Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dearest, up in the aerie, fragrant pan of coq au vin on the stove, redolent with mushrooms, red wine, herbes de provence, garlic, chicken stock, and tiny potatoes. We lost power for a little while this afternoon which threw things off for me a bit, though it sent me right back to the out-of-tune clanging piano, so what does that say about what I might do if forced to be unplugged for a long while? We have an old Steinway, a venerable model from the 1920s, but I rarely play it, mostly because I don't actually like the way it sounds. It must need a major tuning, or something, and also it's in the uncarpeted dining room, so the sounds harshly bounce off the walls. I just don't like it. Also it's been an albatross, a Thurberian seal-in-the-bedroom in our marriage. D acquired the piano many years ago, years before we were married, and he's been only the second owner - in what 70, 80 years. He took up piano in college and in fact majored in music, studying with a noted pianist, and he's always wanted (or so he claims) to devote himself to it. Only he never did, never does. And honestly, I know this really isn't very nice of me to say at all, but - well, let's say that I think some sort of illusion has been harbored. I feel guilty writing this, it's not quite my story to tell. And yet, it has always sat there in our marriage. Honestly, I wish he would sell the thing - I've thought that for years. Given that it's a fairly rare Steinway there might be a taker for it who could restore it properly, we could use the cash, and we might have gotten a piano that (to my mind anyway) sounds better. But talk about a hot-potato in a marriage. It has always been a sore point, and now - for the last several years - it's not even an issue really, since the marriage is all but over. And so there the piano sits in the frigid dining room. I dust it once in a while, and when the power goes out (and along with it, the radio) I'll bang out a couple of tunes. I do enjoy playing piano - if the instrument is a bit better than I am, a little more forgiving, so that I don't feel that I'm banging and clanging and loudly thrashing through a piece.

The other night as I lay awake I found myself recollecting the first piano teachers I ever had, when I was in grade school. My first one was a ruddy woman who'd show up, husband in tow (I guess he must driven her), in a fur coat floridly reeking of liquor, perfume - both. She was much bigger than me. She and her husband seemed to fill the space, suck up all the air from my parents' small dining room where the upright (that my parents had purchased from them), not the greatest, stood against the wall. Mrs. Sheldon would squeeze onto the bench with me and she taught me "the notes" - said that she'd get to rhythm later. And I never did really get rhythm very well, ever in my life, that is setting a beat, keeping to it. But I got the notes all right.

My second piano teacher reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson, only because of her physical appearance, and plus Miss Emily Donaldson - her name - was truly an ancient relic born, bred, and held over from the previous century. (And here I was in the 1960s, dying to play Bacharach and folk songs.) Miss Donaldson was amazing. I wonder how my mother ever found her. By the time she taught me she must have been well into her seventies, a thin, spare, elderly woman who wore her hair pulled back in a bun. She lived in a room, or small apartment possibly, in a handsome old Victorian house near the center of town, a stretch of beautiful houses, a whole era, that has long since been torn down in favor of condos and parking lots. Miss Donaldson was a very private person with her firm limits - I never did catch a glimpse of her dwelling space. I wonder about it, now.

Miss Donaldson didn't drive or have access to a car and driver - no, she walked everywhere. She'd walk from her upstairs abode on - was it Forrest Street? - a couple of miles easily, or more, to our house, once, possibly twice a week, for my lesson. My parents had no money, I doubt she charged much, though I can't put a figure on how much she might have received per hour.

Miss Donaldson was a spare dry relief after the luridly over-aroma'ed Mrs. Sheldon. Plus Miss Donaldson and I fit together on the single bench much better, my third or fourth grade self and Miss Donaldson's trim, spare, dark-dressed figure. She took me through the John Thompson books, and Czerny, and a weekly ritual gesture of hers on taking her place on the bench by me was to pull out a russet-orange packet of eucalyptus cough drops and offer me one. That was such a treat, I developed an affection for those cough drops, and they were always intimately tied up with sitting on the bench with her, admitting (as in a confessional) how little I had practiced that week, and then the two of us companionably figuring out the fingering and rhythmic dots and stops of intricate Hanon exercises.

Poor Miss Donaldson, truly frail elderly, all the times without fail and with exacting punctuality she'd show up on back stoop steps ready to give me a lesson. She'd always walk back too, in all weather. My mother for the longest time didn't drive, but I think around this time perhaps she'd started to - anyway, Miss Donaldson never got a ride, not from us (my father was at work, so he was never an option). But Miss Donaldson seemed never to expect or desire a ride, either. But eventually, inevitably, there came the day that the lessons ceased - she'd sprained an ankle, or broken a bone in a fall - you know, the sort of infirmities that eventually befall the frail elderly - befell her. (Her injury wasn't - I don't believe - sustained on the way to or fro our house - though, then again, how do I know all these years later that it wasn't?)

Thinking about Miss Donaldson now, I don't really have a handle on her. And yet somehow I think she had aged gracefully, weathered sea changes of eras and ethos and kept skromnie (what is the English translation to that word?) to herself, true to herself, and yet ventured out daily, on her intrepid walks to give lessons to not so much ungrateful, as oblivious and clueless kids of a different era from hers, such as me.

My darling, in case you haven't noticed I just typed that whole little piece out as it is, without going back over it, not enough anyway - let it suffice, for now.

Thinking of you so very much, my dearest, hope you've had a wonderful dinner, and that your evening is going swimmingly -- very many kisses, my love - all sorts.

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