I remember Ruth’s parlor and how the corridor of her apartment smelled: candle wax and perfume. Every Wednesday evening, my grandmother walked me four blocks up the hill from home and deposited me in the lobby of Ruth’s building. Sometimes she would wait for me on one of the cushioned chairs in that expansive lobby with marble floors, or run errands and come back an hour later to take me home.
I sat next to Ruth on the hard piano bench and tried to shake out the nervousness in my hands. The old-fashioned clock hanging on the wall behind me chimed, deep and resonating.
“Play it first,” I would tell her, when she picked out the new piece we would be working on.
Her bright blue eyes would crinkle and her lips spread into a knowing smile. She would say, “No. It’s too easy for you that way.”
She knew I was a lazy student who wanted to mimic a song after hearing it once. My penchant for this was not too impressive, but it helped me avoid the grueling work of deciphering each note. I would do the treble clef under my breath, E,G,B,D,F, or F,A,C,E. The bass clef always troubled me the most, and as I pressed the keys tentatively I would look up to Ruth, my eyes guessing the notes.
“That doesn’t sound right,” I said.
“Forget about what it sounds like,” she said. “Is it the right note?”
Sometimes I would look at her brooch. It was the white silhouette of a woman’s profile embedded in a dark green stone, and Ruth wore it every time I had a lesson. Her short red hair fascinated me. Although she seemed ageless, I knew from my mother that she was a widow and Jewish and had survived the Holocaust. Yet she seemed too young to be my grandmother’s age and much older than my mother.
I would go home afterwards and do my homework. I could hear the muffled sound of the television coming from my parents’ bedroom, where my mother would be lying in bed with the door closed. Late at night my father would come home from work. I would hear his truck groaning into the driveway and then the soft slam of the driver’s door.
My parents argued frequently, and at any time of day. My room was adjacent to theirs and I would hear them late at night. Sometimes my mother cried for a long time or there was a queer silence that eventually drifted me off to sleep. If my grandmother heard anything, she never showed signs of knowing, and woke me up every morning to get me ready for school; my mother stayed in her room or was seldom at home when I returned.
“I miss my mother,” I told Ruth one afternoon. It had snowed heavily the evening before, and my boots were on the mat in front of her doorway, my mittens and coat draped over the radiator. We had just sat down to go over the piece I should have practiced during the week.
Ruth raised her eyebrows, “Is she on a trip?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “She’s always in her room.”
“Is she sick?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “If she’s sick, then she’s been sick for a long time.”
We went over the piece, and I fumbled through it. The less Ruth corrected me the more self-conscious I became of my mistakes, and by the end of it I was in tears.
“I guess I didn’t practice enough,” I mumbled when I was done.
“So we’ll practice it now,” she said. “Let’s start from the beginning.”
On one particular afternoon my father had come home very early, surprising my grandmother and I. We were sitting at the kitchen table going over my math homework, and he just walked in without saying a word. We heard him head towards my parents’ bedroom and when he closed the door behind him he started yelling. He was so loud that I couldn’t actually hear his words. Suddenly there was a huge crash. Before my grandmother could stop me, I scrambled out of my seat and ran. It was as if the door flew open when I gripped and turned the knob, and there I saw the scene: the bureau turned over onto the floor, the picture frames scattered and broken, my mother’s hand-mirror on the other side of the room. My mother was sitting in bed with her face in her hands, making no sound. My father’s back was to me, and I don’t know if he knew I was standing there, but he would not turn around. His fists were clenching and releasing and he stood quietly. When my mother looked up and saw me, she immediately covered the side of her face with one hand and I could already see the large red welt that would form into a bruise.
At that moment I expected my grandmother to say something. She had never interfered when my parents argued, and although she was my father’s mother, I wondered at that moment if she cared for my mother at all.
“You don’t tell her anything, okay?” my grandmother said. By “her” she meant Ruth. It was only minutes later and we were trudging up the hill for my piano lesson.
That afternoon my grandmother waited in the lobby for me.
