Mary J. Breen’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
My old piano sits in the corner of the dining room. No one but my grandson ever plays it, and he only when he wants to show me something new he’s learned. Visitors always marvel at its marquetry flower baskets and its carved mahogany, and they’re right; it’s a lovely thing. However, for me, it’s more than that. For me, it is a storehouse of tension, annoyance, and regret.
My mother was always quick to point out that her father had built this piano, but I think it was just made at the piano factory in Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener) where he was a foreman. My grandparents met there, and when they married in 1892, they and their piano moved to Toronto. They bought a grocery store at Queen and Bathurst, and moved into rooms upstairs. It was here my mother was born in 1903, and here she developed her lifelong love of playing the piano. She became a primary school teacher, and her piano skills were central to teaching, and later essential when she became a music supervisor for the Toronto Separate School Board. Her skills were also vital when she formed her own dance band in the early 30s.
When she and my father got married and moved to North Bay in 1938, she had to leave her beloved piano behind. However, after a few months, the doorbell rang one morning, and there it was, waiting for her on the front walk. Her father had had it shipped to her because he knew how much she missed it. Apart from those few months, my mother lived with this piano every day of her life. And now, many years later, the piano lives with me.
Throughout my childhood, people would tell me what a wonderful pianist my mother was, and no doubt I would be too. There was no question that Claudia Dillon’s only child would learn to play the piano, and she would learn from her mother, and she would learn on the family heirloom.
Even if the piano hadn’t been such a key part of my mother’s identity, she was not alone in thinking lessons were an important part of a child’s education, especially a girl’s. In the 50s, any family that could afford it sent their children for piano lessons to sow the seeds of culture in their hearts. Even though society’s need for children to entertain them in the evenings diminished sharply as families acquired radios, hi-fis, and televisions, this trend didn’t affect my mother. I was going to learn to play the piano, period.
When I was five, she bought me a copy of Teaching Little Fingers To Play, and set about trying to teach my little fingers to do just that. It did not go well. I wasn’t interested, and her teaching method didn’t help. She would show me the notes, and then leave me to try to play them while she bellowed “Sharp!” or “Flat!” or “No!” from the kitchen. I progressed somewhat, and over the years she got me books with “harder pieces.” The only ones I remember are Santa Lucia, a few Christmas carols, and D’ye ken John Peel with its baffling words and baffling drawing of men on horseback wearing round hats as they jumped fences accompanied by masses of little dogs. In the background, for some reason, was a man blowing a curled horn.
It didn’t take long before I pretty much hated everything about the piano: the pieces, the practising, and my mother’s exasperation with me. I also hated being made to perform for my mother’s friends and relatives. After several years of constant struggle between us—my mother cross because I wasn’t living up to her expectations, and me awaiting the next scolding—my mother got a 9-5 day job as a secretary. She was now too tired in the evenings for lessons, so my musical career was put on hold. This, of course, was fine with me, but my father thought it a great shame since he thought playing the piano would make me more like her. Although I knew better than to say so, that argument held little water with me.
In 1957, when I was 13, we moved to the town where my father had been teaching. This town had a convent and, like most of these small convents, one of the nuns was assigned to give piano lessons. So, my mother informed me, I was to begin lessons with the nuns.
I didn’t know what to expect. Unlike my parents who had only gone to Catholic schools and who had aunts and cousins who were nuns, I’d never known a nun, and I’d never been to a convent. This convent was just a small story-and-a-half house near the Catholic school and the church, home to just five nuns. I was let in the front door by a very old, very chubby nun. The hallway was very quiet, and it smelled of candles and coffee left too long on the stove. In the dim corridor ahead of me stood a large statue of St. Joseph with a votive light burning at his feet. In the little room on the left I could see two small pews, and in the one on the right, a plain brown piano. The old nun told me to wait there in the “music parlour.” And so I did, getting more and more nervous and more and more warm on that hot September day. And then she arrived. I want to protect her, so I’ll just call her Sister.
My first thought was astonishment that she could bear the heat wearing so many clothes: long black tunic with heavy pleated skirt, long black sleeves, black stockings and shoes, tight white coif, black veil, and white bib. I hadn’t yet understood that all nuns within an Order wore the same clothes, and they wore these same clothes every day. A large crucifix hung from inside Sister’s bib where she kept a pocket watch on a fine black cord. Hanging from her belt were large rosary beads that clunked loudly against the legs of her chair when she sat down.
She smiled, and right away I decided she was “nice,” unlike my new and not-so-nice Grade 8 school teacher from that same convent. I was already afraid of my school teacher, and I was afraid of my mother, but I knew I would never be afraid of Sister. She asked me to play something for her, and after a few minutes, announced that I was a natural, with a good ear and good rhythm. I was astonished; my mother had given me the impression that my musical talents were decidedly lacking. Apparently I had actually inherited some of her gift, so Sister started me in Grade 6 in the Ontario Royal Conservatory of Music system. After a month or so, she moved me to Grade 8. I was rather chuffed by this praise, but I knew there also was a downside to it—noteworthy proficiency would make it much harder to get out of lessons. Since I knew that wouldn’t happen any time soon, I focussed on the fact that Grade 8 piano plus Grade 2 Theory would give me a Grade 13 school subject. That would be my reward.
