Not long ago, one single event changed me from an actor to an author. It all began with the discovery of a trunk in my parents’ attic, on a cold, autumn day in 2005. My mother, Mary Cerasani, had recently passed away, just a month shy of her 94th birthday.
Mother had been a school teacher her entire life. Her first love, after her family, was traveling all over the world to learn about other countries and cultures. She was always bringing home little artifacts from her travels with which to teach her family, friends and students. It was just part of her routine. So she designated the attic as her own private depot, where she could accumulate and preserve her treasures.
The attic was visited very infrequently because it was not easily accessible (entering the attic involved a hanging rope and pull-down ladder stairs). My intention that fall day was not to organize my mother’s belongings, but rather to retrieve a certain Daughters of the American Revolution flag that I knew had been in her possession. I thought it would look nice in a shadow box, hanging next to my other Revolutionary and Civil War memorabilia.
As soon as I entered the dark, dusty attic, I was greeted with a collection of boxes and bags that were in a state of complete disarray. It was just as it had always been. An old steamer trunk in the corner caught my eye. Its leather straps were broken and its big metal latch was rusty – and unlocked. I slowly opened the heavy metal cover and looked upon an intriguing collection of bundles and sealed shoeboxes.
For the next couple hours, I felt like a character from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mother’s trunk was filled with magic and memories, unparalleled by anything I had ever come across. Among the items that caught my eye were plaster busts of four presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. I immediately realized these castings were the ones my father, a sculptor, had made while working for Gutzon Borglum at Mount Rushmore. I felt as though I had struck gold!
In the midst of all this excitement, I was reminded of the biggest regret of my childhood. After my teacher found out that my dad was an artist who had worked as a sculptor on Mount Rushmore, she asked me to bring in some items for “Show and Tell.” My presentation to the class contained the original pictures of my dad climbing over George Washington’s face, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia. I became an instant celebrity in my class.
But all those original pictures and newspaper clippings mysteriously disappeared. The guilt and shame I felt over the loss was incalculable. Worst of all, what would my father say? It haunted me for years, particularly anytime Mount Rushmore was shown in a documentary or commercial. I had lost all record of my father’s work at a grade school “Show and Tell.”
You can imagine my pleasure upon finding a little brown envelope marked “negatives,” along with the other relics of the steamer trunk, filled with images of Dad climbing over the presidents’ faces and up onto their noses. After all these decades, my guilt had finally been absolved!
The trunk also revealed hundreds and hundreds of old letters, bundled together by twine. They were love letters between my father and my mother, written over the period of six months that Dad worked on the mountain in South Dakota, and mother stayed home in Avon, NY taking care of an infant and a toddler.
Both of my parents were gone by that time, but here in this trunk, I could piece together their story through diaries, newspaper articles, and letters. Suddenly, a time in their history to which I had never paid much thought materialized before my eyes. I saw my parents – young, in love, and willing to do anything to keep our family together.
As I delved further into my parents’ story, I realized how meaningful it truly is. Theirs is a story not just of love, but of the struggles in creating the “shining tribute to Democracy.” It is a story that perfectly embodies what it was like to struggle through The Great Depression, surviving on love, family and art.