The Last Burial

by Nadeen L. Kaufman

If my mother knew I was writing this, she would say to me, "Oh good, Dafne, get it off your chest--maybe it will make you feel better." But she'd say this with an ironical tone, one of disapproval and annoyance. She knew. She knew I could not forgive her and she could never understand why.

She became the local kids' piano teacher when I was older. I'd watch her sit on her high office pneumatic chair next to the piano in our house, smiling, then clap her hands when a child finished a piece. Sometimes I could hear her from the kitchen, where I whispered about by myself, quietly eavesdropping while doing my homework. She'd say to each student, "You're the most talented student I have." After some kid made a mistake, or just stopped and froze, she'd point out how lovely some girl's shoes were, or the boy's cute baseball cap--anything to bring out a happy child with self esteem.

Once a year was her big concert. The furniture in our living room was all put aside to accommodate rental chairs. About 30 parents could squeeze in, dressed up on this Sunday afternoon. My mother would stand near the piano, introducing each child as he or she was called to play. The 5-minute speech about the kid's 3-minute piece brought stomach bile to my mouth. Overpraise, beaming parents, and camera flashes all made me itch and wish to leave. That never happened, though. My father and I were mandated to sit and watch from beginning to end. Before the concert there were weeks of preparation for the students. Suppertime brought them into my life one by one, as my mother took on her nightly monologue about the prospects for each student's success at the piano.

Sure, I tried to take lessons from her. Things never worked out. I didn't care about pleasing her and all she did was criticize me, not clap her hands and purr when I played well. So I never really got to be her student, and stayed away from the piano whenever she was home.

Every few years I'd try again, when my urge to play better overtook me. She'd start off with a smile, but then she'd get annoyed when I didn't understand what she was trying to explain. My mother simply kept forgetting I hadn't had all those years of piano theory, or scales, like her "real" students, and therefore I didn't understand her shortcuts. Finally, I gave up.

By the time I got married I could play about 5 or 6 pieces by memory, but I skipped the hardest parts. My mother had finally bought her Steinway Grand, and gave me the old Baldwin upright of my childhood. She continued to teach piano in children's homes until she was about 70 years old; then she continued teaching relatives for free who were willing to drive to her house. See, I almost said "our house;" that feeling is still inside me.

My husband has no particular interest in the piano, but he sits near me working when I choose to fool around by going through all the pages in an easy piano book. My sessions end with me growing frustrated and walking away.

When my mother was 89, she suddenly got sick. I lived across the country from her and spoke to her on the telephone, but she couldn't calm down. She was convinced if she allowed herself to go to the hospital, she would die. No matter how I tried to reassure her, she almost had to be forced by her live-in caretaker to go. My father had died years earlier, and had been lost before that to Alzheimer's. So I was at the Symphony, listening to Mozart, when she died in the middle of the night. I didn't get called until the next morning, when I grabbed my things and went with my husband to the airport.

How do I tell you what happened next? After the tears and thoughts of some earlier good memories, times she had flown across the country to help me with a very sick child, or times she got me out of a school panic attack by taking me shopping... I started the Big Clean-Up. My daughter flew in to help, and my husband and she worked and soothed me for several days.

By then the Will was found, and read. She had left everything to two piano students, now grown women. I wilted, like a dry orchid, and could only remain silent with a scowl on my face. I know this because I felt guilty for caring so much. It's not like I had to have her Steinway, although I sort of counted on it. I certainly wanted the object that meant the most to her, and where she spent so many hours. She had refused to talk to me about her death and what she planned. She joked, saying, "I'm going to live to100," then changed the topic. I actually started to believe her; the magical thinking was so strong.

My husband even offered to buy me a Steinway. But that wasn't the point. My mother had told me what she thought of me in the most efficient way possible. I deserved nothing. Just before leaving to fly home again, I went over to a large pile of some of her classical piano music and stole-yes, that's what I did-I stole a pack of books and slipped them into my suitcase. I have my share of her ashes in my living room now, although she once told me she didn't believe in any afterlife so I should just "throw her ashes in the garbage pail."

