the art. So really, its no wonder I struggle with my weight.  Thank God for her food; it was the one of the few ways she was able to express her love to me.

But this wasn’t my mother’s only creative gift. She also had a green hand- she was blessed with more than a green thumb. My mom could revive, nurture and grow any kind of plant. She had an assortment of orchids that bloomed so vibrantly they did not even look real.  I, to this day, have killed every one I have ever had. She was also a masterful artistic flower arranger. She made fresh cut flowers look like art in a vase. My mother could take any bunch of flowers and entirely change how they looked simply through her choice of vase and how she positioned and grouped them together. It was amazing to watch her fluidly and effortlessly assemble a stunning arrangement every time as if anyone could do it. I wish I could.

My mother was an amazing seamstress. She made all my clothes when I was little and I remember every one ‘oohing and ‘ahing over how cute I always looked. She also fashioned herself a furrier. While it might not be fashionable now, I grew up with the smell of garbage cans of mink pelts and a rack in the basement of home made designer quality fur coats my mother made for herself.

Yes, this is my mom. She was a model.

But my mother, unfortunately, for all her innate creative talents, was an insecure person. Despite a number of years as (almost) a professional model, she had NOTHING to BE insecure about- at least not from her looks. But my moms creativity was never validated in a way that empowered her life  forward.  Like so many artists, her creativity as fulfilling as it was, was rudderless. As a result, slowly, her self-esteem plummeted and the “isms” crept into her life.  Of course, this further stifled her creativity and drew her deeper into the dark side of life instead of into her highest purpose and best self.

My mother became an alcoholic. She used to mix her liquor of choice with Diet Dr Pepper and hide it in the turn style in the kitchen next to the nutmeg. She would sip it as she cooked until she was so drunk so would collapse at the dinner table as my father, brother and I enjoyed her scrumptious meal. The contrast between the food we were eating and my mothers appearance were shocking. It was so sad to see her this way.

And yet how many creative types who have lost their self esteem do you know like my mother? It manifests itself in different ways but I bet a lot.

All the stories of betrayal I hear from other creative individuals who work on projects that arrive DOA. What about all of the prima donna’s– the “high priestess’s” in our field?  The temper tantrums on stage in rehearsal from conductors, actors, soloists.  The knowledge of who’s sleeping with whom and the question we ask ourselves” is that how they got this gig”?  The low self esteem, the anger that ensues, the addictions, the sadness, and often  the sense of entrapment or entitlement that comes when we hear the voice in our head that says, ” my art is the only thing I want to do and that I am good at. Yet I can’t make the difference (or a living) I seek doing this.”  And then, the ensuing self- sabotage that follows. All this is enough to be a worthy comparison to life with my mother.

Yes, indeed, dysfunction and “isms are our dirty little “family secret” as artists that we try and hide from our audience, our supporters and even sometimes, ourselves. Not everyone in “our family” is like this, but it seems the arts as a whole are vulnerable in this regard. Isn’t it time we truly rallied together and finally ONCE AND FOR ALL decided to BE the DIFFERENCE we seek? Isn’t it time to fight the good fight in EARNEST and learn the skills we need to do so?  If my mother had, I am sure she would have lead a totally different life. Our beauty and our glory as artists will come from being ABLE to make a difference in life. Not by burning bridges and blowing up our own lives simply because we don’t know how to BE the DIFFERENCE we crave.

It was because of my mothers creativity, and how it became stifled and then became dramatic and outrageous behavior, that I truly came to believe that creativity can take us anywhere in life we want to go, as long as you have a CREATIVE-FOR-LIFE sustainability plan. I saw how alive and vibrant my mother once was with it, and how she became without it. And as a result of this experience, I have noticed through out life how easy it is for our creativity, just like my mothers, to die too- without the support and rudder it needs.

Do you REALLY WANT to starve your soul from your creativity PRODUCTIVELY flowing while you are alive?

And yesterday, as I set the phone down and realized my mother was truly gone from this planet we call earth, I realized how much she had taught me about the value of my creativity and what to do and what not to do with it. I realized that as much as I had discredited her as the parent that taught me everything to not do in life, it was because of her that I was opening a school.

