NASHVILLE — Saturday mornings were magic for the 6-year-old Chicago girl.
Her mom was a disco DJ on weekends, and Saturday was when the new records arrived. So Lisa Sarmento and her teddy bear would go with Mom in the morning to check out all that new music.
Mom would light up the dance floor (like Saturday Night Fever), spin the disco ball and drop the needle on the vinyl. The girl, clutching her bear, would spin around and around, dancing in front of the mirrored walls.
“I had the coolest childhood,” Sarmento said, eyes shining.
After the disco adventures ended, the two stayed close, through Sarmento’s tricky teen years, through a move to Jackson, Tenn., through her mom’s two tough divorces, through a fair amount of shouting and yelling at each other.
That bond made her mother’s death even more painful. The diagnosis came Nov. 8, 2011. Pancreatic cancer. Her mom died three months later.
Sarmento found a unique way to deal with that overwhelming grief, one that has launched one of Nashville’s more interesting niche businesses.
A devastated Sarmento got angry. She was angry at cancer. Angry her mother got it. Angry she lost her best friend. And angry at the sympathy cards her friends and relatives sent her.
“If another person gave me a card that said, ‘God can’t give you more than you can handle,’ I was gonna scream,” she said.
“I lost my mother, I lost the person who raised me, my caregiver. God really wanted me to hurt this bad?” she said.
“I got superficial fluff instead of being raw and real and telling me, ‘You’re gonna hurt and it’s gonna be painful, but I’m here.’ That’s what I needed.”
So, eventually, Sarmento, a graphic designer, made some cards herself. Her first one said simply: “This sucks.”
The honesty and rawness struck a chord with friends. Inspired by their feedback, Sarmento suddenly was creating all sorts of “real talk” cards, some intense, most funny.
“Merry F’ing Christmas.”
“Don’t Grow Up, It’s a Trap.”
“Carpe the Hell out of this Diem.”
“You drink too much, you cuss too much, you eat like crap, you have questionable morals, but you’re everything I want in a friend.”
She started showing up at craft shows around Nashville, and customers flocked to her booth.
“People walked up and giggled, ‘Oh my!’ ” Sarmento said. “Some started howling, and some turned away because it was a little too much for them.”
Still, Sarmento sold as many as 500 cards in a weekend.
And she knew she was on to something.
Now, through Etsy and retail outlets, Sarmento is selling about 3,000 cards a week in her family business: Sarmento’s mother inspired it, and her 16-year-old son, Michael, who has autism, is her chief helper.
“I’m going to take my misfortune of losing my mom and turn it into something that makes other people smile — and employ my son.”
And that makes Sarmento, 44, smile. But there are days she still misses her mom, deeply.
Often it’s when some old disco songs — Bee Gees' If I Can’t Have You or Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff — come on the radio and Sarmento finds herself sobbing and laughing in her car.
“Four years later, I’m still … ,” Sarmento stops, tears spilling down her face.
Follow Brad Schmitt on Twitter: @bradschmitt