Italian Market mom paints what she knows - grief | Mike Newall

Connie Tartaglia talks about her paintings while holding her dog, Puddles. Her son Joseph died of cancer a few years ago. Her paintings will be part of a benefit to raise money for cancer research.

Paint what you know.

That’s what Connie Tartaglia’s art teacher preached all those years ago, when little Joey was still just walking, and she was taking a nighttime painting course while Joe Sr. was busy with the family fruit stands.

So she did.

The view from their Ninth Street apartment window: the crush of a crowded fruit stand in the cold, with crates spilled across the cobblestone — the street was still cobblestone back then in the early ’70s — peddlers warming their hands in thick wool coats, customers pawing produce.

She sketched her father, Frank, a stonemason from Sicily, playing cards in a Reed Street social club — taking care to get his hands, so ashen and cracked from his labor, just right.

And Joey. Always, Joey.

Camera icon Connie Tartaglia
Connie Tartaglia was 20 when she gave birth to her oldest son, Joey. He raised her as much as she raised him, she liked to joke. “Like it was the two of us against the world.”

At play in the grass at FDR Park. Or, sprawled in front of the TV, watching Batman. His shaggy light brown hair and brown eyes the size of silver dollars — a smile just like her own. Her firstborn, smart and funny, who raised her, she liked to say, as much as she raised him. All those years later, she’d cradle him in her arms, as he lay dying, and tell him it was OK to let go.

Family businesses

She had stopped painting long before Joey died in 2013. There was no time. Frankie was born eight years after Joey, and family businesses followed — Joe Sr.’s fruit stands and other market ventures, her own electronics and knickknack shop, called Connie’s Ric Rac.

As a kid growing up at Seventh and Wharton, Connie had flirted with the idea of art college. “Dirty hippie beatniks,” her father said, squashing that dream.

But as she grew older, she thought of her art not as a career but as something for herself.

Meanwhile, it was the boys — and her husband — who enjoyed the spotlight. As a teenager, Frankie won an HBO appearance on a national young comedians contest. And when Joey was 29, he wrote a screenplay, Punctuality (“Clerks meets A Bronx Tale,” he sold it as). He and Frankie filmed in the neighborhood, and by 2006, the brothers were running a live music venue on Ninth Street: Connie’s Ric Rac, named after Mom’s old place.

Then, the disaster hit. In late 2012, Joey, always full of life, and nearly 44, with three kids of his own, complained of headaches and vision problems. Connie knew what was coming just from the doctor’s eyes. She didn’t need to hear the word: glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Joey fought for six months. That last day, Joe Sr. lay next to him in the bed while Frankie played music and Connie held her son. And for a while, his going and her grief were all she knew.

Solace in sunsets

At first, she found some solace in sunsets. In them, heaven felt near. So did Joey. But sunsets can be hard to find in South Philadelphia, so she would drive around looking over rooftops and trees. And there was the cardinal that alighted in her backyard. She liked to think the bird was Joey coming to visit.

She worried her anger was overwhelming her mourning. To quiet her mind, she picked up a brush.

You paint what you know.

So, she painted tears. And she painted Joey.

One painting from a photo near the end, during one of his dying parties: Joey eating lobster in bed, wearing a sweater emblazoned with the words Tic Toc and a captain’s hat, with a button stuck in the brim that read, “Alive.”

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI
Connie Tartaglia, holding her dog, Puddles, looks at a painting of her son Joey (top left) in her home. He died in 2013 from brain cancer.

It felt good painting Joey.

“Like I was creating him again,” Connie said.

She painted more of her son — and then she let herself paint other things: the old men who lounge on the benches in the park at 10th and Carpenter, the homeless people who panhandle at Washington and Delaware, and the Ric Rac, where before he died, Joey had written on the wall: “Life goes on without me.”

She painted in the dining room, her rescue Maltipoo puppy, Puddles, in her lap.

It was Frankie who raised the idea of a show. At the Ric Rac, of course. Connie balked. But Frankie and Joe Sr. kept on her.

Only if it was a benefit, she agreed. A date was set: Dec. 17, from 3 to 11 p.m. All proceeds to benefit the National Brain Tumor Society.

“Something for my son,” Connie said Monday, surrounded by her art, and comforted by all the things she knows.