My idealistic values about art would protect me, and do to this day, because through my mother I learned that living a creative life can be our freedom and our salvation if we build it the rudder it needs- a creative-for-life sustainability plan- to take us ANYWHERE in life we want to go.

In honor of my mother, and in honor of your highest purpose and best creative self, I am asking you to join me.

Apply NOW to the IAE . If you believe in you and want to make a positive difference on this earth through the arts and are not sure how to, our two year program will help you bring to life your own creative-life-sustaining plan.

Attend Boost Camp. If your not sure your rudder is still attached or you have an idea how to build one, please enroll. Scholarships are available.

Support Our Work. I am asking you to support our cause. Support helping those who attend our school get  the rudder they need.

Spread Our Word. I am asking you to believe that life CAN be DIFFERENT and that your circumstances are changeable no matter how hard and challenging they are. Spread our good news and believe we can create a life we love. One that empowers us -and those around us -in positive and life sustaining ways.

We are looking for strong individuals with good character and clear determination to overcome their fear and life obstacles. Please, won’t you join us. No More Starving Artists. No More Dirty Little Family Secrets. Let us BECOME the DIFFERENCE we seek to be ABLE to MAKE the DIFFERENCE we WERE put on this earth to make.

Comments 30

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  1. Lisa, sorry to hear about your mom. I hope that writing this helped to cleanse your soul and find understanding.

  2. Thanks Susan. It really did. I really do now understand why I am opening a school. Something really unbelievably GOOD has to come from this. It simply must.

  3. Lisa,

    My condolences. Such a complicated relationship; in many ways I identify. I’ve only known you for a short time but this elaboration of your background with your mother really gave me much more of a feel for who you are and, in some measure, what drives you. I appreciate that and I respect your solution. I look forward to our continuing work together and the evolution of our relationship as we pursue these things in which we share a value.


    David Moss

  4. Lisa,

    My deepest sympathy to you for the loss of your mother… and many thanks for allowing the disappointments in life to shape and fuel your ideals. It is refreshing to encounter, regularly in your writing, your willingness to put a spotlight on artistic obstacles in such an honest, non-shaming way. That you can identify dysfunction and still find the wealth of gifts your mother possessed, and shared with you, is inspiring. Blending your personal stories into your dynamic charisma make your invitations all the more appealing.


  5. Lisa: What a heart-felt writing…. I think any of us, regardless of our relationship with parents/siblings/spouses, etc., have felt this way at times; relationships are so complicated and intense as we journey through life. Thank you for your honesty; your comments have made me think about my own.

    In sympathy, I thank you.


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  9. Thank you for sharing such a personal story and journey, Lisa. This is very powerful–the best kind of writing. But I hope it’s also very healing (as others have said) for you.

    Sending warm thoughts.

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  11. Thank you Alyson. I truly believe that the only reason this is my story is BECAUSE something REALLY GOOD MUST be about to flow right out of it…. After all, my mother has clarified the “why” for me of opening a school. This alone is a huge blessing filled with hope and peace for me..

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  13. Oh, Lisa, my heart and prayers continue to go out to you! This is such a very brave article to write and share with your personal as well as business friends. It’s so real it hurts- as it softly touches all the tender truths and things we know that aren’t “perfect” in those we love…still- there is love and longing.
    Thank you, Lisa.
    Love and Peace,

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  15. Dear Lisa,
    Once again please accept my condolences and thank you for sharing this deeply personal story with us all. What a light it sheds on the impact it can make in a person’s life to be able to bear fruit from their creative talents and the struggles that so many artists face when they cannot. Your school is going to provide so many with the chance to take control of their creative futures and to mentor others. May the course your mother set you on and the things she taught you, give you the strength to persevere in this important quest.

  16. Lisa,
    My condolences and my thoughts are with you. Of course something good will come from this – as death is just a shift of energy from one plane to another.

    And as you focus on the gifts your mother gave you and release the anger and sadness through your grief, you will clear the way for good to come. May it be an opening, a flowering for you.

    That’s not to say, don’t grieve. In fact, let yourself fully feel everything. Just remember to breath and allow it to pass through.

