December 2012

The Blond Piano

I can see it: the bleach blond piano nestled in the corner of our living room opposite the blue brocade love seat that opened into a bed. I say bleach blond because my father stripped the piano’s black finish (too dark, my mother decided, too heavy-looking) and refinished it in a varnished yellow-brown. My father was handy. He converted footboards into nightstands and built kitchen cabinets with drop-leaf tables.

No one ever asked me if I wanted to play the piano. I was sent at age seven to the after-school group lessons of Miss Vosk. She spoke with an accent and wore her dark hair in a bun atop her head.

My favorite piece was called “Mazurka.” I later learned that this was simply a term for a Polish folk dance, but to me there was only one Mazurka, the one I played. It was lively and had a gypsy quality that evoked lands of my ancestors. (We were not gypsies, but descendents of Eastern Europeans. Close enough.) I was not adept at memorization but I managed to memorize this piece. My parents were not as enamored of the Mazurka as I was, or maybe I just played it too many times.

“How about a nice waltz?” my mother would suggest, or if she was not in a patient mood, “I can’t take that noise!” said with her hands over her ears.

I practiced every evening after supper, unless Aunt Sylvia was with us. She slept on the loveseat fold-out bed. Some evenings she asked me to give a little recital for her, and some evenings she was tired and turned in early, and I didn’t get to practice at all. My father had installed an accordion door of plywood across the entrance to the living room so she could have privacy.

Aunt Sylvia was not my Aunt. She was my mother’s cousin and lived alone in a large apartment in Nanuet, New York, an hour’s ride from our apartment in the Bronx. Every few months she called my mother and invited herself to stay with us for a week. She was bleach blond, like my piano. I could tell because by the end of her visits there was a narrow dark patch where she parted her hair on the left side of her head. She always arrived reeking of her patchouli perfume that made me sneeze, and wearing a low-cut blouse from which the tops of her breasts protruded. When she bent down to kiss me, her dangling diamond earring would graze my cheek.

“She’s lonely,” my mother explained to my father. “It’s just a short time she’s here. We should take pity on her.”

“I don’t think she wants our pity,” my father said. “And I don’t think you feel sorry for her. It’s her money.”

I stood in my bedroom doorway, listening, holding my breath.

“Her money!” my mother exclaimed. “There isn’t a prayer on earth she would leave it to us.”

“You must have a prayer, otherwise you wouldn’t put up with her,” my father pointed out. “She’s a nuisance while she’s here.”

My father didn’t like Aunt Sylvia, but he never said she couldn’t come to visit.  Until now.

“Absolutely not,” he told my mother. “You’re in no condition to cater to a guest.”

My mother was nearly eight months pregnant and she was past thirty, which in the 1950’s was well past optimal child-bearing age. After I grew up I wondered whether they had been trying for another baby for a long time or whether it was birth control failure, but I never asked. In any case, my mother was large, and tired.

“I can’t tell her no,” my mother insisted. “We’ll just have to deal with her.”

My father went to pick her up at the Port Authority bus station, and he  looked exhausted when they got to our apartment.

“My God, Adele, you’re huge!” Aunt Sylvia exclaimed upon seeing my mother. “It must be a boy! Or maybe two boys!” She laughed.

My mother smiled weakly. Aunt Sylvia had never been married, so how could she know about pregnancy? Anyway, these were the days before ultrasound and my mother could have been carrying a baby Godzilla for all she knew.

“How lucky you have Caren to help you,” Aunt Sylvia continued.

I forced a smile onto my face. So far there had been no mention of my helping with the baby. I knew nothing of changing diapers, warming bottles, and walking back and forth in the middle of the night with a wailing infant balanced on my shoulder.

Then Aunt Sylvia scrutinized my face.

“Something about you is different,” she said. “Oh—you’re wearing glasses!” She turned to my mother. “Isn’t Caren young to be wearing glasses? You don’t wear them!” she said almost accusingly. “What’s wrong with her eyes?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” my mother said patiently. “She’s a bit nearsighted, that’s all. A lot of children are.”

Aunt Sylvia contemplated my face.

“When you’re a bit older you’ll get contact lenses,” she decided. “After all, ‘boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,’” she quoted. Then she laughed again.

“Caren’s only ten,” my mother said.

