Friday, August 31, 2007

It Really Wasn't About the Dress

Her house smelled of sauerkraut, onions, and Beethoven.
If I'd known what a problem this would be some forty years later, maybe I wouldn't have endured all those knuckle rappings from the smelly red pencil in my teacher's hand.

A pianist's hands should be pretty. Hers were not.
Spotted. Wrinkled. Arthritic. And soaked in liniment.

She always managed to hit me square on the nervy part of the knuckle - boing! - it had to be the knuckle, which made a G# ping with a thud. I hated that pencil and I played much worse after the whack - sometimes on purpose. And always for spite.
She never smiled.
She did not like me.

I'm sure I was an ugly piano child to her. Small hands with an impossible octave span and awkward curve. Nails never short enough with red traces of hastily removed polish. Funny, I remember more smells than scales, more pain than preludes. Angry arpeggios and bad breath floating across my right shoulder and the terrifying No. 2 that conducted imaginary minuets one minute and made me wince with a whack the next. Meet Mrs. Flanders: the rhythmic dominatrix who knew how to multi-task her pencil.

My grandfather paid $2.85 each week for my lesson. I can still see him counting out the change in her bony little hand and waiting for the red-penciled receipt. "Did she practice this week?" he would ask. Mrs. Flanders was brutally honest.

"No. Not enough," she'd say, and my Papa just gave me a look without a word that sent me flying to the huge black mahogany piano bench at home. Not to please Mrs. Flanders - or even myself - but to make him proud.

That was most important.

And proud he was when I wobbled my pencil thin legs up the altar steps of the First Presbyterian Church to play "Rose Petals" for my first piano recital. What did I know about rose petals? I wanted to play "Moon Stars Shine At Night" - sounded scandalous and mysterious -but Mrs. F. insisted on that boring ditty with the waltzy schmalty lilt. Too cheery for skinny-minny-me. Life was not blooming along as it should and even my ten-year-old mind knew I was faking those damned petals. A poofy dress. Black patent leather shoes. Crinoline. Hairspray. And a curtsy.

Add purgatory to the list - my mother had decided to cut my hair. Short.

I never let her do it again, but for one petal -laced Sunday afternoon, I stood bare-necked and bowlegged waiting to trip up the aisle when my name was called and trying not to reveal my very naked neck.

I counted. I curtsied. I went home.

Then back to the red-penciled torture for another year. And another. And another. I played a carnival tune for my next trick. It was the late sixties and the radical me was just getting warmed up. I thought a nice thought-provoking circus dirge might feed my brooding existence. Give me the thorns. The angst. Snip off the roses with a sharp-edged shear and a laugh. Send in the clowns. No wonder I clung to Sondheim as a teenager with a fornicated crush that wouldn't quit. He was more interesting than stuffy blooms. And real.

I still have that tattered old copy of Rose Petals.
It is still boring. Still inane. Not fit for piano consumption. (sorry Paul Lawson. I'm sure there was a method to your madness) But really. Is there anything worse than forcing a child to play Rose Petals when you knew at the end of the day all those $2.85's coaxed from your grandpa's pocket would only result in eternal embarrassment and degradation should the dreaded clunker occur in front of God and everybody - or worse yet, you'd forget your place and freeze in front of your whole hometown?

And anybody who was anybody who knew anybody always attended the piano recitals. Our names were printed in the local paper along with our parents, grandparents and siblings. It was a Kodak soiree to remember. Piano parties were food for small town gossip - and late night party-line meanness which turned a deaf ear to a little girl's waltz. I had made the ultimate faux pas.

My sin?
A hand-me-down dress.

I played my first piano recital in someone else's dress.
At the time, I just knew that anybody who knew anybody knew that dress belonged to Margaret Sue last year, but of course, they probably didn't. After that day - at least in my second-hand heart, I played incognito against the grain of Mrs. Flander's polished perfection. Snickers in the church aisle changed all that. Beethoven never sounded so good. Funny thing about that dress.

It was covered with roses. Pink buds. Little green leaves. White satin. Black sash in the back that draped past the hem. And a smudge at the button in the back, right under the big patent-leathered bow that matched my brand new shoes.

Second-hand shoes were out of the question for me. Nobody had feet that small this side of the neonatal unit. I still wear a size 5 1/2. Tailor-made for pencil skirt frolicking and an occasional glance toward Mrs. Flanders grave where she is properly - and rhythmically - turning over.

Mrs. Flanders would not allow frolicking. A steady one-two-three-four by the dizzy door of the schizophrenic metronome for a solid hour each Thursday afternoon. "You missed a beat, Mimi Pencil Skirt. Start again."
And a tap tap tap against the grain of her elaborately ornate piano that smelled of her husband's scotch; or maybe the liquor really belonged to Mrs. F. She sure was freewheeling with that pencil poker.

I've long since learned to appreciate roses - boyfriends and proms eventually changed that - and Mrs. Flanders - wisdom and piano students of my own changed that. Despite bruised knuckles and smelly teachers, I managed years later to earn a university music degree. And even though I now understand the strict no-smiles piano regime sometimes afforded my students, roses do not earn the same devotion in my memory book. Springsteen replaced Sondheim and Lawson's priss never held a candle to Lennon's "Imagine." Undivided. Syncopated. Worthy of arrhythmia. I'll take a fine palpitation any day over a strict four-four. 

And I still love wild things that grow on the banks of my heart.
My grownup world chose daisies and peace flowers and anti-war flower power drawn on the leg of my bell-bottom jeans in thick blue ink. The denim vandalism was original. And so were my jeans. Cher hair that never saw the scissors, falling in my face and on my equally artistically-induced journals and notebooks. Poppies. Zinnias. Peace signs. I wanted a ramblin' wild bloom with a purpose. Something symbolic. Meaningful. Splattered sensibility.

Not an award-winning petal in sight. Nope. Roses won't do.
There's always something not quite good enough about them.


Patti said...

This is beautifully written, Mimi.

The town you grew up in reminds me of the setting for "Steel Magnolias."
Am I close? Or maybe "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Thank you for sharing your childhood memories in such a vivid way.

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

omg mimi darling, short haircut AND a hand me down dress, you poor little thing.... my hair was always short!!! drat.

smiles, bee

Joseph said...

I went K-8 with a new Mrs. F every year....

Catholic school....!!!! Go figure.

Anonymous said...

When is your book coming out Mimi? This was one of my favorite pieces you have ever written. Honestly.

My special flower is the Pink Carnation.

Mo and The Purries said...

You had me at "her house smelled of sauerkraut".
Wonderful image, and wonderful story!

katherine. said...

I loved reading this.

Piano recitals were the worst part of my childhood.

Amazing Gracie said...

What a marvelous telling of a rite of passage for many of us. Such a heartfelt story. I was lost in it.
My high school performance was the fiasco you were referring to: I froze midsong and couldn't get it back. I can still feel the horror 45 years later.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A fine post, Mimi, that tells of your bad experiences as a child. It's the sort of thing you don't want to go back to.

Ganeida said...

I loved reading this! My Ditz is the *musical note* in our family. I hope her memories of music are far more pleasant.

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