Fiction: Helena Writes #49_On music running in the family

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 49th post, Helena shares another chapter from her favorite of her original works, Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn. Enjoy!

A chapter from Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn: "Piano Lessons" (© Helena Clare Pittman)

My mother and father have bought a piano. It sits in our living room, its ebony finish sleek and dark. It looks like the one that is our Aunt Rose’s, on Carroll Street, where Aunt Rose lives with our grandmother. But this one is smaller.

“A Baby Grand!” says our mother. “A Steinway! Imagine!” she exclaims. But she looks worried. “Be very gentle with it,” she tells my sister, Rebecca, and me. “It’s a delicate instrument.” Then Mamma turns back to the dough she’s mixing to make kreplach, or continues tucking Georgie’s shirt into his pants, or scrubs harder at the kitchen floor she’s washing. “It’s the most valuable thing we’ve ever owned.” This last thing she says quietly, to herself. 

Pappa and Mamma have saved for two years, put aside money that could have been used for a new washing machine, to replace the one that knocks when it agitates, and which Pappa has to bolt and wire together every so often so that Mamma can turn the wringer, while she talks to God about Georgie’s tantrums, or Rebecca’s and my arguments, asking what she has done to deserve children like these. Or it could have been used to buy a new couch to replace the old red and white flowered couch that sags and is threadbare at the arm rests and which Mamma keeps covered with bedspreads. It belonged to Pappa’s mother, my grandmother Lily, who died before my sister and I were born. My father wants my sister and I to study the piano.

“Music,” says Pappa, “is in the family.” He says this in a voice that is soft, and hushed, and sometimes sounds like music, the deep, wavery notes of the symphonies he plays on the phonograph. “Music is an inheritance that would be a sin to squander,” Pappa tells Rebecca and me. “And we have a piano teacher in the family who has performed at Carnegie Hall! This is a rare and wonderful thing,” says my father. “A great gift!” Mamma’s sister, our Aunt Rose, is a classical pianist.

Aunt Rose comes every Saturday afternoon to teach us the piano. An hour’s lesson each for Rebecca then me. Aunt Rose and my mother call our Steinway a pyaahh-no, using a careful and exotic English that is different than the way everyone else in Brooklyn speaks. 

Uncle Ben, Mamma’s brother, laughs at the way my mother and aunt speak. He says they sound like actresses, or like they grew up in England. But Pappa says they speak that way because they are cultured. Because they’ve been raised with music and with art. Prints of Renoir’s “Young Girl at the Piano” and Degas’ dancers hang over our red-flowered couch. 

After the first few weeks of piano lessons, the printed music sheets of black marks and lines begin to mean sounds. Middle C has a line through it and looks like Saturn with its ring. Rebecca and I learn the scales and practice all week between lessons.

When my aunt plays the scales, they sound light and beautiful, not like scales but like a melody. Her hands play each note differently, sometimes striking its key sharply, sometimes hardly seeming to touch another. Her arms rise, lifting into the air above the keys like ballet dancers, hands like birds. She looks now at the keys, now at me, raises her head looking past the piano, listening to the sounds of the notes she’s playing. Her face is first intent, then soft. When she finishes the scales, she turns to me and smiles, and her crooked teeth have a way they look, like the notes sound, like the trilling, up-and-down melody of the scales. Our Aunt Rose plays at all our family gatherings. She has played in concert with great musicians, people who visit America from Europe to perform. 

During the week, I practice my scales and imagine my aunt coming Saturday, sitting next to me, nodding and smiling as I play. Unlike my Rebecca, whose fingers are long and slender, my fingers, short and blunt, stumble over the notes. I practice and practice so the notes will sound smooth. Practice and practice and practice, crossing my thumb under my third finger on the way up the keyboard, stretching my third finger over my thumb on the way down, imagining my aunt’s smile of pleasure at my hard work. “Good, Rudy!” Aunt Rose says inside me. She is the only one who calls me that name, as she is the only one who calls my sister, “Becky.”

There are times I forget that I am practicing scales, and play their notes, listening, stretching my legs to touch the pedals, savoring the amplified, lengthened tones. Then for a moment I feel as if Aunt Rose and I are one person. 

Before the year is over, Rebecca is working on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”  I am working on Mozart’s “Turkish March.” I listen to Rebecca’s lesson from my room, waiting until two o’clock, when my turn will come to sit with Aunt Rose. I listen as my Aunt Rose plays Beethoven’s notes like a dancing river, rushing and bubbling over stones in the sunlight. Then Rebecca plays the passage she’s learning, slowly, stopping and starting.

“Good, Becky!” I hear my aunt tell my sister. “Sing it! Sing the notes, it will help you learn,” I hear her say. I draw or do my homework, or play with Hannah, my doll, listening while my aunt plays another passage. Then Rebecca tries, slowly, long silences between notes. Then she plays it again, and again, until it begins to sound like music.

“It just needs practice,” I hear Aunt Rose say.

Then it’s my turn.

I play the scales. My aunt listens. I play them slowly so I won’t stumble.

