Thursday, June 3, 2010

Saying Good-Byes (Ch.4 Pt.3)

It was a hot, sticky afternoon in early June. Mrs. Scriven's studio, on the second floor of Boston Music School, sweltered from the heat. Mrs. Scriven met us in the foyer for a lesson in the small recital room downstairs. Her friend, the piano teacher Edna Nitkin, was busy fanning herself with a a book of Czerny Etudes. When Miss Nitkin saw us standing at the doorway, she bolted from the room. Edna Ida Nitkin was a proud woman who, in her youth, had beat Leonard Bernstein at the Mason & Hamlin Annual Competition held at New England Conservatory. She had been awarded the prize by Serge Koussevitzky, Harold Bauer and Joseph Lhevinne, and immediately engaged as soloist with the Boston Symphony. But her greatest pride, in later years, was her Rapunzel-length hair; her crowning achievement. Edna Nitkin was short and stooped, and I thought she was about a hundred years old. My mother was determined to change Edna's style, as she noted that Edna's hair made her look like Cousin Itt from the Addam's Family.

One Christmas, during a gift-giving exchange, my mother, eager with good intent, had purchased a short black wig for Edna, who was at the time my piano teacher. As Miss Nitkin dutifully opened the red and green package from Jordan Marsh, her gnarled fingers trembled with anticipation. "Oh, I wonder what this is!" she exclaimed with glee. But after she untied the ribbon, tore open the box, and found a black polyester/nylon wig that resembled roadkill, she screamed with horror. Edna Nitkin flung the wig onto the floor, and fled from the room in tears. "How could you?" she cried. My piano lessons with Edna Nitkin ended right then and there. My mother had tried to make up with Edna each time their paths crossed, at lessons and recitals, even on the steps of the music school. "Oh Edna. Please don't be angry with me. I just thought you might enjoy a new look, that's all, to emphasize your beautiful face. I wear wigs all the time—they're in vogue."
But it was to no avail. Edna Nitkin's memory was as long as her hair. 

"I'm shvitzing," said Mrs. Scriven wiping the perspiration off her forehead with a handkerchief. She acknowledged Edna Nitkin's flight from the foyer with rolled eyes. "If we open the windows it just gets warmer. The humidity is making me meshugge. How are you darling?"
I nodded and muttered, "OK."
"Sarah," my mother said reaching for Mrs. Scriven's hand. "We need to talk about the rest of summer, and Marjorie's future. I have news."
"Oh? What sort of news?"
"It's just that—"
"Yes? Come on. What is it? Let's go sit down before we all pass out from this unbearable heat."

She led us to a round table in the sitting room. I placed my elbows on the surface and clasped my hands as if in prayer.
"Well. Our Marjorie has been offered a scholarship to Meadowmount."
Mrs. Scriven sighed loudly and took off her glasses to wipe them.
"So? What about it? It's only a summer music camp. Perhaps she'll get to be with other children for a change. We'll continue our work in the fall."
"Well, I'm afraid—"
"Afraid of what, Mrs. Kransberg?"
"Marjorie's been accepted to Juilliard, on scholarship, as well."
"Oh? Is that right? Well, I hope you're not scheming to have Marjorie leave me for that greedy, over-rated, pupil snatcher, Ivan Galamian."
My mother cleared her throat. "Well, eventually she'd like to study with Ivan Galamian. But for now Marjorie has been encouraged to work with one of his assistants."
Mrs. Scriven's face reddened. She looked searchingly across the table.
"Darling. Do you want to leave me for another teacher? An assistant that you have never met?"
My heart sank.
"Tell Mrs. Scriven what Mr. Galamian told you," my mother coaxed.
I fidgeted. The heat had made my legs stick to the chair.
"Go ahead Darling. Tell me what that pupil snatcher said. What was so revelatory?"
"It's—it's my bow arm. He says that it needs—um, work."
"Oh yeah? What sort of work?" she snapped.
"I'm not sure," I whispered, groping for words.
"And only he or some assistant can help you? Don't you see? That's his shtick. First the assistant does all the work. And then Galamian—who does he think he is really, Svengali?—gets all the credit."

My mother fingered her soft, brown hair. "Lynn Chang studies with Ivan Galamian."
After an awkward silence, Mrs. Scriven continued. "That's different. Lynn is considerably older than Marjorie, and he went from me to Alfred Krips. I would've sent Marjorie on to someone else if I felt the time was right."
"But Mr. Galamian seems to feel that younger is better when it comes to advancing the technique."
"Look, I'm not going to waste my time arguing with you, Mrs. Kransberg. If you want to schlep your daughter all the way to New York for lessons with some assistant to Ivan Galamian, go ahead. I can tell you've made up your mind—"
"Sarah, I hope you'll understand. We think the world of you. Marjorie wouldn't be where she is today if it weren't for you."
Mrs. Scriven's brown eyes filled with tears. I had difficulty looking in her direction, for I felt ashamed, and at a loss for words.

Years later, while pregnant with my second child named after her, I would travel across the country to share a magic moment with Sarah Scriven. I would tell her that I loved her dearly, that she was, in fact, one of the greatest influences in my life. And Mrs. Scriven, in her inimitable way, would reveal her sincerest thoughts: "Truth be told, I never really liked your mother." 
In her late eighties, Mrs. Scriven possessed the same feisty temperament as she had when I studied with her. "I felt that your mother pushed too hard, and I always worried for you. I could see the strain on your father's face, as if he didn't understand his place or role in your life. You were such a Mama's girl, weren't you?"
I was taken aback, of course, and a bit shaken. But, as I had students of my own by this time, I let her muse about a life spent in music, and was eager to hear her advice.
"Through teaching, I have friends all over the world. There's a little piece of me in every one of my pupils, and their pupils too. And if there's one thing I've learned, Marjorie, it's this: No matter how difficult things may seem, when you've loved a person, you love them forever."
photo from The Music Trade Review, June 1931:
Edna Nitkin at the piano, her teacher J.M. Sanroma on right