Piano Lessons from my Childhood

Piano Lessons from my Childhood

"Monochrome Diet Coke" courtesy of C. J. Vizzone on Flickr.

These Diet cokes, these soft crumbly cookies–they remind me of piano lessons with Grandma. Week after week in my early teens, I’d go into town on Fridays with her, from my house in the country. Every Friday morning she would honk her horn in our driveway. I was sitting on the couch, half-asleep, in my jean jacket, turtleneck, and flowered skirt. It’s shivery-cold outside, and I can see my breath. I go outside and she’s waiting in the driveway in her great squarish Volkswagon van, smoke puttering out the back. I pull open the heavy passenger’s door, and climb into the seat. The classical music station is playing, 89.9FM, and it’s on Rachmaninoff or something supposed to wake me up, but I’m grumpy and don’t say much.

I’ve got a peanut buttered slice of Sam’s Choice bread in my hands, and I pick at the edges of it, drinking from a glass of milk I’ve sat in the cupholder. My bag is filled with piano books: John Thompson’s third grade book (I’m in the 6th grade, and I’ve been practicing from this for two years), the Joy of Ragtime, and some contemporary worship music. I’m too tired to think, but Grandma is talking to me, about the news this week, and her pastor’s sermon. She asks how my church and youth group were, and warns me about the latest sex scenes in teen movies, and how I shouldn’t see them. I nod and blink my eyes. She carefully adjusts the heat.

We stop at the gas station in Marysville, halfway between my house and Delaware, where we take piano lessons. She climbs out of the van, and carefully shuts the door. The classical music is still playing, and as I sit waiting and doodling on the back of my assignment notebook, the car windows fog up. I can still see her outside, to the left and behind me, watching the gas meter. She’s wearing a floppy grey knit cap, with her silver hair pinned up under it, and a bright purple windbreaker.

When we gets back in the van, she double-checks her receipt and puts her credit card back in her wallet. She pulls a small notebook and pencil out of a corner of her door, and carefully writes down the date, prior mileage, current mileage, price per gallon, gallons, and total amount, all in slanty penciled writing, fifty characters crammed into one small line. She presses the odometer, puts on her seat belt, looks at the odometer again, and turns on the car.

We go on ahead, across the countryside, grass still frozen straight, past the junkyard where my first car would be towed when, at age seventeen, I flipped it into a soybean field, past Burnt Pond road and the industrial complex. She slows carefully to a stop at a stoplight, then mutters at some old guy in a tractor until he pulls over. When we reach the edge of Delaware, she slows down to city speed and we go on, over the railroad tracks, past small blue farmhouses now become antique shops and clothing stores, and onto the edge of the small college campus there. We turn left at Elizabeth street and she parallel parks, carefully, as near to the music building as we can get.

Then we go up the stairs, three flights, I think, in an immense whitewashed building, with long rows of offices, a piano (or at least a music stand) in each one, each desk piled high with music pamphlets and kitcshy plastic paperweights, with piano notes and instruments on them. Sometimes when Grandma’s taking her lesson, I go to the basement to peer in the vending machines, and if I have money I’ll buy Goethe’s caramels and a Snickers bar, for Grandma (but I usually eat the Snickers before her lesson is finished). I’ll run up and down the halls in the other floors, imagining I’m a princess, but I never see anyone, just sometimes hear a few notes. I read the cartoons on each door, and peer in the bathrooms, but it never changes.

On the very top floor, at the end of the hall, is my piano teacher’s room. Her name is Mrs. Hopper. She’s an old lady in a blue dress, with very fat ankles. She also has a pink saggy face, carefully powdered, pale thin lips, and powdery white hair, and I try to sit respectfully as she sort of quietly whomps across the room to her desk to check her schedule. Her room smells like paper and perfume, old building and old lady. She is from Cincinnati and skated on the Ohio river when she was younger. She is a concert pianist, Grandma says, and I must must not waste her time – I must practice every day. It hasn’t happened yet.

If I’m not running the halls, I sit outside her door while Grandma has her lesson. Mrs. Hopper’s door is made of dark-stained wood across dull glass which I can’t quite see through. There’s a yellowed comic, or a recital announcement, and always a poster of Uncle Sam, who wants me to Practice Every Day, and he frowns and points his finger at me, no matter where I stand.