    I’d also like to offer a different perspective on the weight issues. Perhaps, your mother expressed her love for you through the food she so passionately prepared and beautifully presented to you and your family. Perhaps, the way you learned to accept love was through eating. And so now, denying yourself food, feels like denying yourself love.

    Perhaps, you can think of every mouthful of food as accessing the universe of unlimited love. And you don’t need to eat quantity to experience unlimited, unconditional and abundant love. In fact, eating healthy and in moderation is truly giving your body unlimited love.


  17. Thanks Debra for taking the time to write. I think you have it right about the food. It is my last frontier to conquer. When my most recent personal trainer tried to take away all my beloved foods I love, I could not do it and still can’t. It is the only sign of love my mother really showed that I felt and I don’t want to let go of what little I got from her. I know there is a balance here and I will find it. Thanks for your insight. I so appreciate the outpouring of love and kindness I am receiving.

  18. Are we long-lost sisters? My mother was exactly the same, except without the middle class income: alcoholic, controlling, immensely creative (a couture-level designer and seamstress), immensely depressed (a biological condition she passed on to me). Yet she did do tremendous things for me, which I only saw after the years of therapy and letting go of her meanness: She didn’t marry a wife- and child-beater, like her father; she didn’t marry a sexually abusive man, like her father; she insisted my sister and I go to college (we were the first to do so out of a very large extended family). These were, in hindsight, tremendous gifts, along with the tremendous sorrows she inflicted.

    You absolutely did the right thing separating from her. No one, after all, cares about what you need more than yourself. I once had a friend say (in light of my estrangement from both parents, separately but equally crazy) that I would regret not having a relationship with my parents, that in light of everything, they were still my parents. I took that in, sat with it quietly for a few minutes alone, and let the feelings and thoughts flow. I contemplated what I would feel if both of my parents were dead. When the word “safe” rose in my mind, I knew I was right to protect myself from both of them.

    Good luck with your school and creativity. Congratulations on finding life after the interim death of soul from an abusive parent.

  19. Thank you Laurie for sharing your story. I am glad you discovered your own bravery and determination. By no means am I an advocate for such extreme measures, unless of course, they become the ONLY VIABLE course of action to maintaining your sanity and hopefully unleashing your creativity.

  20. Lisa, my heart goes out to You. Having been a friend to both You and your Mother, I understand your grief and share it with You. I do remember the good times too. Lea made baklava for our family at Christmas and it was absolutely scrumptious. We had a picnic at our house and our German shepherd bit your Dad in the butt–since he was an attorney I expected to be sued–but no, he just laughed. You practiced clarinet and the piano at our house, and I absolutely loved listening to you. You were an artist even then. I still have a beautiful old patio set on my patio that Lea gave me when we helped her move from the house in the country to the city. I have always considered you part of our family. May God bless You You in all your endeavors and may God grant You and Dean peace and comfort and love. Cathy Grenning

  21. Cathy, God brought you into my life for a reason- you protected me SO MANY TIMES. I love you so much. We have to be better about being in touch. I hope I see you tomorrow. Lisa

  22. Lisa,
    My most sincere sympathy for the passing of your mother. Congratulations for your excellent writing style.
    I am still playing with Ralph’s Band (Since Jan. 08) but I have not been able to find any jobs as an auditor and SOX Compliance Consultant.
    Very best regards,
    Alex Nieto

  23. Lisa, my deepest sympathy to you at the loss of your mother. What a remarkable way to remember her through this blog. I too had an estranged relationship with my mom as you know and she also had died suddenly. I am glad to see your reflection of her is honest, appreciative and empathetic. I wish you only the best in life and with your new school. You are one of the strongest people I know and truly a remarkable person. Love, Michelle

  24. Thank you Michelle. I know you understand. I would love to see you sometime and chat. Let me know when we can reconnect. Hope you are doing well. Lisa

  25. Lisa, I hope one day to be able to take part in your school somehow. At the moment, I am about to start and must finish my doctorate!

    I do have an artistic/entrepreneurial idea that I would like to assess the feasibility of… I think your program would be beneficial to me.

    I’m glad that you have taken your passion and run with it in order to help others.

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Our Dirty Little Family Secret

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