“Hello,” Ruth said, opening the door decorously. Standing in her apartment and taking off my winter coat felt peculiar after what had just transpired. The gray sky had dimmed the room, and all the lamps were lit. There was a phonograph playing jazz music softly in the background, and from her window I could see the snow falling.
I sat on the piano bench next to her and opened to the piece I should have been practicing during the week, “At Home.” I pressed each note reluctantly without looking at her. When I was finished I stared at my hands in my lap. It was very quiet and the snow was now falling thickly like short feathers rushing down from the sky.
“You know what?” she asked. I could hear the smile in her voice. She touched her brooch lightly and said, “I miss that other piece you were playing this past October. I would really love to hear it.” We both knew how easy that piece would be for me, but I found it and started playing it. I didn’t rush through it like I usually did, but played each note clearly without pausing and was elated by the familiarity of it. I didn’t make any mistakes.
She started clapping immediately after I finished. “That was wonderful,” she said. “Just wonderful.” I smiled for the first time that afternoon. I spent the hour playing all the pieces I had already learned.
When I was dressed and turned to the door to leave, she said my name, “Emily.” I looked at her and she knelt down and gave me a hug. “I’ll see you next week, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
My grandmother was still in the lobby and stood up immediately. “Did you tell her anything?” was the first thing she asked.
I shook my head, and we walked back home without speaking.
One morning my mother wasn’t in her room when I woke up. I knew because the bedroom door was wide open. I walked in and felt the immediate cold from the wind. My grandmother had opened the windows, and she was in the middle of stripping the bed sheets.
“Where did she go?” I asked her.
She didn’t look up and started pulling off the pillowcase covers. “She’ll be back soon. She left on a trip.”
“Emily, have you even washed your face and brushed your teeth?”
I was furious that she thought of sidetracking me with such mediocre distractions. “I want to know where she is!” I said, stamping my foot. I had surprised the both of us; I was not a demanding child.
My grandmother sighed and stopped what she was doing. “She wasn’t feeling well. When she gets back she’ll be feeling much better.”
My daily routine that week felt more monotonous than ever. I felt myself rise in the morning, get dressed and wait for the school bus from the kitchen window. I sat through my classes wordlessly, and when the day came my grandmother walked me to my piano lesson. “I’ll be back in an hour,” she said, and looked at me hard with warning.
“How are you today?” Ruth asked as I positioned myself on the bench.
“I’m okay,” I said, shrugging lightly. I wouldn’t look at her.
“What’s this?” she said, surprised. “Not even a smile for me today?”
My hands were in my lap. I stared at them for a while. I felt the warmth of her hand on my back. “Emily?”
“I’m fine,” I whispered. I clenched my teeth to keep the sound escaping from my throat. “I’m fine,” and then without warning I started to sob. I kept my head down, letting my hair hang by the sides of my face, my hands still in my lap. She kept her hand on my back and let me cry until I finally stopped. She gave me tissues and waited. Finally I turned to her. “I don’t know where my mother is,” I said. “My grandmother told me she went on a trip and but didn’t tell me where she is. She was always in her room before this, and my father and her fight, and one day he pushed the dresser on the floor….” I told Ruth everything. Her face was frozen in disbelief as I spoke, and then just like out of a fairy tale her clock chimed, and I knew I had to leave.
I didn’t have to say anything when my grandmother saw me. “You told her, didn’t you?” she asked, and without waiting for a reply she grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of the building. She walked quickly, the snow and ice crunching beneath her boots. I staggered behind until finally I stopped and let her keep going. She didn’t notice until she was halfway down the block and turned around. “Let’s go, Emily!” she called out. I looked at her, unwilling to move. She marched back and stood over me, “Emily, let’s go.”
“Why?” I yelled. I had never raised my voice to her or my parents. “Why should I? I want my mother!” I screamed. “I want my mother! Where is she?” A passerby stopped to stare. She grabbed me by the arm tightly and tried to pull me down the block. I was only nine years old, and I resisted mightily but she had me stumbling next her until I started walking.
