Tonight I learned the news that my childhood piano teacher passed away. In recent years, I've found out that as the people from my youth get older, it's not just family members who deaths I must anticipate. The last year has not been kind in this regard. Ruby, the neighbor lady who used to make cookies for me in return for shoveling her walk, passed not so long ago.
My memories of Mrs. Bird are still quite vivid in my mind. During the mid-1980s, when I was in the fourth grade, my mother decided to buy an upright piano for our house, providing the touch of bourgeois class that a working-class farm girl had always aspired to. She soon started sending me and my sisters to Mrs. Bird's house once a week for piano lessons. I resisted heartily at first, mostly because it was something I had been forced to do entirely against my will. I distinctly remember throwing one of my few temper tantrums after my first lesson, banging the piano keys in frustration and anger.
Mrs. Bird's kindness and infinite patience eventually won me over, even if I was never all that great as a piano player. My total deficit of coordination, which at time had me picked last in gym, didn't exactly turn me into Liberace, either. The lack of confidence driven into a boy constantly bullied on the schoolyard playground contributed to my maladroit efforts at piano playing. I did practice, at least, and I came to get some enjoyment out of playing the piano, even if I loved playing the trumpet (which I picked up in fifth grade) a lot more. I always felt like I let Mrs. Bird down. She enthused over my long, spindly figures and how far I could spread them over the keys. My hands were made for the piano, but my head wasn't.
My sisters and I typically went in for half hour lessons each Thursday afternoon to the ranch house she shared with her husband, a man so quiet that I maybe heard one or two words out of his mouth in the five years I took lessons. We always came in through a door in their garage, and went to the basement, where she had both an organ and a piano. The carpet and furniture in the basement had a certain smell of age to them; it was all the original stuff that had been put in the house back in the 1960s. The coach by the piano fascinated me, since it was built much sturdier than the sofas of the Reagan era. I always went first, and my sisters followed, which allowed me time to read that week's Sports Illustrated (which arrived at our house by mail each Thursday) while they played.
Mrs. Bird was a small, white-haired woman with an odd voice which always sounded like her nose was stuffed up. Over time, I found something very soothing about it, however. Her patient and supportive manner probably had more to do with that feeling than anything else. At a time in my life when I felt constantly judged and found wanting, it felt good to spend time learning with someone so helpful. The time in that musty basement had an ofttimes therapeutic effect on me. I loved petting her enormous black and white tom cat, his hair wiry on account of his advanced age and shrinking ability to keep himself completely clean (he also constantly tried to jump up on the piano bench while we were playing!) I liked thumbing through her 1960s coffee table books (one on wildlife had articles on mosquitos and wolverines that I must have read a hundred times each) and comic books.
As often happens in childhood, I found out that many adults carried secret burdens and sadnesses with them, and she was no exception. She had been married once before, as a very young woman. Her husband fought in World War II, and died in the Battle of Okinawa. After discovering that fact, I wondered for a long time what he had been like, and what that death had done to her. It was a stark reminder at a young age that the world is indeed a cruel place.
My affection for her was so great that when I was allowed to stop piano lessons after five years, I felt an enormous sense guilt, and hoped that she did not take my decision personally. Whenever I saw her in public afterwards, or at recitals where my sisters performed, I always made sure to be extra special nice. Life is made less onerous and more enjoyable by people like her, and she'll sorely be missed. I can only hope I inspire half as much devotion when I am gone from the students of my own who are less than enthusiastic to learn what I have to teach them.