Piano Lessons

By Stephanie Kaplan Cohen

ne fine day in the beginning of my fifty-first year, a boss I’d never met, a boss from the main office, sent for me.


I didn’t even have the brains to be nervous. Another promotion, a possible transfer, perhaps another department.


My job in research suited me. The politics of the company, the abrasive encounters that I witnessed or heard about were all absent from my cool silver room.


Truly, when I entered that room, with my Mylar space suit, my goggles and hood, I felt I had entered the holy of holies, and my day, although labeled research, was in reality prayer, a worship of truth. Truth that is, and truth that is waiting to announce itself.


I have been responsible for the development of more than twenty new products in the course of my career. All of my discoveries have earned me awards, both picturesque and pecuniary.


I filled my study with pseudo-gold cups, plaques, diplomas, and other appurtenances of a groundbreaking corporate scientist.


I loved every day of my life. An absorbing job. I am an avid reader and a mountain climber. Friends, in their place. In general a life free from interpersonal stress, but involved enough to avoid isolation.


I asked if it could wait until I changed out of my sterile garb. At noon, I presented myself to Mr. Carter Braxton. He, the perfect gentleman, rose from his chair, shook my hand, pulled out a chair for me, and told me that he had followed my career with much interest. The company would always be grateful for my breakthroughs. Now, however, because of various technicalities in financial structuring, it was necessary to downsize. They were closing down all departments in my city, except for a skeletal clerical staff.


My laboratory, my baby, my husband, my love, was to be dismantled and sent to the main office. My work, and my records, always impeccable, were to be transferred to Chicago.


If I would be so kind as to supervise the dismantling, so scrupulous in seeing that all elements were safely delivered, all experiments datafied, codified, and if I would be so kind as to oversee this transfer. And here, my heart leapt.


This Mr. Braxton was going to ask me to move to Chicago, and why not? Another city, another apartment, but the same laboratory, the same rock-climbing expeditions, perhaps even more now that I would be geographically closer to some of the most challenging sites in our country.


I looked up. Mr. Braxton was still talking. “We think that the move can be accomplished in six or seven weeks, and six weeks to thoroughly orient the laboratory staff, and then you’re a free woman. Congratulations!”


My mouth fell open. I felt blood leaving my face, and then I felt it redden. I sat still, silent.


Mr. Braxton invited me to a farewell lunch in the President’s Dining Room.


“No thanks,” I said. “The company cafeteria has always been perfectly adequate.”


Nevertheless, I found myself seated in a room upholstered in leather, walking on an antique Heriz rug to a faded eighteenth-century mahogany table, set with fine china, silver, and crystal. I found myself sipping a tiny cup of consommé and then eating a salad of wild greens. White wine accompanied trout with almonds, asparagus, and tiny roasted potatoes.


Over dessert of poached pears and demitasse, Mr. Braxton touched my arm. “You didn’t think we were putting you out in the cold, did you?”


I smiled.


“Even though you have no contract with us, we’re still going to make you very happy.” He went on to tell me how happy the company was going to make me. All my benefits and salary would continue until time for retirement, at which time all “the benefits” would kick in.


“So you see, you’re financially secure, and now you’re going to be free as a bird.” He smiled. “How does that strike you?”


“It’ll take getting used to. When do you want me to start dismantling?”


“Now. Today. Finish up whatever can’t be shut down. Let’s say by Monday. I’ll send some assistants to help you crate and pack.”


I packed, crated, finished up, wrote down experiments in progress, dismantled machines, unplugged fixtures, and finally discarded my Mylar suit, which I carefully packed in a special box.


Within three months, the whole thing was over, and I found myself, my good health, my fine mind, my independent thinking paralyzed by a slow, gummy ooze which seemed to drip down from somewhere in my brain, coat my eyes, my ears, my mouth, teeth, tongue, gums, limbs with a paralyzing inertia. I neither read nor climbed. I could barely walk, and that I did only in the most necessary instances, such as bathroom needs and nutriment.


And those needs, I observed, were also shrinking. I ate something every day, mostly frozen dinners or, when that was too much trouble, candy bars. I stopped answering the phone. I confess that I also stopped opening my mail.


I occupied myself with endless games of solitaire, with observing that which happened outside of my twenty-third-floor window, and with sleep, lots of sleep.


At first I told myself that I was catching up with years of chronic sleep deprivation.


After some time, I noticed that I no longer had electricity, which didn’t bother me a bit. I switched entirely to candy bars, which I bought by the carton.


