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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Piano Tales

The cement that holds our family together is music. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How many music stories can I fit into a little essay?


Baby Mary Eileen was the youngest of us all by far, and she is the only professional musician among my siblings. Our father never tired of telling the story of Mary's first piano recital. She was six--beautiful, blue-eyed Mary, with her curly dark hair and classically pale Irish skin. Imagine little Mary timidly walking up to the big baby grand in the church, the pews filled with her relatives and those of all her fellow-recitalists. She's been taking piano lessons for a year and she never has been too fond of practicing. Nonetheless, here she is at her first piano recital.


Mary approaches the keyboard, as they say, and she looks for middle C, the opening note for her little piece. She has been taught to find it by tracing her finger down from the first letter of the manufacturer's name on the upright board above the keys. Whoops! This is a different piano. There is a different placement of the manufacturer's name. Middle C is nowhere to be found.


Mary chooses a note that might be the right one and tries out her piece. Nope. Doesn't sound right. She stops and chooses another note. No luck. She tries three times in all, after which she simply chooses a note at random and plays the piece on whatever notes present themselves under her fingers. Relatively speaking, she plays the piece well: all the notes are in place relative to that first note. But the first note was not middle C, so the piece ends up being in lydian or perhaps mixolydian mode instead of in C major. Mary knows it's wrong, but what can she do? This piano obviously has no middle C. She finishes, bows to the applause, and takes her seat. She's done the best she could do.


In the meantime her father, Myron, and her sister Sara are in hysterics in the back pew. Myron has tears in his eyes from laughing so hard. Sara has nearly wet her pants from laughing.


And because our father, the tease, never lets go of a good story, Mary's first piano recital becomes a legend to be retold at every family feast, as regularly as a Scandinavian edda at the banquet of long-ago warriors.


Lest you think our father was all malice, however, here's my own piano recital story. I was a pupil of Mrs. Eikenberry, whom I adored as a teacher. I was a senior in high school and the recital, held in Mrs. Eikenberry's house, was for her "advanced" students. I was to play a Beethoven theme and variations that I'd been working on forever.


We arrived—parents and nervous performer. Suddenly I realized I was not wearing "my ring." This was a "friendship ring" my father had given me several years previously for my birthday. I later realized that my father never in his life bought a gift for any of his children or for his wife, so the ring purportedly from my father was actually chosen by my mother. But at the time, when I still thought it was possible to be my father's beloved daughter, I believed that he had given me my friendship ring.


But where was it? I had left it at home! Oh no, my lucky ring!! My ring that I nervously twiddled between my fingers, using pinky and long-man to twirl the ring that was on my right-hand ringman. Oh, and I was SO nervous that day. I knew I'd never be able to play without my ring. It was my talisman.


I asked my father to go home and get it for me. I couldn't play without it. Please, Daddy! He thought the request was ridiculous and pooh-poohed the whole idea. I pleaded, tears in my eyes. Finally my mother took my side and said, "Myron, just go home and get the ring!" And he did. (This was NOT across a big city, you understand. This was a three-minute drive in our old station wagon.) So he brought me the ring and I put it on, feeling immediately more at ease, or so I said. When my turn came I played the Beethoven as well as could be expected. And certainly no better than I would have without the ring.


And in the generation after ours, do we have musicians? The "children"—now ranging from 30 to 50—are either totally musical or totally lacking in musical interest. (The latter circumstance is obviously what happens when we marry outside our musical gene-pool.)


We have drummers, keyboardists, an acoustic bass, a couple of singers. Some are part-time professionals (as in, "Don't quit your day job!"); some just do it for fun. But the music gene is still strong among at least half of them and goes into the next generation. All the young parents watch the new babies for extraordinary talent—although why they would is a mystery. Since they have seen the difficulties of the full-time musician's life, you'd think they would want to stomp out any musical talent, not encourage it.


I remember one of my daughters saying about her baby girl (only a month or two old at the time): "I was singing the mockingbird song and she hummed it along with me!!"


Well, maybe.


Copyright 2011  Ann Tudor

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Chopsticks Breed Like Rabbits

My kitchen has three drawers. Three is not very many, when it comes to kitchen drawers. To maximize space, I keep my cutlery in a wall-mounted box. The drawer by the stove contains vegetable peeler, can opener, bottle opener, spatulas, melon baller, pastry brush, ice pick—all the regularly used tools, right at hand.


This leaves me with two other drawers, side by side to the right of the refrigerator. In one of them I keep a rubber mallet (for halving winter squashes), a pair of tongs for removing canning jars from boiling water, extra jar lids, and the re-usable plastic mobcaps (very old-fashioned) that I use instead of plastic wrap.


The one remaining drawer? That's where I keep my (sheathed in plastic) rasp for grating chocolate or hard cheeses, a few plastic spoons and forks for when I need to take a lunch, my favourite dough-scraper for lifting and trimming pie crust dough, and my pastry blender, never used for blending flour and lard but for mashing pinto beans for refried beans and avocado for guacamole.


Last week when we had guests I served the dessert but had forgotten to put the grated chocolate on top of it. (My husband noticed this because he had chosen a nice port specifically to go with the chocolate that I had said I'd be putting on top of the dessert.) I went to the drawer for the rasp but could not find it. I pawed, however, through dozens of pairs of chopsticks as I looked for the rasp. Where had they come from? I finally found the rasp, grated and distributed the chocolate, and finished out the evening.