“Never too soon to think about the future,” Aunt Sylvia insisted.

“Let’s get you settled in,” my mother told her. She turned to my father. “Tom, put Sylvia’s bags in the living room, would you?”

My father pulled open the sliding door, which had been closed just before Sylvia’s arrival, and brought her bags inside.

“Oh, Caren, there’s your piano!” she exclaimed, peering in. “You’ll have to play for me after supper.”

This was no surprise, as I always played for her. I had picked out three pieces and practiced them: Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” a short bouncy number called “The Merry Farmer,” and the Mazurka. Hour after hour I had worked at them, although for all I knew, Aunt Sylvia was tone deaf. But I was ready for my recital.

After supper, my parents cleared away the dishes while I cleaned and polished my glasses. I hadn’t been thrilled to wear them. But one day at school, I had discovered that in a certain light and at a certain angle, I could see in the glasses’ lens a reflection of what was behind me. I fidgeted in my seat, this way and that, fascinated by my discovery. Maybe I could be a private eye some day. But at the moment all I needed to see was my sheet music. I dried the glasses and walked past the kitchen en route to my performance. My mother stood in the kitchen doorway.

“I think I’ll lie down for a bit,” she said. “You go ahead and play, Caren.”

“We’ll close the sliding door so we don’t disturb you,” Aunt Sylvia said. “You’ll keep me company, won’t you, Tom?”

My father shrugged and followed her to the living room. She settled herself on the love seat opposite the piano and motioned to my father to sit down next to her.

I sat on the piano bench and opened my music book.

“ ‘Fur Elise’ by Ludwig van Beethoven,” I announced.

I began to play. My arpeggios were smooth, my pedal work superb. When I finished the Beethoven, Aunt Sylvia applauded, joined, after a moment, by my father. I moved on to ‘The Merry Farmer.’ It was a great relief to get through the first two pieces. And finally I was ready to play the Mazurka.  I had memorized it, and I always played it three rounds. My fingers moved swiftly over the keys. I moved my head slightly, and I saw a reflection in my glasses. What I saw was a view of my father’s and Aunt Sylvia’s knees. And Aunt Sylvia’s hand was firmly clamped over the inside of my father’s knee.

My fingers stumbled on the keys but I kept playing. I made several mistakes and started over. Once, twice, three times I played the Mazurka. I closed my eyes and kept playing, because I was afraid to stop.  Suddenly the sliding door zipped open and my mother looked into the room.

“Caren, why are you…”  she began, and then she saw Aunt Sylvia and my father. Aunt Sylvia took her hand from my father’s knee and he quickly stood up. For a moment nobody moved. Then my mother pulled the door closed and I could hear her footsteps treading down the hall.

My father opened the door, and ran after her.

“Adele!” I heard him call out. Their bedroom door slammed shut.

“Caren, why don’t you run through the Beethoven again,” Aunt Sylvia suggested smoothly. “It’s so lovely, and you play it so well.”

Late that night, my father woke me up to tell me he was taking my mother to the hospital.

“Aunt Sylvia will be here to take care of you,” he said.

She turned out to be much more motherly than I expected. She made me scrambled eggs for breakfast, and she had a sandwich ready for me to take to school for my lunch. When I came home in the afternoon she had milk and cookies waiting. Supper was macaroni and cheese, my favorite.

In the evening, while I was at the piano practicing, my father came home.

“Your mother’s okay,” he said. “And you have a sister.” He smiled.

While I was in bed, still awake, I overheard my father and Aunt Sylvia speaking.

“You have to leave before Adele comes home,” he said. “I’ll call a taxi to get you to the train.”

“But you’ll need help!” she insisted. “I can take care of Caren! I can—“

“You have to go.” My father was emphatic. “I’ve arranged for someone to come in and help Adele.”

Four days later, Aunt Sylvia left in the morning after I went to school. When I came home, my mother was in bed, a private nurse in attendance. My sister had to stay in the hospital for several weeks. My mother was too weak to go to see her, but my father went every day after work. Finally, they brought her home and put her in a crib in a corner of their room.

For the next few years, when I practiced the piano I closed the sliding living room door to keep the noise down. After my sister was two years old and moved into my room, I sometimes stayed up late doing homework and slept on the loveseat pull-out bed. At first it felt strange, but gradually I got used to it. Aunt Sylvia never came to stay with us again, but the sliding door my father had made for her still came in handy.

