Francesca hated piano lessons as a child. As a seven-year-old they were the bane of her existence. Every day after school she finished her homework as quickly as she could. There wasn’t much time between homework and piano lessons. Occasionally she could finish in time to run outdoors and enjoy a lap around the house or two, but most often she was made to sit at the table and watch the clock tick by until four-thirty.
“Time to leave, Franny,” her mother would say as she stood in the doorway.
“Ma-ma, do I have to? I don’t like the piano. It’s no fun and Ms. Schmidt isn’t very nice to me,” she whined nearly every Monday.
“Now Franny! Ms. Schmidt is teaching you the piano, a beautiful gift to have. You will respect that poor woman and do as she says. Won’t you?”
She sulked in a slow walk to the car and climbed in the seat next to her mother. Francesca stared longingly out of the car window at all of her friends playing together. They looked so gleeful and happy as they ran and laughed and skipped rope. It was even worse when they would drive by the Warner house and smelly Amy Warner would make faces and tease Francesca through as they drove by.
“Can’t we go the other way, Ma-ma? I hate going by Amy’s house. She’s mean and makes fun of me.”
“Ignore her, darling. She doesn’t have much and her parents can’t afford to put her in music lessons. She doesn’t know how to show it so she teases. You will make beautiful music one day, that is all the answer you need to give her when she says her mean words.”
Francesca didn’t care about one day. She was going to stop playing as soon as she had a right to do so. Amy Warner could take her place for all she cared. She was too young to understand anything beyond the immediate lack of joy she was experiencing and slumped in her seat until the car stopped in front of Ms. Schmidt house on Ryland Street, twenty minutes away.
Her mother walked her up to the door, greeted Ms Schmidt and left Francesca in her care as she ran off to take care of some errands.
Francesca found out years later that the errands her mother was running lived two blocks over. A man named Jerome Hawlet lived there. He and her mother were having an affair. Every day after school Francesca’s mother would leave from Ms. Schmidt’s house and head down the street to Mr Hawlet’s and disappear into his house. She would spend the entire hour there and lay kisses all over his body as his hands explored hers.
Francesca never took much notice of her mother’s disheveled appearance upon picking her up ,but Ms. Schmidt did and often left a sly remark.
“Errands were rough today, Mrs. Yawbeck?”
Mrs. Yawbeck smiled through the shame. She didn’t care really what an old woman thought anyways. The lessons were the perfect cover and she rarely had to spend much time talking with the old woman.
“They were, Ms. Schmidt. But worth it.”
Ms Schmidt didn’t approve of Francesca’s mother’s tawdry actions or comments but she enjoyed having Francesca to teach. The sound of the piano was soothing and the dance of her fingertips across the keys was therapy. She cherished the chance to give that blessing to another generation, even if the little girl didn’t appreciate it at the moment.
“You don’t like the piano, Francesca, but you will.”
“I won’t,” the little girl said in a huff.
“Okay then, you won’t. Would you rather help me fold laundry instead?”
Francesca chewed her lip for a moment. The piano was the bane of her existence but folding laundry was hell. At least with the piano she was able to bang on some keys.
“I guess I can try some more. At least for a little while.”
“Good,” Ms Schmidt said, “because the piano makes quite a beautiful sound. If you learn to play it well enough you can close your eyes and your fingers will find their way to the right tune.”
Ms Schmidt closed her eyes as she sat next to Francesca and spread her fingers across the piano’s keys. She pressed into them and a hollow tune bellowed. Her fingers glided and her body swayed. The music poured into the air, sweet and melodic.
Francesca looked at Ms Schmidt’s face and studied it. She had the same look on her face as her Mother had when they got home after piano lessons. Her mother would sit at the table and relax in various positions, typically ending up leaning forward with her chin resting in her palms with her eyes closed. There was usually a smile on her face as well and whenever Francesca would ask what she was so happy about her Mother would answer the same way.
“Oh nothing, Franny. Sometimes a woman likes to hold onto little things that help her make it through her day and think back on them so she can remember it all isn’t so bad.”
This was well beyond Francesca’s level of understanding so a follow up was never pursued to clarify. When her Father arrived home the smile was long gone and her Mother was a different person. But that smile she had was the same one that was creeping out of the corners of Ms Schmidt’s mouth.
“Ms Schmidt,” Francesca interrupted her teacher’s trance.
“Are you remembering too?”
Ms Schmidt turned to the little girl sitting next to her and gave a puzzled expression. How could a small child have any idea what she might be thinking?
“Too?” Ms Schmidt replied.
Francesca nodded, “yes, like Ma-ma. She remembers like you were just then. When we get home after lessons, before Pa-pa gets home. That is when she does all of her remembering.”
Ms Schmidt smiled at the little girl and gave her a pat on the head and looked out of the window at the car pulling up with Mrs. Yawbeck getting out.
“Ah, your mother’s here. Time to go.”
“Were you remembering?”
Ms Schmidt nodded and tried to hide a tear creeping up to the lid of her eyes.
“I was, yes. The piano helps me remember. The music holds my favorite moments when there were no pictures.”
“Maybe I’ll learn then. Maybe I’ll play. If it helps Ma-ma remember too.”
They went to the door and Francesca opened it and bounded out, “I think I’ll like piano, I guess, Ma-ma.”
Mrs. Yawbeck smiled and looked up at Ms Schmidt in a bewildered state. She was unsure if she should expect a scalding remark or not but all Ms Schmidt gave her was a friendly smile and a compliment.
“You look lovely today, Mrs. Yawbeck. I look forward to having you and your daughter as often as you’d like to come.”
“Well, thank you. I think we’d like to continue as long as it takes.”
Mrs. Yawbeck looked down at her daughter and then back at the elderly piano teacher and smiled wide before turning back to the car.
Francesca continued going every week. She got better with every month that passed and continued going even after it seemed that she couldn’t learn anything else from Ms Schmidt. It turned into a time for the teacher, the student and the student’s mother sometimes to sit and talk and enjoy each other’s company along with the singing of the piano.
Francesca played through high school. She played through her Mother and Father getting a divorce. She played at her graduation. Even though she majored in English at University she would make daily trips to the music school and play the piano to stay sharp.
And one overcast, fall day after she was finished with University and in a different city she made arrangements to go back home. She was asked to play at Ms Schmidt’s funeral. A request in her will that the little girl she had been teaching since grade school play her beautifully into the next world, and she did. There was only one set of eyes that were dry in the entire room and it was Francesca’s. They were closed. They were remembering.