MISS LEWINGTON — A VERY IMPORTANT PIANO TEACHER
She was very tall. And spindly. She lived in a 30-room ‘house’ — that ‘house’ as she so humbly described it, is now an old age home — with her cat. A cat she had rescued and was now so fat, its stomach dragged on the floor. That cat had fallen into a schmalz greeben. In 1960, she was still driving her 1935 Buick. Mint condition. There it was, on the driveway, so chronologically out of place yet looking as if it belonged.
She wore ankle-length, pale pink organza dresses with satin flower appliques. They rustled when she walked. Her gray hair was always set into teeny, tiny spit curls, often still in their metalic curlers. But her most exceptional physical features were her hands. They were perfectly translucent with each blue vein showing. She was capable of spanning nearly two octaves with one hand.
Oh, yes. Miss Lewington — my piano teacher for close to 10 years.
She was 1920s Edwardian England; I was a 1950s immigrant kid just over from the Old Country. A greener.
Every week, I arrived, rang the bell and stood waiting in front of those massive mahogany double front doors. I could hear the Winchester chimes — what else — reverberate through the house. She shuffled to let me in, each movement never rushed, always deliberate. She lived in her own time zone. First the inner doors, then the outside one.
ML: Come in, Brenda. I’m not quite finished. You can wait in the front hall.
That so-called ‘front hall’ was huge. It could, easily, a 100 people, no trouble. I sat there, swallowed up in the middle of a tufted, brown velvet couch, clutching my piano books in my lap. Even chubby me was insignificantly tiny. Nervous, as usual. I had not properly prepared. Behind me, hung a museum-size oil landscape which her sister had painted, framed in the thickest, most ornate gilded frames I had ever seen — not until I stood in front of The Watch at the Rijksmuseum. Damask wallpaper. We were never poor but I had never experienced this grandeur lived by regular people, not dukes and duchesses. If only I had had a camera or a cell phone.
She never once spoke an angry or impatient word to me. She knew I was gliding, faking it every week. She absolutely adored me. I could do no wrong. Whatever latent talent I had, saw me through — barely. The story of my life ….
ML: I don’t think we’re ready to do hands together, yet. Let’s practise hands separately. Shall we?
Then came the best part of the week. If I was her last student of the day, a special treat awaited me. Tea with Miss Lewington in her sunroom was a highlight of my new life in small-town Hamilton. Being a minority in a minority …. well, this was an escape. The sun, battling with jungle-sized Aspidistras and every single gew-gaw, lovingly passed down and carefully dusted, did not dim the feeling of I had there. Tchochkas filled every nook, every horizontal space, every shelf. It was here where I got the lessons to, one day, be prepared in case I met my Fred Astaire.
I heard names like Royal Doulton, Wedgewood, Irish Damask, Hand Cut Waterford, German Silver Ware. (I never told her we did not have German products in our house.) She was on a first name basis with Mr. Birks. Something about their families …. She was descended from a British poet — the name escapes me now — who lived in a place called Drinking Water … and the stories went on and on. India came into it, as well. I was transported.
I learned how to pour tea and to serve it. Milk first. I tried hard to contain myself from eating the entire tray of teeny-tiny sandwiches. Who ate like this? White bread? Without the crust? Watercress? Water – crest? Always feeling the insecurities of not knowing. But it was delightful. She tried ever so hard to tame this young colt with wild hair that refused to be contained.