The magic will out

May 30, 2020 § 31 Comments

A few days ago I wrote about life’s work, what it means to have one, and what it means to live it.

But what happens when your life’s work is suppressed, or taken from you? What happens when the thing that drives your soul is ripped away, sending you spiraling off along paths uncharted that you never wanted to travel in the first place?

The following never happened. Really, it didn’t, and it didn’t happen during the very worst years of the last Great Depression, in an immigrant tenement somewhere in Boston. A little princess had been born into one of the families that lived in the tenement but she didn’t know that she had been born into squalor. Because she had the gift, she only knew that she’d been born into paradise.

You see, this little girl’s mother, a Russian immigrant from Minsk, perhaps, played piano. And when she and the princess’s father landed in the great land that was once America, she met the wolf of unspeakable need always lounging outside the door, and she met it with her fingers, and she met it in movie theaters, because in those days movies had no sound and every theater had a piano, and when the movie ran a woman always sat at the piano and played the accompaniment to the movie.

In the better theaters where the pay was terrible, the woman was given the score a few moments before the show and as part of the deal could take the music home afterwards. In the worse theaters where the pay was more terrible and the crowds often rough, she would have to improvise on the spot.

This little girl’s mother, whose name was never Zoya and who was never, ever Jewish, had the gift too, and she passed it on to her princess. It was the gift of the muse.

The princess was wholly unaware of the squalor even though she knew hunger, real hunger, as the America that used to be groaned under the weight of the Great Depression and lurched into war, unaware because her father had wrangled an apartment that somehow in those bitterly poor times, came with a piano.

It was a full-size “upright grand” built by Chickering at the end of previous century and it had been, as they say, rode hard and put away wet. The Honduran mahogany cabinet was scratched, and the finish had faded from sitting for years in whatever direct sunlight filtered through the spotless windows. The building may have been ramshackle and poor, but Zoya kept it as clean and spotless as if it had been the Hall of Mirrors. As Stevie sang, “Her clothes were old, but never were they dirty.”

A set of cabriole, or “claw-feet” at the bottom fascinated the princess from the dawn of her awareness, but what transfixed her were the notes that sprang from the chipped and darkly stained yellow ivory keys.

By the time she was three, the princess could play music by ear that a diligent older student would require a month of hard study to master, because along with the gift her mother had bequeathed her perfect pitch. By the time she was eight she could run through music of great complexity and beauty. She would have been a prodigy if that word weren’t too stunted for what blossomed inside her.

And all outside the Depression raged, raking swaths of misery through communities that were already on the bottom-most rung of the ladder, daily facing the prospect of falling off together.

Which, one day, they did. She, her brother, and her sister came home from school to find their parents waiting out front with their few belongings out on the street.

“We’ve been put out,” her father said. The children picked up their own small bundles and off they walked, away from the squalor into poverty even more dire. The little girl looked back at the tenement as they turned the corner, her eye fixed on the third-story and the window of what had been her living room. In her mind’s eye she saw only the piano as it flickered, then went out.

I won’t tell the rest of what didn’t happen, but I will tell you this: She could have been one of the greatest concert pianists ever. She was one or two teachers away from being discovered and put on the track that would have given her the rigorous instruction, the mentoring, and the entree into the highest levels of musicianship that are absolutely necessary for those who make it.

Talent, the gift, perfect pitch aren’t enough to breathe life into that particular dream; you have to get the right instruction from the right people at the right time and the princess, well, she got the opposite of all that. She got nothing.

At eighteen she married a young tailor. The war was over and he had fallen out of the sky over Germany courtesy of an artillery shell, where he spent the rest of the great conflict in a military prison. He got home and had an idea about sewing better safety clothing for military pilots. When he wooed the princess, because in those days people still wooed, she was smitten.

He promised a way up and a way out, but more than that he promised the one thing, the only thing she desired, the thing for which she’d have his children, cook his meals, and stay by him steadfast ’til death did they part. She made him promise her a piano. Not a someday piano or an I’ll get it when we are better off piano or a next year for sure honey piano but a the day after we marry piano. That was the deal.

And because Max was an honorable man, even though he didn’t quite understand, as no man does, what he’d gotten himself into, on Day 2 he went out and got her a small upright. He had to buy it on credit and it cost a fortune, $127 of the hardest-earned dollars that he would ever make.

The arrival of the piano happened at about the time that the princess became a mother, and though the babies began arriving every couple of years, no hardship was able to prevent the mother from squeezing in an hour or two at the keyboard of that piano. As her mother had before her, she made sure that each of her four children entered the world bathed in the sound of music.