And so my lessons with Sister began. Soon my music book and my little brown dictation book were top-heavy with coloured stars and even a few silver and gold ones. I even began to enjoy—a little—pounding out the big rousing pieces, and the challenge of playing without making a single error. It was like solving a math puzzle. Ever the good student, I liked getting things right.
Sister continued to be kind and encouraging, never yelling at me like my mother did, nor whacking my knuckles like some of my friends’ teachers did. I remember how she’d get after me to round my wrists. “Pussy paws,” she’d say. She told me that when she was learning her teacher had said she should be able to play with a cup and saucer on the back of each wrist, but we never tried that.
Even though I was progressing, playing felt much more like work than play. I never gained any understanding of music, and I certainly never felt any of its joy or beauty or passion. I never learned one thing about Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms except that, from their pictures in my books, they had weird hairdos. What I wanted was to play like Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, but that wasn’t on the agenda. In that world, I was to play exactly and exclusively what I was told to, “the way it was written, and only the way it was written.” Improvisation was deviance.
Rumour had it that Sister had been on her way to being a concert pianist before she’d entered the convent, and I believed that as she seemed so at home at the piano. I’d be struggling with something and she’d say, “Jump up, and I’ll play it for you.” She’d push her heavy sleeves out of the way, throw back her veil, and play. I’d never heard anyone play that kind of music with that kind of passion. My mother was very much at home at the piano too, though in a very different way. She played loudly and with great enthusiasm and her own interpretations—not that that gave me permission to do the same—but I never heard her play Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven. All I knew her to play were show and dance tunes, hymns, and old favourites. I’d never been to a concert or heard a symphony—live or recorded—until Sister opened that door for me, just a little.
Sister and I settled into a nice relationship. She always seemed glad to see me, and even then, I remember wondering if she was lonely. When Christmas came, my mother told me a good present would be a box of Yardley Old English Lavender soap, three bars wrapped in beige paper in a long box. The second year it was a box of notepaper. My mother said nuns aren’t allowed to own things because of their vows of poverty, so I never knew if Sister was able to enjoy these things or not. I didn’t dream of asking.
The following year, when I started high school, Sister decided I was good enough to sit for the next Grade 8 Conservatory of Music exam. She increased my lessons to twice a week, and we started working very hard. In great part because I liked Sister so much, I even started to look forward to my lessons. And so things went well until the late winter of that year. One afternoon when I arrived, she looked sad, upset in some way. I waited and soon she began my lesson as attentive as ever. I didn’t think any more about it. The following week, I played something well, and when I looked to her for her usual smiling approval, her smile was small and sad. Another day her eyes were red as if she’d been crying. I suppose I hadn’t before thought of nuns as real people who had ups and downs, illnesses, or even needed to use a toilet. They were just nuns. This disturbance in our old pattern went on for several weeks: sometimes she’d be just like she was before, and sometimes distant and preoccupied. I remember once as I sat down on the stool, she grasped my arm with her strong hand saying she was so glad to see me.
And then things got worse. One afternoon, just before 5 o’clock, I was packing up to go. Suddenly Sister put her mouth close to my ear and whispered, “Mrs. Mitchell went downtown yesterday.” Then she looked about to see if anyone had heard, as if the country’s security was at stake. She gasped, “Don’t tell your mother!” I said I wouldn’t and left as quickly as I could. A few more lessons went by and then there was another secret, this time something about a neighbour who’d had company; someone had come to her house! Her eyes kept flashing back and forth, desperate and fearful. She made me promise not to tell that completely unremarkable fact to my mother or to anyone else. I heard a few more of these inconsequential secrets over the next weeks, but she had a pretty limited supply as, except for a few trips a year to their Motherhouse, the nuns never went anywhere but to the school and the church. Anything Sister saw she must have seen though the lace curtains of her music parlour window. I had started reading Agatha Christie at that time, and Sister’s secrets reminded me of how Miss Marple always found something terribly significant about Mrs. So-and-So not ordering fish that week. However, as far as I could see, Sister’s secrets had no significance at all.
I had already developed a habit of telling my mother very little about what was going on in my life; however, after Sister would tell me one of her secrets, I’d go right home and tell my mother. I didn’t want the responsibility of being the only person who knew something was wrong. My mother probably thought it odd too, but she said little. The more desperate Sister appeared, the more uncomfortable I felt with her.
Despite her difficulties, she managed to keep giving me lessons, and at the end of that year, after a lot of hard work, I sat for my Grade 8 piano and my Grade 2 theory exams. In one of the four required piano pieces, I played the beginning and then, to my horror, found myself playing the ending, having completely omitted the middle. I was sure I’d made a fatal mistake. I turned to the three adjudicators, expecting them to turf me out as a lost cause then and there, but when the piano fell silent, they lifted their heads in unison and smiled. I think they’d been asleep.
