He was sitting in his lounge chair in the television room. With a push of his feet, in a carefully measured rhythm, the chair slid back in perfect harmony, ever so slowly. His stamina, at ninety years of age overwhelmed me. I looked at him with admiration and love and felt my emotions rise through that innermost place and settle in my throat. As usual, the uncontrollable flow of tears. When I was a child, I identified this phenomenon as a "lump" in my throat. At times, I admit, I still feel like a child. It was only six months since I last saw Uncle Max, and I was told to prepare myself. Yes, there was a transformation, but all I could see was my Max, the golfer, the bridge player, the joker, and my fan club. Even lying in his chair, in his new state, didn't stop him from noticing how I looked and didn't hinder him from reading my mood.
When he spoke, I could barely hear him. His physical abilities were next to nil, but his brain, his "intelligentia," as my parents would describe it – his intellectual abilities were in tact, crystal clear. My parents loved Uncle Max and Aunt Liza. The four of them could discuss everything down to the most minute detail. I don't believe they had any secrets. Theirs was a special relationship, closer than most, molded together by time. Across the room, my father and Aunt Liza were discussing politics. Uncle Max jumped right in, to participate, opinionated as ever, in that barely heard soft spoken voice. Our heads all turned in his direction, straining to hear his pearls of wisdom. Age can be cruel, especially when our faculties begin deteriorating one by one, slowly, very slowly.
Max was a man filled with life, always active, always a smile – my fan club. Everyone needs someone in their corner and Uncle Max was always in mine.
I remember the time I broke my arm as I slipped down a flight of stairs. It happened in elementary school while I chased after a boy who incessantly teased me about my unique name. Even though mine is indeed a unique name, and actually was embarrassing for me as an elementary school girl, Uncle Max had a gift for turning the situation around. He told me that my name is special, in spite of being different, will one day prove to be an asset. He always said, "Who wants a boring name like Susan Smith?" Then there was the time in eleventh grade when my boyfriend broke up with me so that he could date my best friend. Ouch! That really hurt. Some situations are inevitably a mission impossible to remedy. Uncle Max always looked at the bright side of things and so once again came through with a successful pep talk. Regardless of how miserable I felt, at any point in my life, even as an adult, married and with children, whenever I walked into Uncle Max's home, he made me feel special. It was magical. All my problems dissipated. I felt as if I lit up the room and that everything came alive, all because of me. That's how Uncle Max made me feel – always.
Everyone knew the piano was my number one love. However, performing was always a very sensitive subject with me. The truth is, I usually didn't like to perform back then. Most guests at my parent's house were polite, and would ask me to play. However, when I sat down at the piano and began, I often heard whispering in the background. I most certainly hated that whispering and thought to myself how impolite some people could be. Whispering unnerved me. That's why I would only play for a chosen few.
Uncle Max and Aunt Liza were amongst my chosen few. It was a pleasure to perform for them because I knew they were really listening, until the very end. I must have been in Junior High school at the time. I distinctly remember that day. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was just about to go to a neighborhood movie with some friends. I had a good half hour before leaving the house, when Uncle Max and Aunt Liza, our traditional Sunday guests, asked me to play something for them. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have had time to accommodate their request
because as I'm sure you already know, teenagers usually have to check out their looks in the mirror about fifty two times before they actually walk out the front door. Since I was ready early on that particular day, the mini concert began. I played a Chopin Waltz, "Grande Valse Brillante" and then Sunrise Sunset from the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
In those days I was known to hibernate in my room, listening to musicals all day long on my little manual record player, over and over again. I loved accompanying myself on the piano as I sang songs from the different musicals. I would play and sing to my heart's content. This particular Sunday, I played and sang "Sunrise, Sunset." Uncle Max had a wonderfully deep voice and so he joined in too. I shall never forget that day.
My visit with Uncle Max was only but an hour. It was his best hour during the day, and I was given permission to visit. By the way, you should know, Max only allowed family to visit. You see, Max is not really my Uncle, by blood that is, but we have a strong connection, by sentiment. As I took my leave, I bent over to kiss Uncle Max on the forehead and he so gentlemanly like kissed my hand, European style. Ours was a mutual fan club.
I consider myself very lucky. I have had meaningful relationships with men over the years, men of age. These men have had a great influence upon me in an educational sense. These are not relationships of love, but rather admiration. One of the men I admired most was my piano teacher, a world renowned pianist. I had the honor of being his student while studying for my Master's Degree in New York City. Up there on the ladder of fame, he was not only a great performer, but also a great teacher. Many performers are so full of themselves, consequently exuding a condescending attitude towards their students. My piano teacher was not such a man. He related to me as his colleague, with due respect. We conversed about music and their composers. Above all we shared an indescribable love of music, a love that only musicians share. Fellow students I knew, felt a measure of discomfort when they had their piano lesson with their respective teachers. Those teachers with their superior stance may have created such an atmosphere. I felt no such discomfort. I came to each lesson exhilarated and filled with anticipation.
As I climbed the stairs to the front door, I always felt my heart rate speed up, just a bit. My mentor always opened the door with a grand welcome. That was his style, with a sweep of the arm in a motion that indicated step right in and let the fun begin. I wouldn't describe my piano lesson as fun, but rather, an esoteric experience.
Upon entering the front door, I stood before a staircase which led to the second floor. The second floor was where other musicians rehearsed in preparation for their performances. Alongside the staircase was a lengthy hallway leading straight to the kitchen at the far end. Only once was I invited directly into the kitchen for a cup of tea. I had come in from the freezing cold snow with freezing cold fingers. It was understood that I had to defrost before starting my lesson.
My usual routine meant turning left as I entered the front door, as a sliding door moved into place so that I could step into the grand living room, rectangular in shape and decorated haphazardly with a collection of antiques. I remember clutter and a long dining room table which seemed to have wormed itself into the living room décor.
The living room led into the music room which too was waiting behind a sliding panel door. The music room was beyond impressive. Even though I had played on many a piano during my studies, I never experienced the sight before me. I set my eyes upon two black shiny Steinway pianos, standing side by side. The keyboard seemed to be one long extension when I entered the music room. There was no other world outside. I was totally engulfed in music through and through. There was me, my mentor and the two shining ebony grand pianos.
When one has musical ecstasy, one doesn't need anything else. I remember that "high" I derived from music. As I sat on the well cushioned piano bench facing the grand piano closest to the living room, I felt effervescent and for my two hour lesson believed that I had an extraordinary talent. During my studies, I played many solo piano pieces: Beethoven Sonatas, Shubert Impromptus, Bach Preludes and Fugues, etc… but my greatest leap to ecstasy was when we had a two piano romance. I say romance, because a two piano romance needs musical chemistry – each piano compliments the other, having a conversation of sorts. I had such an experience when I played the Mozart Concerto in A Major with my teacher. He played the second piano farthest from the living room, located on my left. He played the orchestral reduction of the Concerto as I played the piano solo. This was true ecstasy for me. As the introduction was played by the accompanying piano, I sat and waited to enter at the right moment, to slip in with finesse as an invited guest. And then there were moments when in unison, both pianos played intuitively to create a magnificent climax.
My piano teacher once said that he considers himself my "musical parent." Until today those two words ring true within me. How right they sounded and how right they were. He was not really my parent, but in a musical sense he most definitely was.
As I took my leave one day after a two hour lesson, I slowly raised myself from the cushioned piano bench. As he came over to say his goodbyes, he unmistakably put each one of his hands on each one of my cheeks. Facing eye to eye, I quickly understood that his usual "parental" goodbye kiss on the cheek, was left no other alternative but to be placed directly on my lips.