All that’s left

About the time I started middle school (or, as we used to say, “junior high”) I had exasperated my piano teacher to the point where she decided I had to find a new teacher. I still don’t know how I flummoxed my mom so. I suppose it could have been my legendary stubbornness.

(Example: My parents told me I could practice any half-hour of the day I wanted. Could be before school or after school or in the evening; I could manage the time as I pleased. I did not like this edict, even though I liked learning to play piano and was quite good at it. Know how I responded? I set the alarm each morning at 3:30, got up and banged my etudes and sonatas as loudly as I could  until 4 am and went back to bed. My parents, to their credit, didn’t mention it at the time, although I know now that middle-aged people don’t sleep very well and absolutely abhor being awakened 3 hours before the alarm.)

Mom found a new teacher for me, a world- renowned composer and teacher who had been featured in the newspaper for publishing her latest opus. Remarkably, she lived within walking distance of our house, but she was not taking any new students. Somehow my mom finagled an interview and audition for me.

I was really nervous for our meeting. But Mrs D, as her students fondly called her, seemed genuinely charmed by me, earnest girl that I was. Mrs D had not one but TWO grand pianos in her living room (a wall had been knocked out to make room) — talk about impressively intimidating. I played for her my best Für Elise on one of the pianos and poof! Mom was no longer saddled with me as her piano student. Soon both my sisters followed me under Mrs D’s tutelage.

Mrs D was quite a character. She taught us not only the notes but to “sniff the keys” — that is, to feel the music and not be afraid to get demonstrative with the keyboard. She would tape ping-pong balls to our palms to counter our tendency to flatten our hands. She was brilliant, whimsical, odd, unafraid, tough, loving, and the most fascinating person I knew. She was a renaissance woman — she wrote novels, painted paintings, traveled the world with her beloved husband, and composed and played songs that evoked a range of emotions for both the listeners and the players. The first time I ever saw my name in print was when Mrs D dedicated a sonatina to me.

Once as a teen I ran away from home…to Mrs D’s house. She listened to me, opened up a can of black olives to console me (our bonding food — with her I was odd, too), and patted me on the bottom as she pushed me back toward home. Another time she and her husband were preparing for their imminent trip to Europe. Not wanting to pay high prices for stuff they could easily bring with them, they one day had me help them make martinis and pour them into seal-a-meal packaging to put in their suitcases. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing, but it was a merry time helping them get ready.

Several years ago Mrs D’s husband died after a devastating Alzheimer’s decline. She missed him terribly but stayed vibrant and modern, though she was nearing her 90s. She hung out on Facebook, kept composing and publishing music for children, and wrote her autobiography. Turned out she was a codebreaker in WWII but had been under a 50-year veil of secrecy.

Eventually she grew frail and could no longer live in home with her two grand pianos. She was moved to a nursing home where she charmed the staff and entertained the other residents with her piano-playing and storytelling. My sisters and I visited her Thanksgiving of 2010 and sang her this song in harmony. She held each of our hands and made lengthy eye contact, loving us through and through. “Please come back soon, my sweethearts,” she said.

My mom and I visited her last Spring, about this time. We filled her in on our lives, listened to her reminisce, and told her we’d visit again.

Mrs D died last June. She was 92.

I attended the estate sale at her home this weekend. All of Mrs D’s  belongings were on the lawn being picked over by passers-by (the pianos were gone, in the possession of her son). Remnants of a life — junk really. Travel books from the 1970s that no one will ever read. Wall hangings and artwork that look hopelessly dated. Ten thousand travel photos that have meaning only to the two people who took the trip.

I browsed. I time-traveled. I was back in junior high. I was sitting through recitals in that living room. I was either eating black olives or packing green olives in liquid. I was visiting Mrs D while home from college. I was introducing her to the man who would become my husband. I was chasing my toddler around in that living room, trying to keep the knick-knacks safe from her grasp as I showed her off to Mrs D. While my life was ascending, I didn’t even notice Mrs D’s corresponding counter-arc.

This is what’s left of a life. Tchotchkes that outlive their owner, untethered and unowned. Doomed for a landfill. A wave of grief swept over me for the loss and love of Mrs D, the inevitable loss we face, the complete disconnection that waits for everyone. What would my estate sale look like?

I decided to salvage only one item, as impractical as it is symbolic.

A different type of keyboard, to be sure. But a touchstone to a woman who touched my life in a profound way.

20 thoughts on “All that’s left”

  1. What a lovely tribute to a woman you were profoundly connected to.

    When my beloved grandmother, matriarch of our family, died & it was time to pack up her things, one of the only things I wanted was her antique flour sifter. We connected over several things, but none were as sacred to me as baking with her. I love that sifter & feel her hands on it every time I use it.