Some weeks later, the results arrived, and despite all my worries, I’d passed. I was enormously relieved and enormously thrilled. I ran up to the convent to tell Sister the good news. The old nun who answered the door told me Sister was gone. I asked where, and I was told just gone. I tried to visit her again the next day, and the answer was the same, “Sister has gone.”
My first thought was that I was being punished, that of course she was still there but she just didn’t want to see me. I was afraid she’d seen through my fabricated excuses to get away when she started her secrets—lies such as having to go home to help my mother or having such a lot of homework. Refusing to talk to someone was exactly the kind of punishment a teenager would have meted out, so I thought that’s what she was doing. But I was wrong. She was actually, truly gone—gone from that convent evermore. I never saw her again, and I never heard what happened to her. If my mother ever heard any news via the parish grapevine she never told me. When I asked, my parents said that, within her vow of obedience, she was probably obliged to move to some other town to help fulfil the dreams of other aspiring pianists—or other aspiring parents. And that was that. It was as if Sister had never existed.
My lessons soon ended too. Sister was replaced by a sweet old nun whose fingers were so rigid with arthritis that she could barely play at all. With my Grade 13 credit in my pocket and without Sister to inspire me, my mother at long last let me quit. I think she was actually quite content to be the only pianist in the family.
Before long, I stopped wondering why Sister had left without saying good-bye. I should and I do feel guilty that I just put my friendship with Sister in with my music books in our piano bench and closed the lid. I turned 15 that summer, and like most teenagers the here and now were paramount.
Now, so many years later, I see that Sister was probably having a breakdown. Why else would she confide in a fourteen-year-old? And why confide meaningless facts? I said above that Sister’s secrets had no significance but of course that’s not true. They were highly significant—they were a window into her troubled mind, but I was too young to understand that. It was the first time I’d come close to someone with a mental illness, and all I knew was that it frightened me to see her so upset for no obvious reason, and it frightened me to see her personality and behaviour change so much. At that time, both within the church and within society as a whole, mental illness was considered a shameful thing, something to be hidden away and never named for what it is, never spoken of above a whisper. Mental illness was commonly thought to be a sign of weakness for not having the fortitude to “conquer one’s demons” and get a grip. Some Catholics saw it as a lack of faith, and an unwillingness to examine one’s conscience adequately. These attitudes meant, of course, that few people with mental health problems got the help they needed. Much more commonly, they were shut away out of sight, sometimes in dreadful asylums. I have no idea how the nuns treated Sister; I hope with kindness and mercy.
My piano-playing past is still not far enough in the past. I have several friends studying the piano—those who have returned to the lessons they abandoned when they were ten and twelve, and those who have responded to a lifelong urge to play.
Whichever their reasons, the push to take piano lessons seems to bring out—along with the dream of being a virtuoso—people’s latent bossiness. I’m learning now to tell a select few that I once studied the piano and was proficient enough to earn my Grade 8 piano at age 14, because when I do, they immediately start scolding, telling me I really should be playing again. My crime, so they say, is that of “wasting” my “God-given talents.” I admit that right away: yup, I’m neglecting them, maybe even wasting them, but so what? It could hardly be said that I’m depriving the world of the wonders of my talent when recordings of the best of the best are readily available. How could anyone think the world a poorer place for my not playing the piano?
I think the urgency these people feel about my playing or not playing reflects the new climate of productive retirement in contrast to the old lackadaisical way of growing old willy-nilly. Now, we are told, we are to be engaged in the business of “active living” as we “celebrate” our retirement. We are told our Golden Years should be a time to “embrace aging” so we can “retire with style” and “age fabulously.” And if we’re not sure what that really means, there are troops of experts ready with sage advice to help us with every aspect of the game from makeup to investments to fitness, yoga, diet, sex, health, relationships, sleeping, fashion, volunteering, travel, hobbies, and of course age-defying creams to trick us into thinking we’re not aging at all. The Age of Aquarius has become the Age of Advice.
There appears now to be a right and a wrong way to age, and doing it the right way will make us crazy-happy seniors. I think people who think I’m “wasting” something have fallen under the spell of viewing my neglected talents in the same light as they are being counselled to view their investments: spend wisely, save for tomorrow, make the most of opportunities, and don’t waste a cent—the same old Calvinistic glorification of thrift and conformity we grew up with. This may be good for our investments, but I can’t see that it’s good for our lives.
I think that’s what’s going on. Or perhaps, these dictatorial people who insist I return to the piano want others to share the misery of lessons and practising. Or perhaps they just want all of us former pianists to get back to playing so there’ll be lots of piano-playing oldies at the retirement home and they’ll be off the hook.
I still have the muscle memory of my Grade 8 pieces in my fingers, but I have other muscle memories too. When I sit down at the piano, I feel that same old tension creep into my shoulders as I wait for someone to come from behind ready to pounce and denounce. Yes, I could go back and maybe become proficient again, but Sorry, I Don’t Want To.