Until. Until my brother came. He rang the bell and then pounded on the door. “Abby,” he yelled.


I opened the door and Hugh came in. “What’s the matter, Hugh? Is something wrong?”


Without a word, he took my hand and walked me to a mirror.

I didn’t look wonderful. He led me to the scale. I had lost twenty pounds.


“What’s going on here? I didn’t fly in from LA to see this. My God, how could you have let this happen? You have no phone, no electricity, and you’re about to be thrown out of your apartment. Thanks be, the super had my number and called. What’s this all about?”


“I don’t know,” I answered, and I didn’t know.

Which is how I went to the doctor for a physical, to the spa for a day of beauty, and finally, to a psychiatrist.


Meanwhile, with Hugh’s help, I sorted through, paid up, apologized, deposited, and established normal services.


My new doctor, to whom I reported three times a week, looked at me with sharp blue eyes, rimless glasses, and a shirt rolled to the elbows as though he were going to attempt some trying feat of housekeeping.


We talked. He too enjoyed hiking, mountain climbing, although he certainly didn’t claim my skill at rock climbing.


We talked about books, about science, about my sudden descent into the hell of idleness.


We talked about drugs. Drugs that would chase away the blues, the depression, the inertia, the disinterest.


I declined. “I’ve lived fifty-one years with little more than aspirins and Band-Aids in my medicine cabinet. I’m a scientist and I know what drugs can do to the various systems of the body.”


I agreed that my state of mind was less than desirable, and I pronounced myself willing to correct it, or rather to work with the doctor to correct it, but not to take drugs.


My doctor smiled in what I took to be approval. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll tackle this together,” and tackle we did. We discussed my need for structure, for control, for independence. We discussed my need for some consuming new interests.


One day, about four months into our investigations, we talked about my childhood dream. I wanted to play the piano. My parents, both scientists, thought this was a reasonable avocation. When they heard me practicing much more than the assigned hour, they sat me down for a logical and reasonable discussion of the opportunities, or rather the lack of them, for a professional pianist, and the brilliant, assured future for a scientist.


They dismissed the piano teacher, moved the piano to the basement, and shortly thereafter, donated it to the Henry Street Settlement House Music School.


“Why not?” my doctor asked.


“Why not what?”


“Go for it. Science and music have a lot in common. Mathematicians and musicians work in almost the same milieu.”


On WQXR I heard an announcer talk about a fabulous three-day sale of repossessed pianos.


I walked into a gigantic warehouse filled with pianos. Uprights, spinets, baby grands, concert grands. A cacophony of music surrounded me, made by people trying out instruments.


A salesman approached. After the usual inanities involving a salesman and a customer, he asked which type of instrument might interest me.


“Are all these pianos repossessed?”


“Yes. Every one of them.”


I pointed to a modest spinet. “Can you tell me about that one?”


He walked over to the tag and turned it over. “This one came down from 138th Street. It’s only eight months old, and in very fine condition. There’s an eight-hundred-dollar balance, payable monthly, or seven hundred thirty on delivery. Why don’t you try it?”


I sat down and played what I remembered of “Für Elise.” My fingers were stiff, but somehow I felt I was not sitting in a strange place, but exactly where I belonged. “I’ll take it,” I said.


The salesman looked alarmed. “Don’t you want to try some other instruments? We have some beautiful baby grands here, even a Steinway and a Knabe.”


“No,” I said. “This one is mine. I’ll pay for it now.”


I am not a person given to clutter, so it was easy for me to find room for the spinet in my living room. In fact, it looked rather handsome in front of my window, but also bare, lacking the usual music sheets, exercise books, lamps, and metronome and practice clock.


“I called Henry Street Music School,” I told my doctor. “I’m going to interview teachers. I must say this is getting exciting.”


We cut our sessions down to once a week, and I used the free time for twice weekly piano lessons.


I practiced. I studied, and I found myself happier than I had been in some time. I asked for no favors. Rather, I insisted that my teacher, a charming young woman, teach me the way she taught beginning children. I played and sang along with nursery rhymes, children’s folk songs, and finally, pieces for two hands.


When my teacher handed me “Für Elise,” I laughed out loud.


“What’s so funny?” she asked.


“I feel like I’ve arrived. I remember that piece from when I was a little girl. I started to play it before I stopped lessons, and then I used to listen to my friends play it.”


I practiced “Für Elise.” When I made a mistake, I heard a voice telling me, “No, wrong note.” I felt that all the friends of my youth were hearing and helping. I learned the piece quickly.