    You will, too, with Mrs. D.’s typewriter.

  2. This is an absolutely beautiful post. I truly enjoyed reading the story of this woman, who clearly impacted your life greatly!

  3. What a sweet story ♥. I especially loved the parts about the ping pong balls and the olives :). Mom bought my dad a Baby Grand as a Christmas present one year. Truly playing the piano beautifully each night was the love of his life. I wish I had the chance to sneak in our off-limit’s living room one more time to see if your piano teacher’s ping pong theory works :). I mastered how to play chopsticks and Born Free.

  4. WOW, what a great story! It’s so true how other adult figures play such an important role in our forming years. Mrs D knew that she was important to you!!!! I love that she was someone you could confide in and learn from. A positive influence to you!!!!
    I love the typewriter too!
    xo Tara

  5. First, I can’t imagine how you managed to irritate your piano teacher to the point that she pawned you off on someone else. I’m guessing it had nothing to do with waking up at 3:30 am…

    Mrs. D sounds like she was a really wonderful and entertaining person. I’m sure she’s a big part of the reason you are who you are. I’m glad you got a keepsake…

  6. I loved this post. It brought back memories of my own piano teacher. I know I disappointed her because I didn’t practice enough for her liking — she felt I was capable of much more (& I probably was) but I liked having a life. ; ) She trained for a career in music, only to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It had been in remission for some years when I was her student, but she told me she thanked God for every good day, because she never knew when it might return. I often wonder how she is; she would be in her mid-70s now, I think.

    A lady in the town in Minnesota where my mother grew up died when I was visiting Mom & Dad a few summers ago, & they had an estate sale… we couldn’t make it there, but one of my mom’s friends went, & showed us some of the things she bought. The house was PACKED with stuff, much of it never used. Canned goods dating back to the 1940s. Pretty linens & stationery. Sheet music and books. You never know what treasures you will find….!

  7. This just made me weepy. What a gorgeous post. I do wonder if my “things” have any meaning to anyone other than me. There are the useful items, but the majority of tangible items I hold close would be meaningless to anyone else. I’m glad you have that typewriter. I hope you write a lot of letters to people on it. I know I want one.

  8. She sounds like she was truly an amazing and fabulous lady. Thanks for sharing this and giving me a laugh at the thought of you practicing piano a 3am.

  9. Is Mrs. D’s autobiography in print? I would love to read it: I’m fascinated by code breakers! What an interesting life, and what a lovely person.

    Um, I can’t BELIEVE you practiced your piano at 3:30 AM!!! Darn, girl! And your parents said nothing?!? Wow. My next door neighbor would always play his drum set only when I started practicing my piano. It was so loud and distracting. He was a real pill.

    Great post.

    1. As far as I know, she had it only in draft form. But I am looking into what it would take to get it to publication. I think it would be fantastic!

      My parents are saints.

  10. What a beautiful tribute to Mrs. D. And, I’m with Jjiraffe, is her autobiography in print? I’d like to read it.

    Also, laughing here at the idea of you practicing at 3:30 am.

  11. What a beautiful post. For me, this memory would be my English teachers … they are my Mrs. Ds.

    I love what you’ve chosen to remember her by. And am wondering what someone will choose to remember me, someday, if at all …

  12. Some of my favorite random items in my house are from the kinds of estate sales that involve loved ones clearing out the house after the funeral — the napkin holder that DH’s grandmother always had on her kitchen table; ramekins from my college roommate’s grandmother; a Shabbat candleholder from a great-aunt that I find wonderfully kitschy but which she clearly enjoyed without irony; a never-used purse from my mother’s closet that I can imagine an avant-garde teenage Tamale carrying someday. I also have a few that would qualify as actual heirlooms, some taken from the houses posthumously and some given to me while the people were still alive; the needlepoints and handmade sweaters mean so much more to me than the gold watch or diamond rings.

    Buying things from a stranger’s estate sale seems icky to me, but having objects from someone special feels like keeping a piece of them alive. Using that napkin holder puts me right back at DH’s grandmother’s kitchen table, folding napkins into triangles with her.

  13. So, thanks for the early morning cry. UGH! What a special memory and thank you for sharing it. She sounds like she was put in your life at the right time (my you were a little feisty one) and the two of you had an amazing bond.

  14. I too get very melancholy the infrequent times I go to estate sales. All of a person’s life on tables, for strangers to pick through…I hope my kids just burn everything when I go!

  15. Yes, such universal feelings about such things…and why I’ve learned to let go of my attachment to ‘things’….and value the experiences. Although things do bring up the experiences, so it’s not possible to really detach…ah.

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