10 February 2010

The Hands

They were the hands of a worker. A laundress, maybe, or a housekeeper. She always lamented how short and ruddy her fingers were, as she pushed on the emerald and opal rings that she loved to wear. Her knuckles were formidable, and the gold bands had to be slid over them just so. The rest of Maryann's skin was palest white with scatterings of Irish freckles, but her hands were reddened.

Facing a long row of white piano keys split by shadow lines and minor black rectangles, Maryann's hands became muscular, precise tools. She had a finger spread that spanned an octave without strain. Her left hand brought bass chords to life in accurate sync with the melody. And she was able to inject softness, nuance, and emotion along with the emphasis. Her hands were made to speak; they were servants to the spirit of jazz music. She realized this before she was 10 years old, in fact: the tunes of popular American song were destined to pour through her hands as entertainment for others. No need for sheet music; she could hear it and reproduce it. Maryann surrendered to that knowledge, transporting herself to a place of balance and peace whenever she played. Her life beyond the smooth wood box of a piano was often dissonant, as though she repeatedly and suddenly became a stranger in the face of everyday events...but the piano was her harbor.

She would gladly have forfeited attending smalltown parties in her youth, but there was an expectation that she would play for the gatherings, and Maryann was very good at living up to her responsibilities. Small talk made her uneasy, and although she had lifelong female friends who always included her in their fun, Maryann could never shake the feeling of being apart. The call to "Play something for us, Maryann!" was a relief even as it was a nuisance (because the partygoers would inevitably tell her what to play, demandingly, and then only half-listen as their small talk and smoking raved on). In the Northern Lights Class of 1950 yearbook, they nicknamed her "Paderewski".

Her graduation gift from her parents was an extravagance that befitted her nickname: a baby grand piano. Dark sepia wood, with lighter swirls of grain...beyond furniture, it was practically a planet in her parents' modest living room. An anchor in the harbor, you might say. An enticement, even...a plea for this golden only child not to leave.

It didn't work. She departed easily, plunging into the swelter of New York City summer. Maryann's hands ventured to nightclubs on Manhattan's fabled 52nd Street, where larger and even noisier crowds listened as the redhead coaxed the standards to swing and emote. Places like the Hickory House and the Embers, whose names evoked steak and smoke. By day, she was a radio station page, to pay her rent at the YWCA. Her nights glittered and simmered. Maryann found a community of fellow-travelers in the city...players from nowherevilles all over the world, for whom a musical instrument was equally effortless and all-consuming. Their lingua franca was their coolness, their ability to instinctively bend music so that it became something more shining than its original form.

She began dating a fellow-traveler named Bob Burns, late of the storied US Navy Band, a drummer whose conflicts and demons made Maryann's moments of social estrangement seem tame. He burned to play like she did (surname pun ruefully acknowledged), but there were gaps in his groove. Maybe his methodical intellect blocked him from giving over to the art. Bob ached to possess Maryann as his wife, perhaps to absorb some of her light, but ultimately, he snuffed it out with mundane duties. It was the 1950s, and Maryann was well aware of what she was expected to do: make this man a home, give birth to children. Wear an apron and have dinner ready. Their early married life in an urban apartment was not so dull, if the black-and-white photos are to be believed. But Maryann was certainly not sitting in at nightclubs on Wednesdays at midnight, and Bob had become a university student on the GI Bill...living out his own version of what-was-expected.

Bob and Maryann's jazz world must always be viewed through the amber glow of alcohol. It may well have enabled their muses to emerge fully flowered, without inhibitions, but as their marriage encompassed parenthood and salaries, it robbed them of any sense of settled contentment. Bob became bitterly angry, his tirades insensible. When infidelity was added to his list of domestic sins, Maryann scooped up her young children, returned north to her small town of birth, and left New York to him. The baby grand had awaited her in its living room berth, and it slowly reawakened her soul.

I have staccato memories of early childhood which linger far more vividly than most people's. My mother's elusive persona, her tether to a piano while my grandparents guided me through toddlerhood...it's all right at the fringes of my psyche, shards of places and events. Eventually, our family returned triumphantly to New York City, as Maryann got the gig of a lifetime: playing piano every night onstage in a hit Broadway show, Cabaret. Every night, some older woman--my nana, a babysitter--tucked me in while Maryann performed and brought home the bacon. I never minded her absence, but I jealously guarded her presence whenever I got it.

I stlll recall preschool afternoons when she would fill our apartment living room with the sound of the Steinway upright she'd purchased for herself. I stood to the right of her bench, eye-level to the keys, wanting to be as close as possible. I could stand there all day, watching the blur and pause of her hands. The music, I remember, was surprisingly louder from that vantage point, resonating through the wood. The wood itself had a scent, a deep sweetness. I knew, without being told, that my mother was phenomenally talented; that the songs she played were just as good as the jazz LPs in rotation on the stereo in that same room: Count Basie, Marian McPartland, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver. Maryann's mantra to her children differed from other mothers'; it was "Sssssh. Sssssh. Listen."

As Maryann's hands ranged over the keys, larger-than-life in that proximity, I was inevitably seized with a temptation: to strike a key with my childish index finger. I wanted to be swept up into the music, become part of it, not just her bystander. I could never deny the urge, and soon my hand would approach; my finger would choose a key. Most of the time the note was a lemon against whatever song she was playing. I knew that, could hear the note's high-pitched awfulness...but I would plink it again and again, listening to how it stood out, alone on a rich tapestry of beauty. Maryann did not stop me.

Among my genealogical treasures are the receipts for her baby grand and her Steinway, fluttering pink reminders of her time, her sound, what made her free.