Saturday, December 31, 2011

Piano Keys, Pride, and Prejudice

     In 1970, my family moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Osawatomie, Kansas. My father, a psychiatrist, had accepted a position as Clinical Director of Psychiatry at the state mental hospital, and we were going to live in the staff cottages just across the street from the institution. I was seven years old, and I wasn't too thrilled about moving. I had lots of little friends at St. Ursula Villa, the Catholic school I attended from kindergarten through second grade, including a potato-headed boy named Darryl McIntosh, who had a crush on me. Darryl picked his nose constantly, and had sent me a love note in the second grade, which my mother promptly placed in her jewelry box, never to be seen again. In July of 1969,  Darryl and I were both in St. Ursula's summer enrichment program, and I remember sitting in Sister Mary Nicholas's classroom, side by side at our desks with our lunch trays, watching with fascination as the first astronauts landed on the moon. Cincinnati had wonderful museums, my favorite of which was the Museum of Natural History. My class went there on a field trip, and my friends and I saw a Tyrannosaurus Rex, brontosaurs, mastodons, and pterodactyls, and I couldn't wait to go back. There was so much more to learn! Our next door neighbors, the Naegels, had a teenage daughter named Tracie, who used to babysit my sister, Emi, and me. She would sometimes come over in the afternoon, and take us for a walk down Grandin Road to visit old Mr. Ernie, a widower who always greeted us with pink and white peppermint and wintergreen lozenges. Our other neighbors, the Mullers, had two adopted children, a boy Emi's age named Michael, and a younger girl named Marty, and we played together with them nearly every day.
     Osawatomie was a small town, compared to Cincinnati, and our new house was very different from the one we'd left behind. First of all, it was blue, and it wasn't modern like our other house. Our house in Cincinnati was an architectural marvel, shaped like an H with a courtyard in the middle, with dark cedar siding, an eccentric pitched roof, and huge glass windows everywhere, my favorite of which was the picture window in the living room. In the fall, when the leaves turned, you could look out that window and see a lone, fiery red maple tree amidst the rest of the yellows and oranges; seeing that tree meant Christmas was near. Our blue house didn't have many windows, and it was small, with three tiny bedrooms. Emi and I shared one of the back bedrooms. My brother, Adam and later, Peter, and my Polish grandmother, Babcia (Bab-cha), slept together in the room across from us. My parent's bedroom was adjacent to their room, and I can't remember if Mom and Dad had their own bathroom or not. When my older brother and sister, Leszek (Leh-SHEK) and Edina (Eh-DEEN-ah), came home from college, they and their friends would sleep in the basement, a frightening place which I avoided after watching an episode of "Dark Shadows" because I was certain that Barnabas Collins was hiding down there.
     Our move occurred in June, while my mother was pregnant with Peter. He was born in August in Shawnee Mission,  and back in those days, there was no such thing as a labor and delivery suite; the birth process wasn't a family affair like it is now. Mom was gone for several days, and we missed her. Dad took us to visit her, and Emi and I wanted to give her a present, so he helped us pick out an orange tube of Tangee lipstick in the hospital's gift shop. It was a neon shade of apricot, which we thought was outrageously mod. To us, Mom was the most beautiful and elegant woman in the world, and she had recently gotten a pixie cut like Mia Farrow, which made her look even younger. Concealing her shock at the garish lipstick shade we'd chosen, Mom immediately tried it on, and continued breast-feeding Peter while sporting electric orange lips. After Labor Day, Emi and I started first and third grades, respectively, and we were now going to public school. Around that same time, my parents decided that it would be a good idea for me to take piano lessons from Babcia Zubowicz (BAB-cha Zu-BO-veech), the elderly mother of one of Dad's colleagues. My family had previously lived in Osawatomie before moving to Cincinnati, shortly after I was born, and Edina, a gifted pianist, was a former student of hers. Leszek and my father were also superb pianists, but they played by ear, instead of reading music, and this was something that Babcia Zubowicz frowned upon.
