“C” Fundamental (a process): guest post on writing by Carin Makuz

For years I begged my parents for ballet lessons or maybe tap or please please please could I join the Brownies … the girl down the street knew how to twirl a baton, she took majorette lessons, could I take majorette lessons … any lessons?

Yes, they said. I could study the accordion.

We happened to have a full-size one in the hall closet. How handy.

My only experience of it at that point involved a vague memory of watching the bellows expand and contract one Christmas as my older sister oom-pah-pahed her way through “Silent Night” and the cat peed on the royal-blue velvet lining of the carrying case.

Lessons were Saturday mornings at the something-something school of music uptown. My dad would idle the car in front of the building just long enough for me to slide the case off the back seat and then, giving the Oldsmobile some gas, he’d holler, “Have fun!” — and drive away, honking and waving.

The case was too heavy to lift so I’d clunk it up three flights of narrow stairs, and drag it to the music room where a pale and crumpled instructor would be waiting to hear my latest rendition of “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.” Why he never leapt out the window I can’t imagine.

An hour later my dad would be back, sitting in the car, in excellent humour and smelling of cigars and coffee.

He never said where he’d been and I didn’t ask.

Music standSitting on the edge of my bed, strapped to that beast of an accordion and facing an aluminum music stand, I slogged through several levels of books — orange, purple, yellow — until one horrible day the pale, crumpled man announced there would be a recital in which all students of the something-something school would perform. I was assigned “Brahms’s Lullaby.” Memory goes dim at this point except for the nausea I felt each time I practised Brahms and imagined playing it in front of hundreds, possibly millions, of people. And I still see the book open to the page (a picture of a bassinet swinging in a tree); I still feel the fingers of my right hand poised over the vertical keyboard while my left searches among dozens of bass keys for the indented C Fundamental that puts the rest in perspective.

Sometime before the recital I begged (the pale man? my parents?) to be excused from playing, and after much drama on my part they agreed. This effectively put an end to any future as a concert accordionist; and the urine-scented case, along with my music stand, was retired to its place in the closet.

It was a relief not to see it, and after a while it was all but forgotten.

~~

My parents and my sister have since died, my mother most recently, and while clearing fifty years of memories from her house I am shocked to find an envelope of receipts my dad kept from my lessons — $6 each. It means he must have come inside the store to pay, and for some reason I can’t explain, this insignificant fact is jarring and draws me back into a sense of mystery about those Saturday mornings. I realize I’m still curious about where he went after he dropped me off.

We lived near the Welland Canal and I used to picture him there, on a bench in fine weather with a fat cigar, eyes closed in the sunshine or open and watching a freighter make its way through the lock. But maybe he sat on a stool at the corner diner instead, charming a waitress named Anne-Marie as he ate pecan pie. Or maybe he went home. The funny thing is I was a kid who never hesitated to ask questions, and my dad and I talked about everything, so I wonder what stopped me in this case. It’s that “what” that niggles.

At the back of my mother’s hall closet I find the old music stand, much flimsier than I remember, but no accordion, and then a few years later my “great-niece” — the granddaughter my sister did not live to meet — tells me one day out of the blue that there’s an accordion in her basement, that her grandma used to play it. I don’t tell her I used to play too. I don’t want to dilute the few stories she has about her grandmother. But it’s not just that. I feel immediate discomfort at the mention of it. Again, I wonder why.

Whenever I try writing about this, I do so in fragments, quirky at best, but always sensing a deeper layer I can’t name … The loss of my sister? The mystery of how my dad spent that hour? Surely not the trauma of Brahms?

I’d like to leave it there, quirky and fragmented. I tell myself it’s a waste of time to poke around any further and I almost believe it, but then I’m reminded of the rule in writing, how when you get to that place where things are uncomfortable and you’re tempted to stop, that’s exactly when you need to keep going. At least if you want to find something worth finding.

Geez, I hate that rule.

And so, while I haven’t a clue what’s connected to that crazy old accordion, I’m willing to strap it back on, clunk my way up that staircase, and wave goodbye to my dad again and again (seems I didn’t escape after all when I ditched the recital) until I find that oddly shaped key, the C Fundamental, the one your finger fits into automatically, the one that puts everything around it in perspective.

♦     ♦     ♦

CARIN MAKUZ spends long hours writing short fiction. Essays too. Occasionally these words are published in journals and magazines, broadcast on CBC Radio, or win prizes. All of which brightens her days immensely. Despite years of accordion lessons and a brief fling with the guitar, she is not musical. A novel remains under construction. Oddly, a piano features prominently.

Carin can be found thinking out loud at Matilda Magtree.

 

Comments

  1. Mary says:

    Carin,
    This is an entertaining and vivid moment remembered in your life. You’ve made me curious about your dad’s happy disappearance, too. Just picturing you as a little girl bumping that accordion case up the stairs to the “pale, crumpled man” brings back memories of my piano teacher. She had 4 sons and my lesson was at dinnertime on cub and scout night. She wrapped a tea towel around her waist for an apron and made dinner for her rowdy brood. She’d pop her head in the living room where I was seated at the piano, hardly noticing me. I hope my parents weren’t pay $6 an hour for the neglect.

    I identify with your bewilderment at being in the situation you were with the (dreaded) accordion. My father used to pick me up from the lessons on his way home from work as it was too far to walk. Like you, I have questions I can’t find answers for. Who got me to the lessons? My mother didn’t drive a car and Dad would never come home from work early.

    See? You’ve unearthed all the unanswered questions that kids forget to ask, or don’t recall.

    And I too recall the music books with pictures (supposed to numb the pain of reading music, I guess). I only lasted a year, so you are a huge success in my eyes.

  2. Beautiful, Carin. So funny, and so touching too. I could see it all unfolding as I read == but sorry, I can’t tell where your father went either…

  3. carin says:

    Mary, what an image! You there, neglected at the piano while apron lady shuffles about in the kitchen. The things we remember, eh? That it was cub and scout night… I’ll bet you can still see the apron.

    Are your folks alive? Can you ask who got you to those lessons? I wonder if I were to ask my dad, would he even remember? I suspect it might remain none of my business. Sometimes the answers we’re looking for aren’t meant to come from others anyway.

    BTW, I suspect your one year of piano trumps my several books of accordion. I learned nothing but I can still hear my rendition of ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes’. What was your big number? (:

    • Mary says:

      My parents are gone, sadly. I still have the music books somewhere in the far corners of my basement – yuck. Why, I as myself?

      Just to confuse the image, I think my lesson night was Brownie night too, which would have started at 7:00 ish. The piano lesson must have been from 5:30 – 6:30 pm, and I would have worn my Brownie uniform (Sprite pin polished). Dad would have brought my two sisters (another Brownie, a Guide) with him to retrieve me and dropped us off at the local church where the cubs and scouts met at the same time (big suburban church of the 50s). So maybe Dad DID come home a little early to take me to my lesson. We then walked home from Brownies and Guides, Cubs and Scouts in a big gang of kids, dropping them off as we passed their homes along the way, until we, farthest, got home. Mystery solved to my satisfaction!

  4. carin says:

    Kristen, it’ll have to remain a mystery. Or become a story. (;

    Lovely to ‘see’ you again! Hope all’s well.

  5. Suzanne Adam says:

    Beautifully written!

  6. Marilyn says:

    What a lovely story. I took piano lessons for many years and I know very well that feeling of fear and helplessness before a recital.

  7. Cheryl says:

    You pulled me into your little girl world here, Carin, of indented Fundamental C, royal-blue velvet and bad cat behaviour. A beautifully written and captivating memory. It sparks recall. I always knew when grandpa was coming to the front door. His cigar smoke arrived moments ahead of the doorbell. I asked for ballet lessons and my parents laughed. I have skinny legs, you see, and my knee caps never really grew up. I made up my own grand ballet steps and danced through the house at will. My brother took the accordion lessons … his practice times sent me spinning out the door.

    • carin says:

      Oh, I love that image of cigar smoke preceding your grandpa. Those men did tend to like their stogies, didn’t they? I ended up doing my own dance class thing too, in my bedroom. Choreographed a whole number to Pennies from Heaven. Let me know if you’d like to see it some time. (;

      • Cheryl says:

        Oh yes,please! I’m sure we can find the tune and you can perform! I may even join you if there’s sufficient w(h)inning involved. Perhaps a performance ah la tutu’s in the woods, near the waterfall?

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