On the Piano:



In 1932, two years before I was born, my mother was an 18-year-old blonde pretty enough to stop traffic, only five-foot-two but with a superb figure and shapely legs suited to her profession as a dancer, singer and actress. The oldest of the five children of a Virginia railway man and a one-time Baltimore society girl who had married "beneath her" for love, my mother had been forced out of school by financial need when her father lost his job at the onset of the Great Depression.
A powerhouse of natural talent, she drove on undaunted and at 16 was already the headliner of a big movie theater in Washington, D.C., starring in the live entr'acte spectaculars between first-run double features, as epitomized in popular memory by the shows featuring the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
A girlfriend of hers played piano and sang in the sheet-music department of a large Kresge Five-And-Dime retail store of which my father, at 28, was general manager. The friend contacted Mother one morning and asked that she substitute for her because she had a cold. Not having a matinee that day, Mother did so and while she played and sang "Million-Dollar Baby" for a prospective sheet-music customer, my father strolled by and was instantly smitten with love. Why not? She played well, had a thrilling soprano voice, beautiful teeth, a lovely face, dimples as deep as the sea in cheeks blooming under enormous eyes that changed color from gray to green to sky blue depending on what she wore, gloriously blonde hair set in natural curls like a halo ringing her oval face. "I found a million-dollar baby in a five-and-ten cent store," would become, in time, their song.
Although he had fallen desperately, hopelessly in love with the pretty singer, my future father soon realized he probably didn't stand a chance with so sought-after a beauty. Senators and congressmen and millionaire businessmen in the nation's capital panted after her. Stage-door Johnnys crowded around her dressing room after every performance. A famous dancer who became a film star playing, of all things, gangsters, had tried unremittingly to make love to her during rehearsals for a routine to be performed at a White House gala. When she refused, he purposely dropped her into the orchestra pit at the dress rehearsal and called it an accident. The fall could have killed her, but it only caused a slight sprain of an ankle which did, however, cancel their appearance before the President. Young as she was, she had already learned what chicanery and madness men were capable of in matters of unrequited or possessive love.
Perhaps this was why my father's steady pursuit of her, despite his fear that nothing might ever happen between them, began to impress her. He was gentle, not forceful, quite starry-eyed and sweet to be around. He treated her like a person instead of a sex object. He was highly educated; it made her feel inadequate. But he was never condescending, and corrected her grammar with kindness in charming, inoffensive ways. He brought her books and read them aloud to her and with her. Although he was essentially a southerner, as was she, he had led a more cosmopolitan life as the son of a Baptist minister who was also a writer and a learned man, who had demanded education of his children and encouraged them to go out into the world, unlike more provincial men of the cloth.
She remained blissfully unaware of the darker side of this man whom she came gradually to love more for his intellect than his appearance. Of more than average height and slim build, he was neither handsome nor ugly, with regular features, and wore unstylish, round, silver-rimmed glasses although his brilliantined hair was slicked straight back modishly per the fashion of the day. His head of hair, brick red in early youth, had turned oddly dark in college when a mysterious malady seemed to change his body chemistry and he nearly went blind. Still, though, his was the complexion of a fair-haired man inclined to burn, not tan, in the sun, making him happy to cover his orangish-haired chest and back at the pool with the swimming shirts men were universally required to wear for modesty's sake in that more puritanical time before Clark Gable appeared shirtless in "It Happened One Night." A man of generally serious disposition with unhealthy but presentable teeth, he did not often wrinkle his thin lips in a hearty grin. He was not truly austere, but he was inclined to moralize sometimes as his father might have done from the pulpit. He could tell a joke, but his stories were never off-color, certainly not with her.
How could she know that behind that facade of gentle intellect, behind those eyes seemingly aglow with love, there lurked an insanely jealous, wildly possessive, virulent brute?