The next day I removed every single chopstick from that drawer and put the huge pile on top of my husband's work space. You need to know that twenty years ago I did a lot of Chinese cooking. I laid in all the supplies and spent as much time as it took to make pot-stickers, moo-shu pork, kung-pao chicken, and twice-cooked pork. Them days is gone forever. So how had we managed to accumulate all these chopsticks? I promise you that we don't order in more than four times a year—and it's not usually Chinese. The only answer is that, in the dark privacy of that drawer, they are breeding like rabbits. It was time to put a stop to that.


Together we sorted the chopsticks into pairs and then groups. We finally kept four handmade pairs that I probably bought as Christmas stocking stuffers, plus one tarnished pair of silver chopsticks (who knows where THEY came from?). We put eighteen bamboo pairs (plus three singletons) into the discard pile. I said, "These are leaving the house! I don't care whether you give them to Goodwill or put them in the garbage, but they are OUT of my kitchen forever!"


Amazingly, my husband the packrat made no objection. But he gathered up the remaining group of chopsticks: 22 pairs of the cheap kind you get with Chinese take-out food, all of them still in their paper sleeves, all of them still joined at one end. I said, "These are also going out! The end! Get them out of here!"


And the packrat said, "I'll just keep these for a year. I'll store them in the basement and then I'll throw them out."


The chopsticks may still be in the basement, which is chock-a-block with things he is waiting to throw away someday, but at least they are no longer in one of my pitifully few kitchen drawers. When you have just three drawers, you want to fill them with essentials!


 Copyright 2011 Ann Tudor

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Sucker for Babies

As the subway neared my stop, I left my seat and moved to the door, ready to get off. In the seat beside the door was a mother, her toddler in a stroller beside her. He was bundled up for what the weather would be outside, and he was eating his breakfast. Or snack. Mommy had a tangerine and was placing prepared sections in the tray of the stroller. The little guy reclined a bit against the sloping back of the stroller. His eyes wandered around the subway car as his hand would grope the tray for the next segment of tangerine. Occasionally he would use both hands to bring his sippy-cup up to his lips for a swig of juice. He was as happy and relaxed as a baby can be. When I caught his eye, I waved my mittened hand at him. He fluttered his pudgy fingers in return. He didn't give me a real smile, but just an acknowledgment that we were on friendly terms. He took another tangerine segment. I waved my black leather hand again. He fluttered the fingers of both hands. A two-handed wave. I smiled—no, actually I was grinning widely. He was so muffled up, so quiet, so contented, with his round chubby fact and his body enclosed in yards and yards of snow-proof clothing. We reached the station. I very much wanted to catch his eye for one last wave, but he had lost interest in me. He looked around deliberately, still popping tangerine pieces into his little mouth. I was yesterday's lunch.


Copyright 2011 Ann Tudor

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sophisticated Lady

When I was young, a major character flaw was that I wanted to seem sophisticated. Perhaps that's the natural reaction of a small-town person learning to live in the larger world: you never want to appear to be someone who Doesn't Know.


To prove my sophistication, I read the Sunday New York Times from cover to cover and I subscribed to the New Yorker (and not just for the cartoons, thank you very much). My vast head-knowledge of The Way To Be contrasted interestingly with my lack of real-life experience.


When we lived in Lawrence, Kansas, we made the acquaintance of another couple who had children the same ages as ours—two girls and a boy, like ours. The husband, Joel, taught math at the University of Kansas and was also a concert pianist. They were Orthodox Jews from New York City, and they were the first practicing Jews I had ever met. To me they were both exotic and sophisticated.


Joel made a monthly trip from Lawrence to Kansas City to stock up on kosher goods and deli food, and one day he asked if he could bring back something for us. I said, "Bring us half a dozen bagels. I just love bagels."


Well, wasn't THAT a lie! I had never in my life tasted a bagel and didn't know how to eat one. But I did know that bagels were sophisticated. I knew that New Yorkers ate lox and cream cheese and bagels on Sunday mornings as they read the New York Times. Here was my opportunity to learn how to eat bagels the Right Way. I would be eating Orthodox-sanctioned bagels. I couldn't wait to take this next step on the steep climb to sophistication.


When Joel arrived at our house in the late afternoon with a bag of bagels, I was the only one home. I paid him and thanked him and then offered him a coffee. He suggested that, since I had been so eager to obtain these bagels, I might want to eat one while it was still nice and fresh. I had been hoping to wait until Joel had left and my husband was around to offer his opinion on how to eat a bagel. But no. I was cornered into eating my first bagel—which of course no one knew was my first—in front of Joel. Joel undoubtedly assumed, from all my big talk, that I was an experienced nosher of bagels. More likely, it never occurred to him that eating a bagel was something that had to be learned.


I sat on the sofa under the window. Joel sat on a chair across the room. He drank his coffee, and I held the cold, plain, unsliced bagel in my hand. How was I supposed to eat it? Like a doughnut? I nibbled a first bite. The bagel was so big that I couldn't take a larger bite. It was bread, all right. And although the outside crust was slightly sweet, it was certainly nothing like a doughnut. The bagel was dense and dry, and I couldn't help feeling that there was a better way to eat it than dry, cold, and out of hand. It was not exactly what I had been expecting, and it was hard for me to see why it was so popular. But I was stuck with the situation I had created.


"How's the bagel?" asked Joel.


"Delicious," I lied.


I sat there under Joel's eye nibbling at this very large, very dry bagel, and I knew that my embarrassment was all my own fault. I vowed yet again to stop trying to seem more sophisticated than I was. I vowed to admit my ignorance and acknowledge my lack of experience.


And sure enough, within some thirty or forty years, I was able to stop pretending to be someone I wasn't. Of course, by then I was fully sophisticated.



 Copyright 2011 Ann Tudor