The summer was full of goodbyes. Goodbyes to a home, friends, a boyfriend and a grandfather. Hello to a new city and state, a school and a church full of people yet to become friends – all because of a new job. My family was all together but a good time was not being had by every single person. Although people were reaching out, friendships take time. From the beginning, we were warmly welcomed into a loving church as if we were long lost cousins. And in the South, we aren’t always warm or welcoming. We’d barely unpacked and my mother asked a new friend about a good piano teacher. You never know when these things happen that it will be a life-changing event. But Margaret Ruth Ransom would forever change my everyday existence.
At fifteen, I could tell this woman was special. I had never known anyone with two pianos in the same room. I do remember my first lesson. Shaded by a tall magnolia tree, the white frame house was a few empty lots away from the newest highway, which was heard but not seen as it coursed deeply through the middle of downtown. Painted and lovingly tended, her birthplace stood out among houses that had passed glory long before the highway was even mapped. Walking from the bright fall sun into the dim front hall, one was startled by a pair of large brass Vietnamese candlesticks acting as sentries. On a sofa next to the only lamp, students waited for their lessons as their eyes adjusted to the shadows.
The opening of the sliding panel doors signaled one lesson was over and the next student jumped up quickly, hurrying into the parlor, closing the doors behind her. The sunny front parlor was a shocking contrast to a new student, who was still adjusting to the dark hall and the mysterious candlesticks. A Chickering grand piano stood in one corner of the room, next to the eastern window. An upright piano stood several feet from the grand but was on the same wall. Light and music seemed to always fill the front room. And so I began my lessons with the new teacher in my new town.
Right away, Mrs. Ransom gave me the goal of playing in the National Piano Guild in the spring, a competition with just the judge, the piano and me. At my level, there were nine classical pieces of music to memorize, each with appropriately keyed scales. The preparation and the participation in the Guild remains my most nerve-wracking experience.
During the months leading up to Guild, Mrs. Ransom and I would struggle with each new piece, my fingers slowly learning their place on every key, plodding to learn each step in a path that soon would be just pebbles for me to skip down perfectly. By spring, I would lay awake at night, reviewing the sheet music in my head. The afternoon of my first guild arrived. A missing judge delayed my session. In my nervousness, I confessed to Mrs. Ransom that I hadn’t eaten lunch. I was amazed to watch my strict teacher fly into action, presenting me with a chicken breast sandwich on bread and butter, salted and peppered. That sandwich saved my day and was one of the best I’ve ever had. And I saw my teacher in a totally new way.
At my age, she had been a virtuoso, performing concertos in major cities throughout the country. Piano had always been her life. While she connected with young people, she could hardly imagine anything more important than the piano. I should have practiced more. My extra-curricular school activities did not make her happy. She did not think I should edit my high school newspaper or dance in the school play. My fingernails were seldom short enough. I tried to practice enough because I wanted to make her happy. She did appreciate my little bit of talent. Many a lesson she stood by my side, singing the timing of a phrase, or she would sit down at the other piano and play right along with me, hard pieces to me but she played without the music. She was strict but also praising.
Before my senior year of school, she was diagnosed with cancer. I took a flower to her in the hospital, a brave thing for a seventeen year old to do. After just two years, we had developed a special bond. After the diagnosis, she could keep only a handful of students. She offered to help me prepare for a senior recital but I knew it would be too much. I was happy just to have her, once a week with two keyboards. Being a very private person, she never discussed her illness.
A week before I left for college, I took her to lunch at a tea room, finishing with a showing of exquisite Faberge Eggs, just a little gift for all she had given me. The thrill of trills in Paderewski, the drama of “Moonlight Sonata”, the showy “Malaguena” and a glimpse of Rachmaninoff. She had filled my head with thousands of instructions. More than thirty years later the notes learned in slow precision would come back to my fingers, with practice. To be her pupil was an honor of my young life.
By my sophomore year of college, I was once again “taking piano” through the instruction of a music professor. Striving to be better was not enhanced by this teacher’s emphatic shock that “You have been a pupil of Margaret Ruth Ransom?!” Afterwards, I sought solace in a small practice room where I could play the piano for as long as I wanted. Piano keys and paper and pen had been my pressure reliever for many years. I put a piece of sheet music up on the stand and began to play. I turned the page, still playing. Suddenly I stopped. Penciled in her unique handwriting, Mrs. Ransom had written in the margin, “memorize by December 10.” Today was December 10, but two years later. Tears came to my eyes. She had been dead almost a year. She had spent her last year teaching me. I was good, (not a prodigy) good enough for Margaret Ruth Ransom and she took the time to give.
A deadly tornado blew through downtown one January evening. Mrs. Ransom’s former home was near ground zero. The next day, with a police officer’s permission, my daughter and I walked down the barricaded street, unsure of what we would find. I will never forget the eerie quiet in the middle of a sunny day.
At first I thought all was well, until I spotted the totally de-leafed Magnolia tree. The trunk was like a stick in the ground. The front porch was a little crooked. Going around to the east side of the house, to the window I had gazed from while sitting at the grand, I was barely tall enough to look in.
Standing on old foundation blocks and with a tight grip on the window sill, my heart dropped. Nothing could fix the upheaval left in the storm’s aftermath. The crooked rooms were still standing, but mocking any hope for repairs. I cried for the ruin of her home, which had stood proudly for more than ninety years, unscathed by “progress” or deterioration. One of my favorite rooms in any home was now empty. Plenty of sunshine filled the parlor, but the music had been stripped from this room like the leaves ripped from the front tree. The pianos had been scattered many years before, after her son moved. I cried for my regret at not seeking out their destination. I stood there and cried because I wanted someone to know a special person had made this house alive. Sad and happy tears because death and a storm could never take away the memory of a music teacher and four talented hands playing as one, in the sunny parlor full of two pianos.
a woman waiting "in line" during the Symphony intermission behind (of all people) the lovely music professor full of gushing praise over my piano skills. She didn't recognize me and I didn't renew our old friendship. Really happened. Fall 2012