That was my mother's first burial.

I couldn't play any of the piano books I stole from my mother. They lay in my wooden piano bench with a sharpened pencil, waiting. My husband and I talked about me taking lessons someday, with a "real" teacher. "Dafne, I know you're talented, and this may be the right time for you to start." He had already gotten me a second dog to try to pull me out of depression, but nothing was clearing my head. I don't think I was depressed, just angry. Two months later he contacted someone from the Symphony to ask for names of great local piano teachers and found one who had actually given a pre-concert lecture that we had seen together. He came home smiling, telling me I had an appointment set up the next week.

Tatiana Olgalev was a professor who had only two days a week reserved for piano students, most of whom were piano teachers themselves. I don't know why I gained her fancy. Was it the great challenge? Me, Dafne, at 65 years old, taking her first lessons from a Russian émigré who had been trained herself at the Moscow Conservatory? She loved Reagan, and hated liberals. I could easily see her as a litigating attorney, cross-examining her witnesses with sharp teeth. All this was known to me from what she told me about her other students, and why she was "firing" one ("because she didn't practice hard enough") or threw a young man out of her house because he arrived 5 minutes late. One could not disrespect her without punishment, and every week I waited for her to tell me that she would no longer waste her time with me.

I loved Tatiana. I worked with sharpened pencil, taking notes everywhere that I promised her I would erase later. ("A real pianist, no, never writes on music, and doesn't need the page anyway because of the memory.") I ended up making copies of the sheet music-one to write on for myself, and a clean copy to bring to lessons.

I left my windows open on nice days, unashamed. I asked my husband to sit right next to me on the piano bench so I could "feel" his support. We got the Baldwin restrung and tuned more often. But the day before my weekly lesson I grew tense, foreseeing disaster. The day of the late afternoon lesson I woke early, practicing furiously, knowing how bad I sounded. Yet when I played the same music poorly at my lesson, Tatiana would compliment me and tell me, with a huge smile on her face, "You are wonderful." "Don't," I whispered, not wanting to fail her further. "Dafne!" she would shout out. "You are the Best!" Worse yet, she would get so excited when I did, somehow, get through a piece with few mistakes, that she would slap my thigh, or reach over and kiss me on the upper arm. That stopped me dead, panicked to play another note. We would talk about a different topic ("So what does your husband think of your playing? Doesn't he love it?")

I learned all the scales, up, down, and inside out. Theory remains hard, but I catch on now and then. When my husband and I went to Maui on vacation, I searched the hotels for a piano I could have access to so I wouldn't fall behind in my work.

Whenever I had to cancel a lesson it was like starting all over, and my hands would shake during the next lesson while I took deep breaths. I loved all the Bach Inventions and Sinfonias, the Preludes... but I was never allowed to take the Bach piece I loved best, "Little Fugue in G." The neighbors commented on "Song of India" one hot summer night with the windows open; they even asked me to teach their little boy ("No, I'm barely a student, but I'm so honored!)". One day Tatiana gave me the Russian composers, especially Tchaikovsky. I loved his Nocturnes, Romances, and The Seasons (especially June, March, and April). She would not allow me to play Beethoven, because I didn't possess his aggressiveness, she said. And I listened, like a little girl, to everything she told me.

The weekly anxiety grew worse. A new, mischievous little girl began to grow. One day I brought a copy of Holst's The Planets, asking to take Neptune. Tatiana twisted her face, sat quietly for a moment, but then said, "Okay." A month later I brought in a copy of "Sono Andati" from "La Boheme" that I wanted to play for my husband's birthday. She told me to go home and learn to play it myself. If I did well, she said, she would teach me how to play it "beautifully." And that's where I stopped.

It is now six months since I emailed Tatiana that I needed to take a break from piano lessons. I told her that it would be several months, because another work project came up. I knew this was an insolent excuse, one that would provoke her pride. What a relief not to hear her reaction. I also know that she will never teach me again. I don't want it, and she would say "Nyet!"

This was the Final Burial.

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