On my sixteenth birthday, I began to wear contact lenses.

“You look like Aunt Sylvia,” my mother observed.

I studied myself in the mirror, and I, too, could see the resemblance. My mother never mentioned it again.

*

Because my sister was born prematurely, there was great concern over her development. Although I knew my mother’s early labor was by no means my fault, my mere presence at the scene that precipitated Mimi’s arrival caused me no small amount of guilt. As a result, I gave my sister more attention than I might otherwise have done. I read her bedtime stories, played dolls, and stayed with her so my parents could go out to the movies.

When she was very young, she would see me play the piano and try to climb onto the piano bench beside me.

“Pino, pino!” she said.

“No, no,” I would say gently, looking at her small sticky fingers.

But my mother sometimes sat her on the bench and let her bang on the keys.

“Don’t do that!” I protested. “It wears out the hammers!”

“She’s just a baby,” my mother shrugged me off. “Let her play a bit!”

By then I was twelve and had completed five years of piano study. I took private lessons with Mr. Capelli, who had a music studio in our neighborhood. My pieces were much more advanced; I was learning to play Peer Gynt’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King.’ I didn’t argue with my mother about Mimi’s banging on the keys. Instead I bit my lip and left the room. A few years later, when my sister was six, my mother encouraged her to play seriously.

“Why don’t you teach her?” she suggested to me.

“But she’s so young!” I protested.

“Only a year younger than when you started,” she pointed out. “And think of Mozart—he was just a child when he started composing!”

I had no idea of how to teach anyone to play the piano but I sat down next to Mimi on the piano bench and explained how to read the notes. Then I taught her the Major scales. Sometimes my mother stood at the entrance to the living room and watched us.

“My two pianists,” she would say, smiling.

Soon my parents decided to send Mimi for lessons, and I took her with me to Mr. Capelli’s studio. First she sat in his foyer while I had my lesson. Then I waited for her. It was a good arrangement except for one thing: I had to share the blond piano. We both needed to practice, but I, being more advanced, needed more time.

“Mimi should play first, because she goes to bed earlier,” my mother decided. “Then Caren can have it after supper.”

The piano had been solely mine for so many years that I didn’t think of it as family property. I sat at the kitchen table doing schoolwork while my sister played.

I spent more and more nights sleeping on the love seat. It reminded me of Aunt Sylvia. Sometimes I thought I could smell her patchouli perfume rising from the upholstery and my nose itched. I wondered if she ever thought about us, about me.

One day, as my sister and I were leaving our piano lessons, Mr. Capelli gave me a sealed envelope to give my mother. When we got home she opened it and read the note inside.

“Mr. Capelli wants to see me,” she said, but she didn’t say why.

Later that week, over supper, she told us.

“He thinks Mimi should study in Manhattan,” she explained. “He feels she has…”  she frowned, as if trying to recall his exact words, “professional potential. He recommended someone and next week I’ll go to speak to them.”

Her words, and Mr. Capelli’s, fell on me like a blow. Why hadn’t he recommended a better teacher for me? How could Mimi, just seven years old, play better than I did? I listened to her when she practiced. What I heard sounded like the easier pieces I played at her age. But soon, every Thursday afternoon, my mother took my sister into Manhattan to her special teacher. The lessons must have been very expensive, but my parents never mentioned the money.

*

I assumed I would continue my music studies at college, and in the beginning, I did. My college had “piano practice” rooms, cubicles with old pianos. I signed up for several hours each week but I was never happy with the pianos, although I tried all of them. After so many years with my blond piano, I couldn’t get used to a different tone. And somewhere deep in my mind maybe I resented my sister’s supposed musical superiority and knew if I kept playing I would always be second best. Meanwhile, I began to study French. The language had a music of its own. Soon I was spending more time on French and less time on piano practice.

Whenever I came home for weekends and vacations I would sit at my blond piano and play for hours while my sister was at school. Mimi still went to her special lessons. After supper, she practiced for three hours before she started her school homework.