When I played it for my piano teacher the following week, she congratulated me on my accuracy and interpretation. “I’ve only heard one other pupil play it that way,” she said. “It’s very original and it’s certainly interesting.”


My teacher assigned “The Happy Farmer.” It’s a lovely romp, and I played it as such, until the voice returned and told me that the farmer wasn’t always so happy. My playing took on a more plaintive note, with a hint of sadness, along with the happiness of the farmer.


I played the piece for my teacher. She shook her head.


“No good?” I asked.


“Oh, no,” she said. “You played beautifully. It’s just such a coincidence. You’ve given the piece a very unusual interpretation. The pupil who played it that way was the same pupil who played ‘Für Elise’ the way you did.”


“Maybe I have an unknown relative.”


“I don’t think so. It’s a little girl who lived uptown. She was a very promising pupil, but she had to stop lessons when her mother got sick. We put the child on scholarship. She came down here to practice as often as she could, but she spent most of her free time taking care of her mother. The little thing was only nine when her mother died. There were no relatives, so she went into foster care. I tried to find her, but you know how kids get lost in the foster care system.”


“No,” I said. “I don’t know. I’ve been in science and research all my life. Is it possible for you to give me the child’s name and address?”


“Lourdes Perry.” My teacher leafed through her book. “She’s ten now. Her last address was 367 West 138th Street.”


I called my friend in the mayor’s office. “I have a problem.”


“You?” he said. “I’ve never known you to have a problem you didn’t attack. What could possibly make you call me? Parking fine? A speeding ticket?”


I laughed. “No tickets. This isn’t science and I don’t have access to the research.” I told him about Lourdes, and how I had no idea of her whereabouts. I told him her last known address.


“It will take a little time,” he told me. “I have to get in touch with the Bureau of Child Welfare. I’m pretty sure I can locate the kid, but arranging a meeting is another story. We’ll have to see where she is.”


I thanked him and made a lunch date for the following week. I went back to practicing with what I felt was Lourdes’ help.


I visited my psychiatrist and told him of my magical piano. “Do you think I’m psychotic? Do you think I constructed an elaborate fantasy? Am I in trouble?”


We spoke about paranormal events, about the research at Duke, about ESP. My doctor assured me I was completely rational, and said with a shrug and a smile, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.”


I had lunch with my friend from the mayor’s office. “Lourdes is living in Queens. She’s in foster care with a very nice woman who has six or seven girls around the same age. The reports on the kid are all good. She’s very quiet, maybe a little withdrawn. That’s where you come in. They’re looking for a big sister for her.”


“A big sister?”


“That’s the agency that sends out men and women to be friends, mentors to at-risk children who don’t have enough adults in their lives. They’re pretty careful. You need to go through an interview process, a thorough screening, and a short training period. You’re sure you want to go through all this?”


“Yes,” I said. I went through the interview, the screening, the training, and I became a big sister.


I wondered what would happen if the plan got bollixed up, and I got assigned another child. However, my friend was more efficient than I gave him credit for. The agency assigned me Lourdes.


“Lourdes, this is your big sister, Miss Dunning,” her foster mother said.


“Call me Abby,” I said and held out my hand.


Lourdes offered me thin brown fingers. I shook hands and didn’t let go, rather turning my palm so that we were loosely holding hands. Lourdes was a little slip of a thing, with skin the color of café au lait and a mop of black curls growing every which way, making her little face even tinier.


That first day we stayed at the foster mother’s house. Lourdes showed me her room, walked with me to her backyard, where we sat on swings, and she said, yes, she would like to see me again and maybe go to a museum or a bookstore.


We went to the Children’s Museum of Science in Queens. We visited the Natural History Museum in Manhattan. We visited bookstores, where we chose books for Lourdes and the other girls who lived in the house.


After two months of weekly visits, I asked Lourdes if she would mind stopping at my apartment for a minute. “I forgot something.”


We took the subway and walked a few blocks to my apartment house. When we were at my place, Lourdes looked around and her eyes lit up. “You have a piano,” she said.


“Go ahead and play if you like. I’ll only be a minute.”

Lourdes walked over to the piano and stood there. I went into the study. In a few moments I heard single notes being played very softly. They were in a high register, and I thought of a baby bird chirping when it has fallen out of the nest.


I came out of the study, carrying a folder.


Lourdes stopped playing and said to me, “I used to play the piano.”


“Tell me about it.”


“When my mommy and me lived on 138th Street. I took lessons. Then Mommy died.”


I asked her about relatives.


