By Penny Kohn
Mrs. Schutzmann’s pudgy hands danced over the keyboard, her flabby arms swayed, her powdery face soft, alive with the music of Johannes Brahms. The music my mother listened to on the radio was nothing like this. Her music was loud and rhythmic–bangy. This music poured out as if it was coming from some secret place deep inside Mrs. Schutzmann’s soft, squishy body. My mother was pudgy, too, and so was I, but my mother didn’t wear a corset, although she kept a girdle in her top drawer. Instead, her stomach pushed its way out beneath her gaudy dresses. Mrs. Schutzmann didn’t push anything out. Whatever was inside flowed from her body as smoothly as the Charles River flowed through the city of Boston.
I was eight years old. This was my first piano lesson.
“Let’s get started now,” Mrs. Schutzmann said, waiting a minute or two before she released her fingers from the keyboard. The music of Johannes Brahms lingered in the air, like the aroma of cookies. She smiled at me the way a teacher would. Except my mother was a teacher, and she never smiled like that at me. My heart fluttered. I could hardly look at Mrs. Schutzmann, I was so excited and so in love. She showed me how to find middle C and asked me to try playing the first song in Teaching Little Fingers to Play. Stepping up, stepping down, then a skip. I stumbled my way through, my fingers twisting, aware that she was watching me, evaluating. At least she didn’t tell me to relax. I couldn’t.
“Good, Eva. You are playing the piano. This is how you start.”
My heart sang. I wanted to play the piano more than I wanted a Betsy Wetsy doll or a Madame Alexander.
My third grade teacher, who didn’t smile a lot and barked out orders, told me I couldn’t match pitches, a fancy way of saying I couldn’t sing. She told me to mouth the words when we sang at school assemblies and just pretend to sing. She came over and whispered it to me when the class was practicing. Maybe that’s why I started to speak too quietly and cover my mouth with my hands when I spoke. Maybe that’s why I retreated into my room after school and read until my eyes burned with fatigue.
“No, no, no, four plus three is not eight,” she chastised me, leaning over my workbook page so I could smell her perfume. “Your mother is a math teacher. Ask her to help you, please.”
Beth Abramowitz and Mark Wallace snickered.
I asked my mother if I could have piano lessons.
“You should learn to play the violin, instead. Or the flute. Then you could play in an orchestra or a band. You could make new friends,” my mother said, ruffling through the pages of some report she was preparing.
“But I want to play the piano.” Automatically, my hand went up and covered my mouth and I looked at the floor. I had never stood up to my mother before.
“Speak up and take your hand away from your mouth. Are you sure you don’t want to learn to play the violin?” she frowned a little and made a notation with her pen on one of the pages.
“I want the piano,” I said to the floor.
“I wish you wouldn’t spend so much time by yourself. You should try to make more friends.” She sighed, looked quickly at me without seeing me, and then went back to her papers.
“You can’t imagine what Mrs. Schutzmann has been through,” my mother tssked as we walked up the stairs to Mrs. Schutzmann’s Beacon Street apartment near the Hawes Street trolley stop. She walked briskly, her high heels clicking. “You’ll learn about the holocaust in Hebrew School,” her voice trailed off. I could tell by the hurried way she walked that her mind was busy with the details of one of her many meetings.
Why didn’t my mother just tell me what the holocaust was?
My mother rang buzzer number one with the name Schutzmann typed underneath it. The apartment building smelled old and there was a strong scent of Pine Sol. My mother put her gloves in her purse and straightened her hat. “Be sure to speak up when you talk to Mrs. Schutzmann.” She paced in her high heels.
Mathilde Schutzmann never told me to speak up, and she always managed to hear my quiet voice when I spoke. She even told me I’d be a good pianist one day. I ached to believe her.
