The bathroom was at the top of the stairs and, of course, each week, I would have to use it—if only to break up the monotony of waiting for my piano lesson. I would climb the wooden staircase, stepping lightly, hoping to have a peek into the room to the right.
This room belonged to the piano teacher’s mother, Mrs. T and, invariably, the door would be open. The room was dominated by a massive bed—a bed so high, a stepping stool stood sentry at its side. The bedspread was white as snow. The bed itself was of a dark ancient wood. It looked so inviting in its size and softness, it was all I could do to keep myself from entering the room; from climbing that stool and sitting upon the bed.
I would have liked to explore that house—to open up doors and cabinets, to peek inside things in order to gain a bit more insight into the lives of Mrs. F, her husband and her mother. I was a detective—looking for clues to the lives I only knew pieces of. But the other upstairs doors were closed and I didn’t dare open them.
There were beautiful soaps in the bathroom: tiny decorative soaps that fit into the palm of my hand. They looked—and smelled—like various flowers and I pondered why we didn’t have these soaps at home. A tiny hand towel was set out for drying and, looking back, I wonder how the piano teacher’s husband felt about the flower soaps and the tiny towels.
As the years passed, Mrs. T came down the stairs for her coffee less frequently. Eventually, she stopped coming down altogether. On my trips to the bathroom, I would see her tucked into bed, her glasses folded neatly upon the nightstand. She slept so soundly; she looked so peaceful with the covers drawn up beneath her chin that I would conclude that she had died. Then, frightened, I would hurry into the bathroom and back down the stairs barely taking the time to admire the pretty soaps in the dish.
But it was the piano teacher’s husband who died, unexpectedly felled at work by a heart attack. Because my mother said it was the right thing to do, we went to the calling hours. I hovered close by my mother, casting nervous glances at the man I once knew lying in a coffin at the front of the room. The piano teacher was a different woman. She was shrunken, weighted down by her sadness. Her pasted-on smile threatened to crack and break. And then, when she saw us huddled there, waiting to pay our respects, it did. She embraced each of us in turn and thanked us for coming and then, Mrs. F, that pillar of strength, that giver of stern tea-parties, broke down in tears. That day, Mrs. F became less of a piano teacher to me and more of a person: a person, yes, of strength. But also a person of weakness and needs and tragedy.
Piano lessons were suspended for a time, but eventually we returned to that red velvet couch where I’m sure it pained Mrs. F to see that empty green vinyl chair; to see that old hound dog howl piteously whenever an ambulance went by.
As time went on, and my mother learned she was pregnant with my brother, my parents bought property and built a house and a barn. We moved to a new town; we moved to our farm. The old house was packed and patched up and painted for the new owners.
But we left that old upright where it stood. It had taken four laughing men to haul that orange piano to our basement. Mom and Dad decided to leave it behind.
We got a new piano teacher and a new piano—a gorgeous baby grand that held court in the living room. After some time, we lost touch with Mrs. F.
And I’m sure that Mrs. F is long dead, but I wish that I could see her one last time to thank her and to tell her that I learned a lot more than just music from her. I learned about duty and expectations and struggling with money. I learned about truth and honesty. I learned that sometimes a parent depends upon a child. I learned how to speak to older people; people who weren’t related to me. And I learned that opposites sometimes do attract. But most of all, I learned that love—a love of music; a love of family; a love for a piano teacher; a love for an old forgotten town—can be as permanent as a pair of elephants etched in concrete.
To read the third installment of The Permanence of Elephants, click here.
Labels: Community, Country life, Girls, Growing up, Piano Lessons, Teachers