And she did play well. I sat and listened to her while she went through her repertoire. Some pieces I myself had studied. One piece was missing: the Mazurka I had played as a child. I didn’t mention it. I wanted to keep it for myself. One day while the family was out, I sat at the piano and played it over and over. I played it from memory but if I looked at the keyboard my fingers stumbled, so I played it with my eyes closed. The melody took me back to my childhood, before my sister arrived, before life became complicated.

When I came home for winter break during my Junior year, a change in the living room caught my eye as soon as I walked in the door. The blond piano was gone! In its place stood a new mahogany upright.

“Where’s my piano?” I wailed, staring in disbelief, tears forming in my eyes.

“Oh, Caren,” my mother said, helping me off with my coat. “That yellow piano was so old. And two of the keys were broken. Mr. Capelli came and looked at it, and told us it would be better to just buy a new one.”

“You didn’t even ask me!” I burst out. “That was my piano! You just got rid of it so Mimi could have a new one.” Tears streamed down my face. “Why didn’t I ever get special lessons?” The words popped out of my mouth.

For a moment my mother stared at me, dumbfounded.

“I’m sorry,” she finally spoke. “I didn’t know how you felt. When you left for college you stopped your music studies, so I assumed…”

I wiped my face with a tissue.

Mimi stood in the living room.

“You can try it, Caren,” she invited me, and she smiled encouragingly.

“Let’s have some tea first,” my mother said, ushering me into the kitchen. We sat at the table. She had made my favorite sugar cookies.

Later I sat down at the new piano and tentatively touched a few keys. I played a scale. Just like the pianos at school, the sound was totally different from my old instrument. Then I opened one of my sister’s books and stumbled through a few pieces. I wanted to play the Mazurka but I knew it wouldn’t sound the same.

“It’s nice,” I said, getting up.

I never touched it again. With the blond piano gone, my piano-playing days were over.

*

When I was thirty my sister gave her first professional recital. I flew in from Chicago, where I taught French at a private school. My sister had continued her music studies right through high school and now attended the Mannes College of Music in Manhattan. I hadn’t been home in several years. My parents came to see me in Chicago a few times, but I hadn’t seen Mimi.

“Why don’t you come to New York?” my mother suggested on one of her visits. “You should get together with your sister.”

“I can’t spare the time,” I always said.

I knew that the only real time I would spend with my sister would be listening to her practice. That was her life. Because of the difference in our ages, we had never become close, and I didn’t expect her to sacrifice her piano time for me. There was also the little thorn of jealousy I still felt, but didn’t want to admit to anyone.

Now my mother sat next to me in the auditorium. The house lights went off and the stage lights went on. I waited for my sister to appear.

The first thing that struck me when I saw Mimi was how closely she resembled our mother. We were now both adults and our features were fully formed. The resemblance reminded me of how I resembled Aunt Sylvia. I had her wide-set eyes, aquiline nose, and high cheekbones. Even with my mouse-brown hair, the similarity was striking. Well, I was related to her, so why shouldn’t I? My mother must have seen it too, and what a quirk of fate! I wondered if Aunt Sylvia was still alive, where she lived, whether she remembered us.

Mimi sat down at the piano and arranged her skirts on the bench. She wore a sea-green dress and dyed-to-match pumps, as if she were going to a prom. According to the program in my hand, she was going to play the Apassionata. The auditorium echoed with the sounds of rustling program pages and last-minute throat-clearing coughs. Then Mimi began to play.

As I listened, I closed my eyes. This was the child who pounded the keys of my blond piano. This was the musician I might have become, if I had wanted to, if I had worked hard enough. Or maybe not. Maybe the blond piano had simply been the vehicle that would move my sister into musical fame. She was only twenty but, according to my parents, her career was established. My sister received a standing ovation.

There was a party after the recital.

“Do you ever hear from Aunt Sylvia?” I asked my father when we were alone for a minute.

He shook his head.

“She wrote us a letter,” he said. “After your sister was born. She said how sorry she was, that what happened was entirely her fault and she hoped we’d forgive her. She called us from time to time. Your mother always spoke to her, but she made it clear that Sylvia was not welcome. In any case,” he added, “as soon as there were two children to take care of, it was out of the question. At some point she stopped calling.”

I nodded and we both sat in silence for a few moments.