All cows eat grass. Every good boy does fine. I learned the notes of the treble and bass clef. I curved my fingers and relaxed my wrists, but as soon as I took my hands off the keyboard, I crossed them over my chest, protecting myself. There really was no need to, though. Mrs. Schutzmann, who pronounced her name as if the last syllable rhymed with John, always spoke kindly to me. Her first name was pronounced Matilda, like “Waltzing Matilda”. That was one of the songs the other third grade children sang in school, while I mouthed the words, wishing I could sing out, even if it didn’t sound very good.
There were no pictures of her family in her living room, none at all, and no pictures of her husband who often sat in the kitchen, wearing old slippers, and drinking coffee. In my house, there were pictures everywhere–my parents wedding picture, my grandparents, my baby pictures, pictures of my mother’s Hadassah committee. We didn’t have any pictures of solid old buildings with spires and arches in faraway German cities the way Mrs. Schutzmann did. Her apartment building with its arches and ivy spoke of another century, a solid, elegant past when there were no boxy, split-level ranch homes like mine.
Spring came early the year I started my piano lessons, and the trees in front of Mrs. Schutzmann’s apartment were in bloom. The birds on Beacon Street sang to each other. Being able to sing like that must have been so satisfying. One bird puffed himself up and out came a glorious song, in tune, on pitch, and another bird answered with an equally glorious song. No one told them they couldn’t sing. They weren’t at all self-conscious or worried about what anyone else would think. They just sang.
“We’re having a student recital on May 10 at 3:00 here at my home. It’s a Sunday,” Mrs. Schutzmann told my mother when she came to pick me up. Her smile was particularly gentle. “Since you are my youngest student, Eva, you will play first. You will play Country Gardens.” My mother wrote the date in the little datebook she carried in her purse. At least, she didn’t have any meetings already scheduled on that day. I wouldn’t have wanted her to have to rearrange any of her meetings.
Every day after school, I practiced with the metronome and without the metronome, counting, singing, and even curtsying to an imaginary audience. I could hear other children riding their bikes up and down our side street, but playing the piano was better than riding bikes. Mrs. Schutzmann suggested I play my recital piece in front of my family, but my mother was always so busy with all her meetings, she never sat down and listened to me play. Anyway, I preferred the imaginary.
“You should call a friend to come over after school tomorrow, Eva,” my mother glanced at me from the kitchen where she was listening to pop music on the radio. People said I looked like her, and I suppose I did, but I wasn’t at all like her. We both had unruly hair, the kind that looked like it was electrocuted, and wide hips and jiggly calves. My mother chaired the math department at Brookline High School and chaired the local chapter of Hadassah, too. She was always going to meetings, leading this and leading that, and people listened to her and did what she said. It was hard not to. She had such a loud, commanding voice. I guess she ended up with a quiet daughter like me because my father, a petite, trim man, sat at a desk all day at the bank and spent his evenings and week-ends jogging alone up and down Beacon Street or doing crossword puzzles at the kitchen table.
On the day of the recital, I practically skipped into Mrs. Schutzmann’s living room; I was so excited. The other children, some of them teen-agers, were all dressed in their finest, and like me, the other little girls wore mary janes and white anklets and ribbons in their hair. I didn’t like the flowery, pink dress I wore. It had puffy sleeves and a crinkly petticoat, emphasizing my chubbiness and making a crisp pfft every time I moved. I was embarrassed to notice that my mother had a run in her stockings. Mrs. Schutzmann never had runs in her thick stockings with seams in the back.
This was the first time I had ever sat on the formal settee, and it felt hard and uncomfortable. It was a little like the seats in Symphony Hall where my parents sometimes took me to children’s concerts–special and ladylike, not meant for 8-year old girls. The smell of cookies and perfume permeated the air, unlike the stale, overheated Symphony Hall. And there it was, my name on the typed program, Eva Rabinovitz…Country Gardens, just like a real performer.
“Welcome everyone,” Mrs. Schutzmann stood up and said in an odd formal voice I’d never heard her use. (She actually said velcome, not welcome.) “It is a great pleasure to have you here today. Eva Rabinovitz will play first.”