“Good!” says my aunt, and sometimes, “Lovely!” Then my heart feels warm, and I think that all I want to do is spend hours practicing, to hear her say, “Lovely!” again; or to feel her put her arm around me and squeeze my shoulders against her shoulder and laugh with pleasure in her high-pitched voice.

Aunt Rose’s fingers are also long and slender. They’re delicate like my mother’s and Aunt Dorothy’s. My hands are square, like Pappa’s hands. My fingers stumble over the notes of the “Turkish March.” Aunt Rose plays the first phrase. She sings its five notes, la la la, la la! “Sing it first, Ruthela,” she tells me. We sing those five notes together, but when I try to play them, I strike two keys instead of one.

“Try it again,” says my aunt.

I hold my hands, fingers extended, next to hers. “My hands are fat,” I say.

My aunt looks at me. She takes my hands between hers. Her hands are warm. “They’re earthy hands. Artist’s hands, Rudy,” she tells me. “Here, listen…”  Then she plays the whole piece, so I can hear how the passages fit together. “Beethoven had strong, broad fingers like yours,” she says.

Sometimes I hear Mamma singing Mozart’s melody, in her beautiful, crazy, French and Italian opera. Nee-la-to-la-tey um-pwwah! sings my mother in the kitchen, two rooms away, as my aunt and I play.

It is true that my mother’s family is full of music. My grandfather sometimes sits up in his sleep and conducts, as if there were a symphony orchestra in his room, right there with my grandmother snoring next to him, her teeth in a glass on her night table. Sometimes he sings and it wakes my grandmother. “Sam!  What are you doing? Wake up!” my grandmother tells him. “‘Sam! You’re dreaming!’ I have to shake him!” she tells us.

My grandmother’s father was a scholar. He studied Torah, the holy books, and the writings of the great rabbis. But my grandfather’s family went to hear the symphonies that were performed in the concert halls in St. Petersburg, in Russia. “Your grandfather’s family was cultured!” Mamma tells us. “Your grandfather knows the great Toscanini!”

Uncle Ben laughs when my family talks about the way my grandfather conducts in his sleep. But Mamma doesn’t laugh. Neither does Aunt Dorothy or Aunt Rose. It’s his deep love of music, one or the other says. Then my father nods with satisfaction. It’s in the family, he says, looking from my sister to me. A gift that must not be squandered!

Rebecca practices every day. Her eyes move from the sheet of music to the ivory keys and ebony wood sharps. But between lessons, the hour I sit at the Steinway, to practice, moves slowly by. The black music notations for Mozart’s “Turkish March” swim across their lines. My fingers fall short of the notes. They play two together, souring the melody. I don’t know how I’ll ever learn it. I lose my place, bang the keys.

“Ruthie!” shouts my mother from the doorway of the kitchen, calling across the dining room to the living room, the piano room. “What are you doing?!”

“I’m sorry, Mamma,” I say.

“That pyahh-no cost a fortune! It’s a delicate instrument, Ruthie!”

I can hear Pappa telling us again that music runs in our family—a gift that must not be thrown away, not be arois gevorfen—thrown out the window! But without Aunt Rose sitting next to me, it is hard to sit on the piano bench for an hour to practice. When my mother doesn’t remind me to practice, I forget.

We spend weeks on Mozart’s “Turkish March,” my fingers playing too fast, jumbling notes. Playing too slowly, stopping, starting, my left hand losing my right hand’s place, until my aunt thinks we should try something else. 

“Beethoven,” she announces one Saturday. She smiles as if she’s sharing a secret. 

My heart rises when I hear my aunt play “Fur Elise” during my sister’s lesson, its notes so haunting and beautiful. I sometimes stop playing with Hannah and walk into the dining room to listen from the door. I stay at the doorway while Rebecca plays Beethoven’s melody, over and over again, until it sounds smooth—not like the sweet river that pulls at my throat when Aunt Rose plays, but, well, lovely.

The following Saturday Aunt Rose takes a new piece of sheet music out of her bag. Printed across the cover is the name, Ludwig Von Beethoven, then, "The Moonlight Sonata." “Listen to it, Ruthela,” says my aunt. “It’s so very beautiful.”

Then Aunt Rose brings her hands to the ivory keys. She closes her eyes. She begins to play the melody, softly. She sways forward and back, side to side. Her lips part in a smile and show her crooked teeth. Like Mamma and Aunt Dorothy, Aunt Rose is beautiful. “Three beautiful daughters God gave me,” says my grandmother. “And a son as handsome as a movie star. More handsome!” Aunt Rose is the youngest of the four.

Aunt Rose plays the beautiful notes of the “Moonlight Sonata,” and I can imagine the full moon, rising from mist into the dome of a dark, dark, ink-blue sky, until the last note rests on the air, until her foot releases the pedal and the note vanishes. A tear spills over onto her cheek. She wipes it away with a finger, laughs then kisses me. I smile back at her and think, I don’t know how I’ll ever learn it, but I know I will try if it takes me all my life.

“We’ll do it in small pieces, Rudy—just the first movement. When you’re older we’ll work on the whole piece. 

Did you take music lessons as a child? What did you think of Helena’s offering from her middle-grade novel? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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