     My piano lessons took place after school, two or three days a week, and I would usually walk by myself over to Babcia Zubowicz's on those afternoons. She lived in a grey, shingled house, not too far from the staff cottages, and her piano room had a peculiar musty odor, like mildew and cabbage and perfume mixed together. It was exactly the way you'd expect an old Russian lady's house to smell. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, and she had thin lips, a severe, pointed nose, and pale blue eyes, the pupils of which remained microscopic, regardless of the level of light in the room. She spoke Russian, Polish, and English, and she took great pride in the fact that she had once been an opera singer. During my lessons, she would sit in a chair next to me, crooning songs from the old country into my ear and slapping my hands while I practiced HanonEdina, Babcia Zubowicz's star pupil was Nancy Keller, a girl who was three grades ahead of me. Like Edina, she could play Chopin's "Military Polonaise" with deliberate precision. The entire course of each of my lessons was punctuated by "Nancy this" and "Nancy that", and though I had never met Nancy, I resented her for being so perfect. Babcia Zubowicz first taught scales and arpeggios, from which you transitioned directly into the complicated works of Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, and Strauss. She did not believe in "baby" books for beginners; she expected you to jump right into the classics. Although I am now aware that Babcia Zubowicz considered me to be an excellent pupil, I rarely received direct praise from her. Instead, after a lesson in which I'd made her especially proud, she'd invite me back to her kitchen for a cup of hot tea with honey and some windmill cookies. Nancy and I later performed individually at the same recital, and from a technical perspective, it was obvious that the two of us were light years ahead of the other students, who didn't have Babcia Zubowicz as their teacher.
     For some reason, Babcia Zubowicz was extremely critical of my family, especially my father. Despite the fact that she was good friends with my grandmother, whom she viewed as a saint, she would routinely tell me that my father was stupid, my parents had too many children, and I was too fat. Her son, George, was a psychiatrist, and he was the superintendent of the mental hospital, which made him my father's boss. George and his wife, Charlotte, lived just a couple of doors down from us, and they were close friends of our family. Emi and I both took Polish lessons from Mrs. Zubowicz. Adam adored her, and although he was probably only three years old, he was allowed to walk over in the mornings to visit with her. This was in the early 70s, which was a time when we could play outside all day long and ride our bikes downtown, and our parents didn't worry about us like parents have to now. We knew all our neighbors, and they trusted we were safe. One day, Adam went over to see Mrs. Zubowicz, and she wasn't home. It was customary for him to enter her house through the garage, where she kept an old refrigerator full of eggs, and when she didn't come to the door, his disappointment led him to break several dozen eggs, dropping them one by one, onto the concrete floor.
     I begrudgingly continued my lessons with Babcia Zubowicz until I was in the sixth grade. Over the years, her denigration of my family escalated, and I became increasingly more anxious about going over to her house. I invented all sorts of symptoms, attempting to feign illness, in the hope that Mom wouldn't make me go. Emi and I had taken to prank-calling Babcia Zubowicz, as a way of getting back at her for being so mean to me. One of our friends, a girl named Christina whose mother was Polish, could speak with a perfect, adult-sounding Polish accent. We'd dial Babcia Zubowicz's number, and then, hand the phone to Christina, crowding our ears around the receiver, waiting to hear the old woman say "Hallo?" Christina, in her Polish voice, would reply "Hallo. This is Babcia Zubowicz!" to which the real Babcia Zubowicz would retort, "No, I am Babcia Zubowicz!" This argument would persist for several minutes, with Babcia Zubowicz defiantly insisting that she was indeed herself. We'd then hang up, giggling uncontrollably, feeling smug in our revenge. At some point, my parents realized that my bitter complaints about Babcia Zubowicz were grounded in reality, and they allowed me to quit taking lessons from her. I acquired a new piano teacher, Mrs. Jacks, who was a benign lady with bad breath, penciled-in eyebrows and badly dyed hair. She let me play the church organ and taught from beginner lesson books. In terms of the piano, I didn't learn another thing.
     Many years later, I came to understand that the contempt Babcia Zubowicz had for my family was because she regarded us as competitors, a tour de force of innate creativity, who actively threatened to upset the ingenuity of her own legacy. She recognized that our aptitude for music, art, and language was genetic, effortless, a God-given gift which coursed naturally through our veins. It was something we couldn't help, and she was envious. Her stubborn pride was no match for our shining collective brilliance, and now I realize she simply wanted what we all had, but didn't have to work for. This revelation made it possible for me to forgive her. I couldn't blame her for being jealous of my family, because from a very young age, I too was aware that we were freaks of nature, visionaries, each of us exceptional, uniquely talented individuals who embraced life with unparalleled lust and passion, gladly accepting our originality and our non-conformity as qualities to be appreciated, nurtured, and shared, but never to be taken for granted.

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