“What happened,” my father finally said. “That was always a problem with Sylvia. I didn’t want her to visit, because I was always fending her off. And I tried to explain to your mother. But Sylvia was her cousin and she felt she couldn’t say no. And then there was the money. Whenever Sylvia came to visit, she always left us a good amount of cash supposedly to cover her expenses, but it was way more than we had to spend.” He paused. “Your mother called her about Mimi’s recital,” he added “but she said her health wasn’t good and she couldn’t come.”

I went back to Chicago. Three months later Mimi gave another recital. This time I was teaching and couldn’t get away. That afternoon I received a phone call from my father. My sister had collapsed in the middle of her performance, dead of an aneurysm.

*

I hardly knew anyone at Mimi’s funeral service. The place was packed with people from her music school. I had expected to see Aunt Sylvia there, but I couldn’t find her.

“Where’s Aunt Sylvia?” I asked my father.

“She’s ill,” he told me. “She sent a check to help with the burial expenses.”

That night at the apartment, I couldn’t bear to be in my old room so I slept on the loveseat foldout bed. The fabric was faded and worn. The mahogany piano sat silent, abandoned. Now I was glad the blond piano was gone. I felt it would have brought back the memories of the first twenty years of my life, and my sister’s childhood, and make me feel worse. There was some discussion of whether Mimi’s aneurysm could have been caused by her premature birth, but the subject was soon dropped.

A few months later, my parents moved from our old apartment to a place in the suburbs, and my mother learned to drive. The first time I visited them there, I noticed the apartment had no piano. And why should it, when there was no one to play? Yet I felt their home was lacking something, as if the piano was part of the family, part of our lives. I didn’t mention it. Instead I talked about my life in Chicago, my students, my involvement in the Foreign Language Association, of which I was Vice President.

*

When I turned forty, I saw some gray strands in my hair and I became a bleach blond. After the color job, I looked at myself in the mirror. I had to smile. I looked just like Aunt Sylvia as I remembered her. I put on some glittery earrings and a low-cut blouse. Suddenly I felt depressed. Would I end up like Aunt Sylvia, alone with no family? My sister was dead. I had never married and I had no children. A black mood settled over me.

A month later, a letter from a New York attorney arrived in the mail. The letter was about an inheritance and asked me to call to make an appointment. I waited until spring break, and flew to New York for the day. I didn’t tell my parents about my trip. When I arrived at the office of Drake and Hutchinson, I was ushered into an office with a thick carpet, a polished mahogany desk and leather chairs.

“Miss Krause,” Mr. Drake said, “I’m obliged to inform you that you are the sole heir of Sylvia Forster.”

Sylvia Forster?

“I don’t think I know who…” I began, and then I did know. It was Aunt Sylvia!

“It’s a large amount of money,” Mr. Drake continued. He mentioned an amount.

I stared at him in disbelief. My parents had spoken of Aunt Sylvia having money, but I doubted they knew the extent of her fortune.

“You’re a wealthy woman,” Mr. Drake said. “My secretary will have you sign some papers. And you’ll want a financial advisor, I expect.” He handed me a business card. “This man is very good.”

After I left the office, I walked to a nearby park and sat on a bench. I fingered a strand of my bleach blond hair and I wondered why Aunt Sylvia hadn’t left the money to my parents. Then I wondered what I would do with the money. For one thing, I would endow a music scholarship in my sister’s name.

I went back to Chicago and my French classes and the Foreign Language Association and didn’t immediately do anything with my new fortune except deposit it in my bank account.

The first thing I actually did with the money was buy myself a piano. I could have moved to a bigger apartment and purchased a Steinway grand. Instead, I picked out an upright that most resembled my old blond piano: a Yamaha with a teak finish. After it was installed and tuned, I bought a Beginners book, and one afternoon I sat at the piano to play. It had been nearly twenty years since I had last touched piano keys. To my surprise, I could still read the music, and I was able, haltingly, to play a few simple pieces.

Over the following months and years, I worked my way back to and beyond the level I had reached when I stopped playing. Going back to the piano made me feel like the happy and carefree child I was before my sister was born.

I never told my parents about going back to the piano. They weren’t eager to visit me in Chicago, and I felt it best to leave the subject alone. I found I could still play the Mazurka. I looked through every music book I could find but I was never able to identify the composer. So I think of it as “the Mazurka from Carpenter Avenue” after the name of the street we lived on. But I can play it only with my eyes closed.