Here I present one of the most beautiful images I own: an early, glorious, glamour shot of my late mother, Jeanne Frances Mitchell Biancolli. Mama for short.
I could write a book about this woman. Maybe someday I will; I already devoted a sizable wedge of paper to her in my last wild stab at memoirizing, “House of Holy Fools.” I also wrote about her, and my second mother, Pat, in a Times Union column last summer.
As you can see, she was a knockout. What you can’t see is the blueness of her eyes, the outrageousness of her wit, the flintiness of her spirit, the wiriness of her arms or the roughness of her left hand’s fingertips, which were calloused from many hard hours of practicing the violin. Those callouses said it all for me. They said: Beauty makes demands on us. It hurts. It toughens us, but in a good way, a necessary way. Sometimes, in the creation of music and the living of life, we grow new layers of skin.
Mama was a world-class concert violinist who performed six times in Carnegie Hall, toured South America and Scandinavia, soloed with the Philly under Ormandy — while drawing raves for her musicianship and wolf whistles for her looks. My father Louis, a music critic for the New York World-Telegram, reviewed her and loved her playing long before he loved her, too.
When she played, all that she was came out in her violin: Her music was an aural blast of authenticity, clarity, intellect, deep human insight and ferocious emotional might. She always said exactly what she knew to be true, in words and music; her phrasing was apt and efficient, whether nailing rubato in a hunk of Brahms or flattening me with straight talk when I was mooning over a boy. (“He’s pretty, I take it.” Quarter-beat rest. “Just be sure you’re not thinking with your gonads.”)
This directness drove me nuts, sometimes. When I was a teenager, more than sometimes. I now recognize it as Mama’s single greatest beauty, a source of strength and balance in a house so often cluttered and listing. But not when she played the violin, or my sister the piano. Not when we laughed. Not when she cut through all of it with her piercing, uncompromising, fearless mind. That was as clear as her eyes, as sinewy as her arms, as powerful as her music.