I went straight to my room when we walked into the house. I threw my bag on the floor and ripped my coat off. Perhaps my mother would never come back. Did they think I would eventually forget her and they wouldn’t have to tell me the truth? I pictured my mother a few years before, how lively she was and the dinner parties she hosted. Her long brown hair fell to her shoulders and the dresses she wore were beautiful and bold and her laughter carried through the house. My father would be sipping a drink and talking to a friend in a corner of the parlor, quietly watching her but not smiling. I sat on my bed and stared out the window, watching the sky darken. The snow continued to fall; the soft flakes visible under the singular lights of the streetlamps.
It would be months before I would see my mother again. One summer morning after my father had left for work, my grandmother told me to get dressed because we were going somewhere special. I put on a blue and white seersucker dress that my mother had bought me the year before. We boarded a bus and I sat next to the window, marveling at the intense clear blueness of the sky, the sunlight coloring the leaves of the trees whizzing past us.
I had continued going to Ruth during the months following my mother’s absence. I suppose it was a relief for my grandmother, who had grown visibly tired of my protests to do anything I was told. Occasionally, my father would intervene during dinner and tell me to behave, his voice flat and withdrawn. At first I had refused to leave my bed to get dressed and go to school. With what strength she had left, my grandmother would carry me into the bathroom and I would kick and scream in her grip, pushing away the toothbrush she brought to my lips and spitting out the toothpaste without even brushing.
“I’m tired too,” she said once, sitting on the toilet seat cover. She took off her glasses and placed them on her lap and looked at me plainly. “I promise you will see your mother again. She is not ready yet. You can’t understand this now, but you may one day.”
Those afternoons sitting on the piano bench with Ruth were what I had to look forward to. I seldom played the piano. We never spoke about the day I had cried to her, but when I arrived at her door she ushered me in and hung up my things as if nothing had happened. We still sat on the piano bench together, with my book propped open as if we were beginning a new piece. But instead of playing the piano I talked. I missed my mother. I wanted to see her. As I sat next to my grandmother on the bus, I thought about Ruth and our afternoons together, the moments blurred in time, none of them in the permanent sequence of my memory. My grandmother and I were quiet throughout the trip, neither of us attempting a conversation, both absorbed in our own thoughts. Briefly I glanced at her, and saw her gripping the handle of her purse, her thumb rubbing back and forth absently.
The scenery changed and the rows of houses turned into large buildings, gray and ordinary, their numbers made of sharp glistening metal. Finally my grandmother stood up and I followed her out of the bus down two blocks. There was a building recessed on top of a hill that stood on an expansive green lawn. As we approached the entrance, we were ushered in by automatic sliding doors. I felt my skin prickle from the sudden chill of the air-conditioning, and my feet squeaked on the shiny floors as I continued to follow my grandmother to the reception desk. She leaned in and spoke quietly to the woman sitting behind the desk. I looked around and saw a large room with a television set in the middle and a piano off to the side. Some people were sitting around a small table, playing cards. Others sat by themselves staring at nothing, and I watched them hoping to catch any faint expression that might flicker across their faces.
My grandmother kept muttering something under her breath as I followed her again down a narrow corridor. “Three-seventy-two. Three-seventy-two.” We almost walked past the room. The door was slightly open. My grandmother knocked and without waiting for an answer, walked in.
She wasn’t facing us. She was looking out a large window that overlooked the gardens behind the building.
“Rosemary,” my grandmother said and cleared her throat. “Look who’s here to see you.” My grandmother nudged me and I walked over to her.
“Hi, Mom,” I said.
When she turned to look at me, her eyes seemed familiar, but nothing else. And then she smiled. “Emily,” she said. “Emily.” She hugged me and then released me and said, “Stand a little back. Let me see you.” I did as I was told but was too busy looking her over, absorbing the shortness of her hair, the blue housecoat she was wearing that I had never seen before. It would be years later that she would explain to me – my father’s jealousy and abuse, her nervous breakdown.
I don’t know when it was that I stopped seeing Ruth. Sometimes I walk past her building and find the window of her apartment, the same window I looked through from the inside as a child. Once I even walked inside, searching through the names listed next to the black buzzers, but she wasn’t there. I want to tell her all about my mother because I know Ruth would want to know. I wonder if she always did, but was waiting for me.
Assisi Journal – March 2011