“It was only Mommy and me. My daddy got killed in construction, my mommy told me. And we never had nobody else. Just us two.”


I hugged her, and with my arm still around her, we went into the kitchen, where I gave her milk and a plate of chocolate chip cookies I had bought the day before.


After that day, all our visits included a stop at my apartment, where Lourdes would play the piano and have a snack. She began to gain a little weight, and her face looked less pinched. At our scheduled conference, the social worker told me Lourdes’ foster mother reported progress. The child was more outgoing and seemed less sad.


This emboldened me. I asked for and received permission from the social worker to see if Lourdes would be interested in restarting piano lessons.


Lourdes smiled and laughed. “Oh, you know I would. But there’s no piano at my house.”


“I know where we can get an electric keyboard so you can practice. Some of the other children in the house might enjoy fooling around with it. And you can play my piano on Saturdays when you’re with me.”


I told my teacher I found Lourdes, and we arranged for lessons. I purchased an electronic keyboard. On a Wednesday afternoon I delivered it and picked up Lourdes.


“Where am I going for lessons?” she asked.


“To the Henry Street Music School.”


Her face was a mixture of surprise, sorrow, and joy. “That’s where I used to take lessons.”


“I know. I take lessons from your old teacher. She told me about you.”


“Is that why you’ve been taking me out?”


“I knew we had a lot in common,” I said. “We both love music, and the piano especially. But that’s not the reason. When I heard your name from our teacher, I knew I had to meet you.” I bent down and kissed her.


Her eyes got big. She looked at me and held her hand to her cheek, covering the place I kissed.


“Is it all right that I kissed you?”


Lourdes lowered her head. She nodded, and her color heightened.


She and the teacher had a joyful reunion.


“I’ll wait downstairs in the practice room,” I said.


After an hour Lourdes and the teacher came into the practice room. “It won’t take any time at all for Lourdes to catch up,” her teacher said. “She’s as good a student as ever.”


Lourdes beamed. “Now let’s go to your place. I have my music with me, and I want to play it on your piano.”


That was the first direct request Lourdes had ever made.


We went to my apartment. Lourdes refused a snack. “I’m not hungry.”


She walked to the piano, but she didn’t sit down. Rather, she squirmed behind the piano. “Look here, Abby,” she called, her voice muffled by the piano and the curtains.


I walked over. There, in the lower right-hand corner of the back of the piano, which was of unfinished wood, were tiny letters, LP. Lourdes sank down on the floor and cried.


“How did you find me?”


“I was supposed to find you.”


Which is how, after some months, joint visits to my psychiatrist, and an investigation, Lourdes came to live with me as my foster child while the adoption petition went through channels.


Which is how my study turned into a little girl’s room and came to be furnished with frilly curtains, a canopy bed, and white curvy Formica furniture.


Which is how I got to be a mother after all at the advanced age of fifty-one, and how Lourdes and I have frequent company on our expeditions, the doctor, whose name, incidentally, is Max.




My poetry has appeared repeatedly in The New York Times, and has appeared or is forthcoming in 96 Inc., Aura/Literary Arts Review, Confluence, CQ (California Quarterly), Folly, Iconoclast, Pearl, Poet’s Page, Ship of Fools, Sierra Nevada College Review, Slant, Spillway, and Talking River Review. My prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Amherst Review, Artful Mind, Art Times, Belletrist Review, Binnacle, The Chrysalis Reader, Contraband, descant, Double-Entendre, Fuel, Grasslands Review, Hardboiled, The Homestead Review, Iconoclast, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, The Legendary, The Long Beach Independent, Lynx Eye, Minotaur, North Dakota Quarterly, Orange Willow Review, Pedestal Magazine, Reader’s Break, Real (RE Arts & Letters), Reed Magazine, Riversedge, The Scarsdale Inquirer, Slow Trains, The Smashing Icons Anthology, Sulphur River Literary Review, The Westchester Review, and Westview. My work has also appeared in the anthologies Lessons in Love: Gifts From Our Grandmothers (Crown, 2000) and Split Verse: Poems To Heal The Heart (Midmarch, 2000). I am the author of a memoir IN MY MOTHER’S HOUSE, published by Woodley Books and a poetry book ADDITIONS AND SUBTRACTIONS, published by Plain View Press. My work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I write a column “Ask Stephanie” for the Alzheimer’s Association Quarterly in Westchester and Putnam, New York. I am also an editor of The Westchester Review. I have done many public and private fiction and poetry readings, and my work has been read on NPR.

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