The Piano Lesson
Bright dappled sunlight flooded the music room. White colonial shutters on open windows framed an unobstructed waterfront view overlooking the Great South Bay on Long Island’s East End. The bay and sky met in varying shades of gray to blue. The sheet music fluttered in the salty breeze against my skin. The windows faced an expansive sloping lawn, framed by privet hedge, clipped boxwood and clouds of hydrangea blue. The music room was a jewel box filled with art and photographs of St. Moritz, St. Barths and Acapulco. The shelves housed books, odd carvings and ostrich eggs perched in stands. An antique Oushak rug stretched across the room, with the piano gleaming against a white wall.
Two afternoons a week I rode my bike along a winding private road leading to the water’s edge. A stout housekeeper answered the front door and showed me into the music room where I would wait. I sat silently waiting for my best friend, Susan to take a piano lesson. Our friendship began with this ritual, spending afternoons together after school. Fran Fingerhutt, the piano teacher, bounded up the front walk and the lesson began.
Susan played scales and various practice pieces. Her hands were beautiful and moved with precision and perfect timing across the keys. She possessed great concentration and a natural talent to perform. Leaning in to read the music, she’d pause lifting her wrist, and with a snap, flipped the page. Her flare for the dramatic always impressed me. As Susan played, I sank deeply into the sofa. The tone of the piano delighted me. I gazed out at the grounds and the bay beyond, my thoughts drifting.
Susan thrived on private lessons, riding horses and taking piano. I looked forward to Susan’s piano lessons. Everything about those afternoons delighted me. It was during those afternoons I fell in love with beauty itself. The house was stately and well appointed but was always empty, except for Susan, me and the help. The housekeeper placed orders on a black rotary telephone, preparing for parties I never saw. I was completely content to listen to her play and bask in the beauty of that room. It afforded me an escape and it allowed my imagination to wonder.
When the lesson ended, Mrs. Fingerhutt saw herself out. I joined Susan on the piano bench and we sang patriotic songs, old standards and Broadway show tunes. We sat huddled together laughing and sang with total abandon. We sang of lost love, broken hearts and unfulfilled dreams. Bye Bye Blackbird was our favorite song and Susan always played it as the first and last song we sang.
When we tired of the piano, we ventured outside and always down to the water. Most days we’d slip into the bay at high tide, lapping and full by the water’s edge. We’d swim across Hart’s Cove and further out to Tuhill Point. In those days we’d have the bay to ourselves as we swam, the water sparkling in the late afternoon sun. We felt a deep sense of being free, swimming and exploring along the shore of the bay. We enjoyed the fact that no one knew where we were or how far we swam. We shared a bond, a wonderful girlhood friendship that lasted a lifetime. We had a profound understanding of the each other from those early days. My parent’s difficult marriage was ending and I felt sadness and loss throughout their bitter divorce. Susan experienced strain within her family too, and those afternoons allowed us both to cope with circumstances beyond our control. These afternoons usually ended by a race home. We’d climb out breathless onto the dock to check the traps for blue claw crabs before I’d ride my bike home. Growing up by the bay provided a special joy.
Susan and I remained close over the years. I lived and worked in Manhattan and she would come in to visit; as we never tired of spending time together. On the eve of my wedding we learned of Susan’s cancer diagnosis. Eight months later, Susan lost her life. She was 37 years old. The news came late on a November night in a drenching cold rain as I sat alone in my living room listening to music. The words seared, my head reeled and my heart ached. How could my beautiful friend be gone? I sobbed. It took several moments for me to realize the music captured my attention; Rosemary Clooney was singing Bye Bye Blackbird, I sat up and listened to that same old sad song filled with longing and melancholy.
The sweetness of those girlhood days are forever past. Solace came in remembering those happy afternoons filled with love, friendship and beauty. I came to realize that memories have their place but the love in our hearts endures.
Growing up on the East End and on the water remains among my greatest gifts. My childhood love of beauty continues to inspire my creative life in design. While certain aspects of our lives change and evolve, perhaps the most precious are the things that stay the same. As for me, I’ll be down at the beach, swimming in the ocean in the late afternoon sun.