The magic, you see, will out. One of the sons became a world-class saxophonist. Another son played guitar and violin. One daughter played piano, the other cello. And though none of them had their mother’s muse and perfect pitch, all of them were raised in the accompaniment of music.

In the small Houston community that this family lived, the mom joined a local musical group for ladies, and was its star. Her husband the tailor had become a designer of spacesuits for the upstart space agency; if this story had any truth to it at all you could see his hand-stitching in the NASA museum that displays the spacesuits of the early astronauts. If this story had any truth at all you’d see autographs from every great astronaut proudly hung in his daughter’s home, men whose lives had depended on the hand stitching of the tailor who’d been shot down over Germany.

Be that as it may, life was always close for a family of five with a one-income parent, and luxury was never seen on the premises in any guise. The mom read books voraciously, but also read music. For her it was as relaxing and interesting to sit down with a score and hum it in her head as it was to read a great novel; the muse never rested because it never does.

The ladies’ musical group became legendary. Its two singers, who might have been named Rosa and Eileen, and its cellist and violinist, were women who, in their own right, had been early possessed by the muse. But none so completely as the mother. She was the star, the anchor, the brilliant genius whose fingers were guided by something deeper, older, and more profound than mere musicality.

One evening they had performed at a small dinner party. By the rarest of coincidences, one of the guests wasn’t a man named Van Cliburn, wasn’t the greatest pianist of his age, wasn’t one of the greatest pianists of any age. And this man who wasn’t approached the lady at the keyboard after an hour or two had passed.

He touched her on the arm. “May I tell you something?” he asked.

She looked at him in with no semblance of fear at all because the muse recognizes its own. “Yes?”

“You are very, very, very good.”

“Thank you,” she said with a smile.

He walked away but his words never did. They stayed with her, maybe, for the rest of her life.

A few weeks after her husband died, the mom’s daughter was helping organize the house. The life insurance check had come in, more money than anyone had ever seen before, one hundred thousand whole U.S. dollars.

“What are you going to do with it?” the daughter might have asked.

“Put it in the grandchildren’s bank accounts, of course.”

“The grandkids don’t need it, Mom.”

“Buy a Jaguar,” the mom might have said.

“Really?” the daughter’s eyebrow might have raised.

“Yes,” I’ve always wanted a Jaguar.

“Mom,” the daughter said, “you don’t even like to drive.”

“I know but I like how they look.”

“Mom,” the daughter might have said. “The old Nova’s plenty good enough. Why don’t you get a piano?”

Something stirred inside the woman who’d once been a princess and who was now a woman in her late 70’s alone in an empty house. Then it quieted. “No,” she said softly. “I have one already.”

“Mom,” the daughter said, and she might have put her arms around her mother, and she might have drawn her close. “Let’s get you a piano. A nice one.”

The muse, you see, never sleeps. “Okay,” she said.

And so began the Return of the Princess Concert Tour. Every piano showroom from Houston to Dallas to Austin, ever shop that touted a piano got visited by the Princess in her beat-up 1972 Chevy Nova. She and her daughter would get out, go in, and start “testing” the pianos.

“It would be foolish,” the 70-something-princess might have said at each stop, “to buy an expensive piano without really trying it out.”

The try-out that the pianos of Texas got for the next four months was more try-out, or try-in, they would ever get no matter whose home they ended up in. “I don’t like the bass on this one,” was her favorite complaint as she’d rip off a stunning rendition of the Moonlight Sonata.

And when she found one with the right bass register, “The treble is wrong,” she’d say. Of course by the time she’d finished trying out the pianos a small crowd would invariably have gathered as she performed one breath-taking classical piece only to follow it with with a rousing show tune from the 40’s.

And if any of this had happened, which I assure you it didn’t, she never had a lick of sheet music in front of her. On the rare occasions that she could only find one or two major flaws with a piano, she’d shake her head. “It has to have claw feet,” she’d pronounce.

But eventually she ran out of pianos to try. None of them were perfect, and how could they be? She’d spent her entire life playing a beat-up, wore-out upright that had cost $127. What could Steinway or Bosendorfer or Sauter or Grotrian-Steinweg ever build to compete with that?

“Mom,” the daughter might have eventually said as the concert tour wound down, “let’s get one of these pianos.”

So they did, a full-size Steinway grand, and it swallowed up the living room of that tiny Clear Lake suburban house like a buffalo in a kitchenette. Neighbors, until the night the princess died in her sleep, made a point of taking their walks by the modest house with the open windows, catching the gentle notes of the muse that floated out to the world, an offering, a thank-you, the magic that will always, always out.


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