When I sit in the plastic chair outside the office, I hear Grandma June playing her scales and her hymns, her ragtime and Rachmaninoff. I can’t imagine being as good as her, pounding and pedaling, with a few trills towards the end. She stops and murmers with Mrs. Hopper but I can’t really hear either of them. Instead, I’m reading the magazines Grandma checked out from the library last week: Time, U.S. News, Newsweek, World Magazine, Christianity Today. Sometimes there is an Architectural Digest or This Old Home, but I don’t like those very much. I drink the can of Diet Coke that she has brought for me, and eat one of those soft stale brown cookies – Chips Ahoy, or maybe Chips Deluxe. Once I’ve nibbled all through mine, I pinch bits off the edges of her cookie.

As soon as I hear her come towards the door, I fold up the magazines and put away her cookie. I’m ready when she turns the handle, and I go into Mrs. Hopper’s office. Hello, she says, how have you been this week? I sit down at the piano and pull out my books. I’m about five feet tall, stringy red hair and a splotchy face, wearing some flowered skirt and my prairie boots. I’m shy, but I love to read about Indian captives and imagine that I am a pioneer girl, dramatically captured by Indians, it doesn’t matter which ones. The Shoshone have a nice name, or the Cayute. I repeat it over and over in my head, Cayute, Cayute, Cayute. I imagine myself in a bonnet. When I look up, Mrs. Hopper is looking at me.

I hand her my little assignment book, with a sparkling cover, and scribbled notes front and back of each thin page. Every week she writes down the scales and arpeggios I am to practice, and we choose several pieces to work on. This week I have to play Curious Story, which I like, and some dull ploddy german piece, which I don’t like. Also my rags, probably the Felicity and the Maple Leaf Rag. I picked Felicity because it is the name of my American Girl’s Doll, and Maple Leaf because I live in Ohio, and even though it’s early March and the gutters are full of slush and icy snow, the maple leaves still peek out in patches, damp and brown, a memory of those giddy swirls of bright falling leaves, orange in the daytime and red in the evenings.

I look across Mrs. Hopper’s office at her file cabinets and laminate desk, all overflowing with sheets and books of music, dried flowers in a vase, dusty odorless potpourri, and bright ornaments and wall hanging from her students. These gifts are from all around the world, she says, the little straw men from Thailand and the woven hanging from Guatemala. Mrs. Hopper is a college music teacher, Grandma tells me, a concert pianist, and I should be very honored to take lessons with her. And it’s true, when she plays, the whole room thunders like the most dramatic sort of novel, and then the room seems lighter than ever, and I sit beside her, twitching my feet in amazement.

She has me run through my scales and rags. I place my fingertips on the smooth keys, wrists up, and then off, tangling my fingers one over the other in a meter all my own. I love the sound her piano makes, smooth or militant, soft or very loud. Louder, she says, and watch your time, and she’s tapping the pinno in the time I should be doing, and I press hard, and all of my energy goes out through my fingers and through the air, where it hits me in the ears again, note after note. When I finish I straighten up, lean back and almost scald my back on the hot water heater that burbles behind me, heat swirling through oblong painted rings, bolted to the wall. In front of me is the baby grand piano, vibrating to silence, very pretty, with long strings stretching out in the shade of the cover, toward the door.

Finally, we discuss Curious Story. I want to perform it for my upcoming recital at our homeschool group. “You’re not ready,” Mrs. Hopper says.

“But Bach is boring,” I argue, “I want to play something fun.”

“You’re ready to perform your Bach,” she says.

“I don’t care,” I say. My skin is starting to feel prickly, I’m flushing and swinging my legs into the piano.

“Stop,” she says. “Why are you coming here, if you don’t like practicing and you don’t like playing, and you don’t like the songs we’ve agreed on, why are you here?”

The lesson is over, and when we get up, she pulls Grandma back into the room and they talk.

Grandma comes out of the office again and says goodbye to the teacher, looking at me severely. We walk down the stairs again, three flights, and I run my fingers along the smooth carved wooden banisters, as Grandma admonishes me for a good ten minutes about my obligations to Mrs. Hopper. She is a world-famous concert pianist, Grandma says. You have got to be more respectful, she says, you have been very rude and your mother won’t like to hear this.

She digs for her keys in her purse, and pulls out the sandwich baggie with her cookie. She pauses and looks at it, then breaks a bit more off of the corner I already nibbled, and puts it back in her bag.

