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Spending Time with the Tuskas

By Randi Sobol (niece to Miriam Tuska)

A three-year-old experiences things impressionistically, so my memories of a visit to Alfred to see my Uncle John and Aunt Mimi (her siblings and their kids never called her Miriam) are of particular moments: Watching tree branches bobbing outside the kitchen window while devouring a bowl of just-picked plump blueberries shimmering in a cloud of sweetened sour cream. Sitting on my uncle’s lap at a spinning pottery wheel in a real barn (city child, I’d never seen one in person!) as a magnificent creation took shape in my own clay-soaked hands. Crying when my mother said it was time to leave this wonderland, and two people I never wanted to leave.

They’d made a few trips to New York since then, but the next time I saw them in their natural habitat was years later in Lexington. By then I was old enough that everything made an impact – starting with the weathered sign swinging above the front porch identifying their landlocked Victorian beauty as The Breakers. My mother saw in it her sister’s longing for the Jersey shore vacations of their childhood; I just thought it was hysterical, a mark of my aunt’s fabulous wit. (It was both, of course.)

Inside, the house was a clearer reflection of the people who lived there than any house I’ve ever seen. The entryway led straight to the living room, where John’s art, his painting and sculpture, and Miriam’s antiques, her textiles and toys, combined with their casually perfect furnishings and the woodwork of the house itself to create a room of such personality and warmth that it almost literally talked to you. It could have been a museum, except that no museum invited you on sight to touch anything and curl up anywhere the way this place did. The feeling extended throughout the house, from the massive country kitchen to the cozy guest rooms that virtually begged you to snuggle up in bed and dream yourself into another era. The house was endlessly fascinating territory for exploration; and it was a home.

While Uncle John was on campus and their boys were in school, Mom and I (along with my brother, poor little guy) spent the days playing with Aunt Mimi: shopping at flea markets, gabbing over lunch (the sisters always fought each other for the check), and soaking up every detail she would share about the marvelous things in her various collections. Mom was into crafts and I was into history, so we both fell in love with her quilts – from homey to spectacular, each was uniquely beautiful, and each had a story. We oohed and ahhed over her Kashmir shawls. We coveted the assortment of copper pots and pans and contraptions large and small that charmingly cluttered her kitchen, but those were no mere decorative baubles: my aunt, the most expert and creative cook I’ve ever met, used them all.

Aunt Mimi knew I loved dolls and antique clothing, so one evening while everyone else was downstairs relaxing after dinner, she led me into her sanctum: a storage room containing shelves, trunks and boxes bursting with magic. Among her dolls were some I’d seen in books: from Bru and Jumeau to early Madame Alexander, porcelain, cloth, composition, and wood, in period fashion or dressed as characters fictional and historical, they took my breath away. Then she opened the trunks of clothing, and out billowed gorgeous dresses, blouses, petticoats, weskits, masses of linen and lace, ribbon and silk, homespun and wool. For each wonderful piece, Aunt Mimi told me about the fabric, the era, the design, and the function of any mysterious details. I wanted to live in that room.

The timing of our visit meant Uncle John wasn’t usually home during the day, though in a real way he was never absent. I’d always loved living with his art in our little apartment (we had a painting, two small works of sculpture, and several vases, bowls, and assorted pieces of pottery), so finally getting to see larger-scale pieces of his, and the studio in which he created it all, was thrilling. The impossible mingling of power and tenderness in those works, the vibrancy of life that radiated from them and from his workplace itself, were literally overwhelming to me.

And in the evenings, the man himself was most emphatically present. He and my aunt were hands-down the most naturally entertaining humans on the planet: whether talking family, politics, topics shallow or serious, conversation was always thoroughly absorbing and frequently hilarious. Dinner at the Tuskas, featuring my aunt's sublime food and the pair's singular company, was truly a feast.

After dinner, Uncle John occupied center stage; So many of my formative cultural touchstones came from him, amazing to realize given how little time I was able to spend with him. He introduced me to a lifelong love when he placed Tom Lehrer's "That Was the Year That Was" on the turntable, handing me the lyrics in the liner notes so I could follow as he sang along, enthusiastically gesticulating with each brilliantly sardonic verse. Yet even as he imprinted Lehrer's brittle, ironic distance on my psychic DNA, he and his bounteous record collection also gave me the seemingly incompatible opposite, when he put on the soundtrack from Zorba the Greek.

As the music started, he remained standing, smiling expectantly. Then slowly he raised his arms, and began to snap his fingers to the rhythm. His arms stretched out wide, and he moved with the music, still smiling, arms still outstretched, fingers still snapping. He beckoned us to join him, and as the music gradually built in pace and volume, he led us in the <em>sirtaki</em>, that famous, simple dance of transcendent bliss. I can still feel that sensation, the ecstasy of pure movement and feeling. And I still marvel that the person who taught me the intellectual pleasure of perfectly crafted political satire was the same person who taught me the visceral joy of life in a sublime moment.

That trip to Lexington was my only one. And their trips up North were far too few. No doubt the rarity of our time together has kept my memory of that visit that much more vivid all these years later. But the one image that first comes to mind when I think back is of John, arms outstretched, smiling almost beatifically, moving to the rhythm of that peculiar strain of music that somehow captures both an observer’s equanimity and a total immersion in all the joy and pain of humanity. That captures, in other words, what John, and Miriam too, lived every day of their lives – the life of an artist.

video accompaniment to the post: