It’s the same answer for anyone who comes to our house, and, upon seeing the stately 1934 upright in the corner of great room, asks. I can’t play for others. I haven’t been able to since I quit lessons at age 14.
My love for the piano started when I was four and sang along as my grandmother pounded out hymns on my great grandmother’s piano in her small bungalow in South Norfolk. She played everything by ear, from the cheery “Jesus Loves The Little Children” to the heart-wrenching “Just As I Am.”
When I was seven, Santa Claus brought me a piano, an old, flat black- enameled Charles M. Stieff upright, and I was thrilled. My parents placed it our remodeled garage and hired a piano teacher for my older brother and me. No one asked if I minded sharing. If I dared touched one of his gifts, I could count on receiving an Indian burn on my wrist or even, worse, a tickling until I screamed from pain and someone grew tired of the sound. Little did my brother or I know that, in time, he would receive his comeuppance, and so would I.
Our first teacher was a minister’s wife who taught us in her home a few miles from where we lived in Princess Anne County. After we got past the business of learning notes, playing basic scales, and flying through a series of piano primers, we started on hymns. But they didn’t have the pep of my grandmother’s music, and I told her so. She showed me how to add a zippy swing bass. I took the most dirge-like songs from the hymnals and put my own spin on them until they became joyous and almost danceable. In another time and place, such as on The Voice in 2013 , Blake Shelton or Adam Levine might have been praised interpretations, or not. But this was back in the 1960s South.
One Sunday when the pianist for the Sunday School assembly didn’t show up, I was asked to play for our group of nine- to twelve-year olds at our Southern Baptist Church. Both the teachers and kids had a hard time with my unique pacing, and as I played “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” I could feel and hear their struggle as they stumbled over the words. Afterwards, one of the teachers suggested that maybe my style wasn’t what Jesus had intended for hymns.
During my third year of studying piano, my mother switched my teacher to a woman who had moved down the street from our house. She was not a preacher’s wife. In addition to being a pianist, she was the concertmistress for the Norfolk Symphony, a first-class violinist and member of a well-known chamber quartet. She also commuted to New York to teach music at Julliard.
For a couple of years, all went well, even though she had banned the playing of swing bass during lessons. Instead of church music, she brought out sheets of classical music, compositions from Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok. It was soon after that my brain lost it ability to grasp new musical concepts and mathematic formulas and to understand much of my science texts. It was as though something in my brains had frayed. I went from being a good student to borderline mediocre one.
Exactly what happened, I’ll never know. Perhaps I was tired from the nine-hours days of school and the travel involved, or the lack of sleep from coughing night after night for no reason that our family doctor could discover. The hour of daily practice, which I was never allowed to skip, felt like a slow never-ending torture.
My teacher, whom I admired greatly and hated to disappoint with my lack of progress, threatened to send a report card to my parents, and I thought that was a fine idea. Maybe my folks would see it was time for me to stop lessons, to stop wasting their money. But my teacher didn’t follow through on her threat. I slogged on, even though my brother was allowed to quit.
By the time I was 14, my pleas to give up lessons had worn down my mother. The last time I intentionally played before another person was during my last lesson. I don’t think my teacher was sorry to see me go.
But I didn’t stop playing. A friend I visited in D.C. had a lovely-sounding piano. While she ran her son to afterschool activities, I stayed behind to play it on the sly. One of these times I played for a least two hours the music I heard in my head, and when I stopped a moment to rest and breathe, I was broken from my trance by the words, “What was the name of that?” She had been listening for almost an hour, astonished to hear me play for the first time in our decade of friendship.
One of my brothers also had a fine baby grand, and on holidays when the family was gathered in another room, I would slip off to play until I was swarmed by kids, at least two of them crawling onto the bench with me. I’d stop what I was doing and hammer out Jingle Bells so they could sing or teach them how to play “Chopsticks,” but I played nothing more.
Once I had a house with enough room for my upright, I had it moved to there. For years I played it out of tune before calling Charley “The Tuner” Garrison, whose father had done the job until he passed. Charley came again last year for the last time. Not much later, he, too, died. I cannot look at my old piano without seeing Charley seated on its bench, hearing him praise the workmanship that went into the making of such an instrument. He never minded its yellow keys.
I still play when I am alone. Not everyday. Not every week. I play at times when I need to be calmed, to stop from thinking of the past or future, to be in the moment. Sometimes the music comes from my head. Other times it comes from sheet music I’ve downloaded and tinkered with. But I only play when I believe no one is around, listening, breathing, because it’s the only way I can.
Notes: Want to win one of three free paperback copies of Cooley & Rose. The Goodreads.com First Book Giveaway continues until Sept. 15, 2013. Surf on over, and add your name to the drawing. Here’s the link: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17997446-cooley-rose.
Cooley & Rose is available in ebook format for all readers and in paperback from all online stores. You can also order paperback copies from your favorite neighborhood brick store.
By the way, the library bookcase in the Presidential Suite of one of the world’s most famous hotels has Cooley & Rose on its shelf! How cool is that. . .
If you’ve read and enjoyed Cooley & Rose, please help the indie cause by spreading the word or writing a review or two. Such kindness would be greatly appreciated.
Last week, a friend went to Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore and stayed at an inn for a few days and met the couple who was running the inn while the owners slipped away to to a Jimmy Buffett concert across theChesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach. After my friend learned the wife grew up in South Norfolk, she told her of my novel, Cooley & Rose, which begins and ends in her hometown.
The substitute innkeeper downloaded the e-book and immediately read it. What follows is a portion of the email she wrote to my friend.
“Just finished reading Cooley & Rose. I love it and imagined the place she wrote about to be places from my childhood. My sister did the same. She even mentioned a Mrs. Dowdy being “saved.” That was my maiden name, and my great grandmother was extremely religious . . .”
If you think this is a shameless plug for Cooley & Rose, you’re only half right. There’s a story here.
Because I thought the reader would be interested, I wrote her the following:
“I think that your religious great-grandmother was probably the woman that my grandmother referred to as “Sister Dowdy.” I don’t think I ever met her, but my grandmother talked about her often, and the name stayed in my mind for all of these years. I liked the sound of “Dowdy,” so I used it.”
I went on to give her some of my family background – the names of my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great aunt and her husband who was the local pharmacist.
She replied to my email. The first line read, “I think we are related!” Then she told me why. In short, our great-grandmothers were sisters. As adults, they lived only three houses away from each other.
Now, I also have unknown cousins on my mother’s side, and only the Chesapeake Bay separates me from this one, whom I hope to meet soon.
What I haven’t told her is that about 15 years ago, my HOBL and I went to the town where she lived and looked at property, and we came across a charming old brick church that was for sale. In my mind I began envisioning it as a house, then as a home, but my HOBL nixed that idea when he learned that the town didn’t have a clay tennis court.
If it had, my new cousin and I might have discovered each other sooner.
NOTE: Goodreads.com is giving away three paperback copies of Cooley & Rose. Deadline to submit our request is Sept. 15, 2013. Paperbacks are for sale at Amazon.com, and e-books are available for all readers. Visit your favorite online store.
For most of my life, I had no desire to marry. From what I saw, marriage didn’t have much to offer a woman except a life of drudgery, more submission that compromise, and no time of her own until the kids were grown and gone and the husband still employed or dead.
Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but having grown up as the youngest in my family, I had already lived with too many bosses, and I could see no reason to commit myself to another.
If you’re a reader of this blog, however, you know I changed my mind when I was 41 and found myself becoming engaged to marry in a circumstance more fitting for a creepy thriller than real life. There was no bent knee, no diamond ring, no roses, not even dinner. If you don’t know the details and want to know more, scroll down to the title with the word “stalker” in it.
The idea for this post came early this a.m. By the time I rose at 6:30 a.m., my hunk of burning love (HOBL)had already cut back the limbs of the floribunda rose bush that had sprawled across the side courtyard toward the door to the house, picked our first tomatoes, lopped of the top of a bush that had been tall as a small tree, and fed the three dogs and the cat. Amazing, right?
But he wasn’t always like this.
When I was in my thirties, a friend of mine, who was ready to meet the father of her future children and thought I should be, too, despite my protests, told me to stop being picky. “Find a good guy,” she said. “One that’s trainable.”
By this point, she had started applying her hiring skills to her love life. For her, finding a husband had become a priority project.
“If he has a shirt you hate, throw it out. Bad haircut? Take him to a different hair cutter. You can change the small things. But you’ve got to find a great guy.”
At the time, I truly felt I would never have any need for this information, but the fact that she had set herself such guidelines amazed me. Where was the romance?
Then came the moment I learned my HOBL wanted to marry me, and in a flash, my friend’s advice returned to me, and I knew that I had found a man that I could marry without being shackled to domesticity or his every whim and whom I could train.
Right away I threw out his red, white and blue, paisley shirt and urged him to stop smashing the hair on the top of his head flat.
Other than that, my training of him didn’t seem to take. I taught him how to cook a variety of seafood, to make salad dressings and mashed potatoes, which he loved, but he’d forget how and couldn’t be bothered to read a cookbook. I showed him how to separate clothes for the wash, but our underwear ended up smoky blue or pink. I reminded him that a closed door to my writing shed office meant I was working and not to disturb me, but he did anyway, with our three dogs at his heels.
Then this year, everything changed. Some evenings I came in from my shed to find him cutting up vegetables to roast with a pan of fish filets nearby, ready to be broiled. He started separating the wash and using the wrinkle-free setting. He saw what needed to be done in the yard and did it! Without nagging or to-do notes from me.
No long ago, I called my friend, now a happily married mother of two teenage girls, and said, “You didn’t tell me the training would take 18 years.” She laughed.
I bragged to everyone about my husband and even advised my niece to find a good guy who was trainable, and, after running my mouth, something came to me that probably everyone else already knew but hadn’t mentioned. My HOBL had trained me.
I had added color to my black-and-white wardrobe and cut my hair. I no longer freaked when dishes from late night snacks set in the sink unwashed overnight. He taught me not to act rashly or over-react, that perfection is more of a nasty compulsion than a virtue and that lies, such as “No, those jeans don’t make your butt look big,” from him or “No, you aren’t going bald,” from me can be a small gestures of love.
Update: Interested in winning one of three, free paperback copies of my novel, Cooley & Rose? Or other new novels? Go to Goodreads.com, and participate in its First Books giveaway. The promotion for Cooley & Rose will run through Sept. 15, 2013.
Ten months ago, after visiting his hometown of Winston-Salem, my father told me about his cousin’s daughter who was near my age and, like me, was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic in her forties. In hindsight, I guess the important detail was that we shared an odd medical history. At the time, however, I was shocked andthrilled to find out I had a female cousin my age. It had always seemed that men had overrun the Perrel side of my family. But I was wrong.
Becky and I met on Facebook. When I studied her picture, I saw we had we had the same full face, the same small teeth which a friend once described as “a row of pearls;” and chestnut-colored hair. (Yes, that’s my original color.)
I learned that she, too, loved to read good books, both fiction and non-fiction; had developed into a foodie who hoarded bottles of capers; and had traveled a lot. I saw the big difference between us last winter when one photo after another on FB showed her with her HOBL, both bundled like the Michelin man with mounds of snow everywhere. Ugh, I thought. How can that be? I spent three winters in Columbus, Ohio, and, when I returned to Virginia Beach, I prayed I’d never see snow again. But my cousin, although she kept houses in North Carolina, had made New Hampshire her home!
She also told me that I had a slew of cousins, most of them female, so a few weeks ago, my HOBL and I set out to meet them.
Our first stop was to meet Becky in Holden Beach, an outer banks island eight-miles long just north of the South Carolina line. It’s a lovely, slow-paced place that reminded me of Virginia Beach before it became an overgrown city.
There, I again noticed her teeth, the similar shape of her face, and then I saw we were the same height and wore the same shade of orange polish on our toenails. The first hour there, I suffered a small case of first-date jitters that started to dissipate as we lunched al fresco by the inter-coastal waterway and vanished completely by mid-afternoon as we noodled in a pool and gabbed, taking time every once in a while to float in comfortable silence.
I won’t tell you about every second of our two-days there, although it was Becky who took us to Mary’s Gone Wild, but so many occasions pointed out how simpatico we were. At a Celtic store in nearby Southport, we learned that each us had been thinking of buying a ukulele. So we did. Orange ones. Not because we wanted them to match but because we both love that color.
From Holden Beach, we went to Winston-Salem, where I’d often gone as a child to visit my grandmother’s family. The night we arrived, we dined with Becky’s mother, Billie Jane, a kissing cousin to my father. Newly turned 85, she’s a beautiful and gracious woman, a former yogini, with a soft voice and a great sense of humor. She flattered me greatly by saying that once she started reading my novel, Cooley & Rose, she couldn’t stop to fix her 5 o’clock supper. She had to keep reading.
By then, I’d already developed a sore throat, and by the morning, the day of a birthday lunch for all of the cousins born in June, my voice was fading. Becky, her husband who had returned the previous night from Singapore, and my HOBL went without me. While they were gone, I napped, then met her neighbor who commented on much Becky and I looked a like.
When the three returned four hours later, my husband said, “I wished you’d met these people 20 years ago. They are so much fun.” In particular, he named three of my senior cousins who came and went in a big Cadillac and made him laugh the whole time in between.
But, thanks to Becky, I didn’t miss everything. She took individual videos of all but one of my cousins, saying “hello,” and more, and watching and listening to Kent, Kay, Mickey, Gail, Helen and so many more made me both teary and happy and wanting to return soon.
Saturday morning I woke unable to speak, my neck swollen, and knew I needed to head home to my bed and, most likely a doctor, even though my cousins had organized an early birthday party for her mother the next day that would include other cousins and their families. Cousins I’d been following on Facebook. Lucky for me, the wife of one stopped by Becky’s house the day we arrived, so I was able to meet Karin, but I had so looked forward to getting to know Jan, Pat and Tim.
In a bare whisper, I asked Becky if maybe my HOBL and I could stop by and see Tim, who lived nearby, on the way out of town. She located him at his 92-year-old father’s, and led us to him.
Meeting Becky was big deal for me, because I’d never known extended family members with whom I could talk books or politics or food or health or nail polish. Then, at the next stop, two other big things happened.
First, Tim, who looks nothing like me, told of how my maternal great-grandmother, who had lived next door to his father and was not related to him, would sit on her porch on warm summer nights with the neighborhood kids gathered around her and tell stories. Since I’d only met her one or twice as a small child before she died, that information thrilled me since my life has been about stories and the cause-and-effect of actions.
He also told me that soon he was going once gain teach classes based on Julie Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, a book I’d read years ago, and that he also biked, had studied Tai Chi and did yoga. I couldn’t speak, so Tim had had no idea, until he saw me smiling and nodding, that all of those had been important to my life, too. He mentioned that the next day, he was headed with his wife and either a mandolin or guitar to Ireland, a country that I fell in love with many years ago.
What I had intended to be a 15-minute visit turned into an hour or more. Tim and his sweet honey of a father, Bink, are professional musicians, and Becky plays the guitar, too, and sings, and, around the kitchen table the three of them played one song after another as I again teared up, moved because I belonged to this family.
Becky said that she was, too, and likened us to couples who meet on Match.com or some other online dating service, learn about each other through emails and a couple of phone calls, and then come to the big day when they face each other across a cup of coffee. The only difference is that we will be drinking wine. And we’re both fifty-something women.
Of course she’s right, which calmed me until on the hottest day of this year I went for a haircut and left the salon looking like a Marine two weeks into a civilian-transition program. Lucky for me, my hair grows quickly, but four days isn’t enough time to look like someone whose head wasn’t recently shaved to stave off lice. And more than one cousin wants to take pictures, which I’m dreading because vanity is part of my DNA.
But as my dear father says way too often, “It is what it is.” I normally adjoin this with, “Until it isn’t,” but I can’t say that now.
So I’m on the road, first stopping in Clayton to visit the cousins I’ve known since birth before proceeding on to Wilmington for a one-night stand with my HOBL, then onto Holden Beach to meet the first of my unknown cousins, and, at last, Winston-Salem where I will meet a whole slew of kin. I’m not even there yet, but as you can read here, as I leave my military hometown full of more Yankees and Midwesterners than Southern natives, my speech and syntax are changing. I feel a “y’all” coming on, which is a comfort.
Stay tuned, because in addition to this, three of my family members have taken DNA tests, and archival research by my older brother has turned up some interesting finds.
Early in life I was told our family was descended from German royalty, which was not true, and those of you who read this blog, know that for many years I falsely believed (and) hoped) I was the daughter of Elizabeth Taylor.
The truth is a lot stranger.
By the way, my novel, Cooley & Rose, is available in paperback from http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Cooley+%26+Rose and as an e-book for all types of readers. Both are now on sale. Either would make a fine birthday present, Fourth of July hostess gift, a Labor Day beach read. Plan ahead; buy now.