As we go out into the gardens surrounding the great music hall, Grandma starts to calm down, and I do too. It’s cold and drizzly, but there is fresh mulch around the trees, and the tips of the branches are starting to bud, and the beginnings of crocuses and hyacinth push through the slush. We walk on the damp footpaths and she points out the each plant’s growth compared to last week. I’m still tense and quiet, the way I get when my parents lose their tempers, or I talk too loud and the youth leader gives me a sharp word.

We get back in the car and drive to Mrs. Sanford’s house. She lives in some sort of nursing home, with a code or key for the door, narrow hallways, and dark walls. It’s very dark in her room, but we stop so that Grandma can wind her clock for her. She has a bowl of candy on the coffee table. She can hardly walk, so Grandma supports her down the stairs and into the van.

At the bank, Mrs. Sanford gets money and I get a Mystery Dum-Dum, which turns out to be a nasty blue raspberry. Then to the Buehler’s for her to buy groceries. She sets in a scooter-cart and discusses meat prices with Grandma, picks out some vegetables. I tag along at the edges, wishing I had money for some Lunchables. When we get back to her house and unload all her groceries for her, she always lets me take a candy from the dish, a Hershey’s kiss or Brach’s mint or butterscotch. I take four more when she’s not looking, and slip down the hallway and into the stairwell where I eat them all at once.

Grandma meets me in the hall, and I stuff the wrappers into my pocket. I’m sure she can tell, so when we get in the car, I’m silent, sweet acrid mouth, as Grandma stops to test the windshield wiper fluid. She turns and asks if I still want to go to Salvation Army. Of course I do! We drive several blocks to the west, and park in a great flat lot by the Salvation Army, across from the gas station and one block from the freeway. When we go in, we check the signs – blue tags are 50% off today. She goes to look at the old women’s blouses, and I the scarves and books. We look at shoes together and at the furniture in the back – Grandma is always looking for just one more piece so that she can rearrange her living room.

Finally, she carefully buys one pair of thick wool socks and a silk blouse – silk is best for summer she says, very lightweight – for $2.35. She already has drawers full of wool socks, all in neat little rows, and a dozen silk blouses, but you can never have too many. I buy a green cloth purse with plastic flowers on it, and then drop my last two quarters into the little red machines by the doors, and crank the handle so that nine Mike’n’Ikes drop out. The quarters came from mommy’s purse, hidden behind her coat on the yellow hooks in our laundry room. She never has change at the grocery store, and I’m always busy fingering the checkout counter magazines when she sighs and comments about it in the general direction of her five children.

Usually we get blizzards from Dairy Queen, but Grandma must know how much sugar I’ve had today. Instead, she suggests we check out several antique stores on the way home. I’m tired and dizzy – driving always turns my stomach and I don’t like to wait for Grandma to look over everything in the store – but I say yes because I like being with Grandma. There are pictures of stiff old people in large wooden frames, and lots of doilies and flowered woodware. This store has a roll-top desk, just like I want someday, and a spinning wheel. I want a spinning wheel very badly because then I could really be a Pioneer Girl, but some of the parts are missing. Also, it’s $325 and I only have $24.73 in my checking account. I tap-tap-tap with my prairie boots across the linoleum in the store, twirling my skirt carefully away from the vases, as I wait for Grandma to finish her look-see.

Lastly, we stop at the Dublin library, where I find a book about an Indian captive, and another about a girl who worked in a textile mill during the civil war. It sounds very dramatic. Grandma gets out some books about what those liberals are doing to America, and about the history of Christianity, and about how to solve World Hunger. She turned in a big stack of books and magazines when we got here, but I know she has another stack at home, with yellow sticky notes poking out every which way from the pages.

Most of the stickies aren’t sticky anymore, because she carefully moves them from book to book, so that nothing is wasted. By her reading couch there is a pile of yellow stickies on the lampstand (actually nonstickies) that are turning greyish, and a little stub of a pencil which she uses to write her notes about the books, always on leftover scraps of paper, always in cursive so small I can’t even read it.

After she checks out her books, I check out mine, hiding the one about the civil war because the girl on the cover looks suspiciously swoony. We get back in the car for another dizzy ride home. There, I run to check the mail, while Grandma stops inside to talk with mommy and see the drawings my little brothers have made.

And I don’t touch my piano books all week, except for once when I play my scales so I can use the computer, and one other time, when I flip through the pages to see where my library receipt has gone.


  1. Aunt Val

    Oh Celia, I love this piece. It has a beautiful cinematic quality – I can see it all so clearly. I think you presented your young self without any defense, though, and I hope that is due to the late hour of the post and not to a lack of understanding or sympathy. Thanks for sharing!

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