I felt a little shaky, walking up to the Steinway grand piano. I sat down, opened my music, and straightened the red John Thompson book, trying to take comfort from the gold star on the top of the page. I played the first measure and the second, but then I looked out and saw not just my parents, but all the parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers. They sort of looked like themselves but were no longer quite themselves now that they were The Audience. They were all sitting up straight, listening to me, not to my mother or someone else with a stronger presence, but to me. My fingers crashed down on wrong notes, tightening so I could hardly release them. And then my entire body started to shake. A shadow crossed over the page of the John Thompson music book, darkening it.
“Eva,” Mrs. Schutzmann called to me, smoothing her hair with the palm of her hand. “Take a few deep breaths, and start again. Let the music come out.”
I adjusted the piano bench, pushed it forward and pushed it back, breathed, and began to play Country Gardens again, although my hands were still shaking. “She’s messing up,” I heard The Audience twitter. Of course no one in the room was actually talking. The music clunked and chunked like elephants. One, two and, three, four; one, two and three. Strong on the downbeat, weaker on the others. The music was supposed to dance. I was hot and red as if I’d jumped rope one hundred times on the playground. When I finally finished, I forgot to curtsy and stumbled my way back to my seat on the settee, my head down, not wanting to see my parents or anyone else.
“People get nervous,” my mother said to me in a loud stage whisper everyone could hear. I stared at the oriental rug. I wished she’d just be quiet for once.
Then, an eight-year old girl from another school walked across the room and sat down on the piano bench, her blonde hair in perfect braids, her shiny mary janes secure on the pedal. There was something very pointy about this girl. Her nose was as steep as the slide on the playground. She wasn’t exactly pretty, but I bet she thought she was. Her long, thin fingers flew over the keyboard, gliding, floating through Swans on the Lake. I had wanted to play that piece at the recital, but Mrs. Schutzmann thought I should play Country Gardens instead. I didn’t question her.
The girl crescendoed and diminuendoed and held all the notes for the right amount of time. Her rhythm was steady; her hands were relaxed and not tense. However, the swans didn’t quite glide the way Mrs. Schutzmann’s did. When Mrs. Schutzmann played, she became the swans; this girl did not. Still, she played with that elusive thing called self confidence. Why couldn’t I be confident, just for a moment? The music wasn’t inside this girl the way it was inside me. To her, it was just a list of quarter notes, eighth notes, rests and other symbols to observe.
The last student to play, the oldest and most advanced, was a pinched-looking, pimply girl with brown glasses and an aura of mustiness about her. She played Bach, and although I don’t remember which piece it was, I remember the tidiness and symmetry. This pinched-looking girl unclamped herself and the music flowed out the way it did when Mrs. Schutzmann played. The piano spoke for her, saying the things she probably could not say in words. I sat up and listened, wondering what it would be like to be this girl and not the clumsy player I was.
After all the children had played, bosomy Mrs. Schutzmann rushed over to me and hugged me tightly, engulfing me. I buried my head in her chest. She was soft and squishy like an overstuffed pillow, and I could smell the streuselkuchen she liked to bake. She didn’t need to say anything, dear Mrs. Mathilde Schutzmann, she knew what was inside me. She knew the music was there, trapped, trying to come out. And I knew there were things inside her too, things the piano said for her, things she couldn’t say.
I saw the other little girl, the pointy one, looking at me, and I saw her high-heeled mother pull her away.
“We’ll just go home, Eva.” My mother was all business when we got into the car. “I have calls to make.”
The radio played softly. My father drove evenly, a bit too slowly, and my mother wrote notes to herself in the little notebook she carried in her pocketbook. I sat in the backseat, singing Country Gardens in my head, swinging my legs, not caring if I was singing off key, since no one could hear me anyway. I was going to practice harder, maybe even practice in the morning before I left for school.
I went up to my room and read The Secret Garden until my mother called me to dinner. I could smell the roasted chicken and broccoli with melted Velveeta cheese. I wondered if we’d have red Jello for dessert.
Copyright Kohn 2015