“Happy Anniversary to B. and me. May 12 is the only day of the year I will never work, as this was her request on our wedding day. She gets flowers from me on the 12th of every month, and has since we answered the easy questions together 23 years ago today.
“It’s been mostly fun.”
A long-time friend of mine, who, like me, married for the first and and only time in early mid-life, recently posted this on Facebook. Later in the day, his wife commented: “Awe!! So sweet! :>x. Time flies too quickly especially with my boyfriend for life.”
I tell you. Love doesn’t get any better than this. Or more romantic.
My anniversary is in less than two weeks. Because my Hunk of Burning Love (HOBL) and I changed our wedding date to accommodate out-of-town visitors, on more than one occasion we’ve missed our anniversary and celebrated it belatedly, only after being reminded by a friend or family member.
He stopped bringing me flowers after a sassy cat named Mr. Burt Reynolds joined our household and started disassembling the arrangements stalk by stalk, then petal by petal. Now we grow our own flowers for cutting – various types and colors of zinnias, which the cat hates. When the flowers are in bloom during late summer and early fall and I’m out and about, my HOBL cuts and arrange them in vases he sets in unexpected places.
When we announced 18 years ago that we were going to marry each other, one of my nosey brothers called my HOBL and asked who proposed to whom. When my HOBL’s answer didn’t satisfy him, he called others to get the scoop. He found the truth hard to believe.
The Big Moment did not involve a diamond ring gunked with creme brulee, a bottle of Dom, long-stemmed red roses or bended knee. Nothing about it was romantic or planned. But, drama? There was plenty. The catalyst for our spur-of-the-moment decision was someone whom I’d known as a teenager. A shy boy who rode the same school bus as I. As a man, he served as a naval officer and after that earned a Ph.D. and became a biogeneticist. J. was also an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic who stalked me off and on for more than 20 years.
A few weeks prior to the night that changed my life, J. had obtained my unlisted telephone number from an alumna of the school we had attended, a person who was unaware that his teenage crush had become an obsession. By this time, J. had been quiet for several years, living and working in the Midwest, creating corn hybrids, and, from what I’d been told by a family member, in love and hoping to be married. I was happy for him, even happier for myself, believing he was out of my life for good.
But the woman he loved did not want to marry him, and I can only guess that served as one of many factors that led him to call me near midnight in April 1994.
The moment I picked up the phone, I knew it was him. The moans and heaving breathing of an animal in pain, sounds I’d heard so many times before from. Sounds so pitiful that it pained me to know he suffered so. I did not hang up, because it was important for me to know his location and where his mind was. I will not go into all of the chilling details, but once he found his voice, he told me that he raised finches; that two beings lived in his body, one who could draw extremely well; that the Pope would be assassinated in the fall of that year; that I was destined to marry him, to have his child; and that the three of us would study sorcery and cure the ills of the world.
The next few days, as calls continued to come from the Midwest, I worked to erase any signs that I lived where I did, including trading in my car. I knew that before long he would show up, which he eventually did. Friends made daily calls to his office to track his movements, and I hid out in another city while a family of four settled temporarily into my home. These efforts to protect myself and mislead him, however, make up a later chapter in a long story that I have no plans to write.
Let me pause here and tell you, the only time I have written about this was a short note to a mutual friend, and writing this post is exhausting me. So many emotions are churning inside, including sadness that J., who died two years ago, had to live such a confused and difficult life.
But there were moments of happiness for me. Not long after J. found me that April and before I changed my telephone number for the umpteenth time, I came home from a graduate class, and on my answering machine were numerous messages from him – his voice and language growing angrier with each, all accusing me of being home and not picking up. And that’s exactly what I did with the other harrowing calls that followed. Lucky for me, in between these, a friend phoned and volunteered to keep me company.
And he was the one who answered the next ring. He told J. that I would be home from school soon, to call back in 20 minutes.
When J. did, I held the phone so my friend could hear, witness the insanity, but after a few moments, he pulled away, shaking his head, unable to listen any longer.
Then, J. said to me, “That guy there? The one who answered the phone? He’s in love with you.”
For the first time in days, I laughed. I looked at my friend who had plopped down on the couch as though he owned it. Looking into his eyes, I said, “You say the guy who answered the phone is in love with me?”
My friend grinned, pushed himself up and nodded.
I smiled. “You know what?” I said to J. “I’m in love with him, too.”
Eighteen years later, I still am.