That the girl who would become my mother agreed to marry the man who would become my father was for him a fluke. For her, it opened a new chapter in which her life would be fraught with more perils than the cinematic Pauline whose cliff-hanging serial endings had brought lumps to Mother’s throat in childhood when there were still pennies to scrape together to make the nickels it cost to get her and her five younger siblings into the magical glow from the flickering light of silent movie screens. The pennies disappeared in the wake of the Great Depression of 1929 after her daddy lost his job on the railroad.
Although he held a lower management position earned after years as a lineman, my grandfather had struggled hard to feed and clothe his family on wages that left little to spare for such luxuries as the films. His had been a struggle from the beginning, even from the day in 1912, when both were 22, that he first saw my grandmother standing on the station platform of a country town in Northern Virginia, waiting for the next train to Baltimore. The struggle then was in his heart. Linemen were not allowed to speak to passengers, but when he saw this dark-haired, tall, elegant, young woman, beautifully gowned and obviously of the landed gentry, turn in his direction and catch his eye from beneath her parasol, he felt a surge of love run through him that nearly knocked him off his feet. In that moment, the train pulled in and shut her out of view. Stunned by her look as though he had taken a blow, he came to his senses when the caboose tail-ending the train came to a halt. He saw through the window the ticket-taking conductor enjoying a quick smoke before the next departure. My grandfather knew the man. Heart pounding wildly, he next took the step that would lead him to the greatest happiness of his life. He sprang up from the track to the platform and dashed into the caboose where he begged his friend to lend him his uniform jacket and let him take over his duties for the run. That done, he strolled through the aisles resplendent in the coat brass-buttoned over his thumping chest, with the conductor’s too-small hat jauntily perched over his blonde hair, looking for the lady who had nearly stopped his heart. There she was, and there was that look again.
By the time the day was over, they had made two round trips to Baltimore together without setting foot in the city either time. By then he knew of her great sadness. She had been divorced, a stigma at the time, following a miserable marriage to a wealthy man who had snatched her from the lineup of debutantes at the Baltimore Cotillion when she was 16, with promises of devotion, and proceeded literally to imprison her for five years in his magnificent home. She had escaped and returned to her family battered and bruised not only of body, but also of mind, vowing never to marry again nor even to turn her gaze toward another man. But on that day in 1912, riding the Baltimore train, her resolve faded into shadows, driven back by the sunshine in my grandfather’s smile. He had no social standing to sacrifice for love. All he had was two strong hands and the will to carry her off in a cloud of dust no matter what people might think or say.
Happy marriages were made in heaven some used to say, and if a heaven there be, the marriage of these two proved the point. If love were money, they would have been millionaires. Their six children bloomed in their lives like a garden giving endless delight. The oldest, my mother, grew up laughing, inheriting my grandmother’s propensity to turn dark moments into jokes and to entertain everyone around her with a song. She sang so sweetly, and played the piano so well by ear, that neighbors gathered on the sidewalk outside the window of a summer evening to while away the humid hours listening to her sing not alone the hits of the day, but the old-time love songs and hymns as well. She was so beautiful when she entered her teens that the brother closest to her in age brought friends home just to watch the sister with the blonde-angel curls dance the Charleston like nobody could. There wasn’t another smile like hers in the whole town of Alexandria, Virginia, where they lived. People came by just to see "that darling girl." Strangers would stop her in the street and touch her hair. "Don’t mean no harm, little miss; I had to do that; it don’t look real!" they’d say and move on enchanted by her curtsy and melodious "thank you."
When the troubles came, when her daddy had no job, she cheerfully dropped out of school in the seventh grade and went to work as a waitress to help make ends meet and to keep her siblings in school. It was over doughnuts and coffee that her future changed. A talent scout for the Earle Theater across the Potomac in what was known in Alexandria as "Washington City" dropped by the cafe one day for "a cuppa java and one of them jelly doughnuts with the red runnin’ out, and make it snappy, sister, I’m a busy man." With the coffee came her brilliant, dimpled smile. Bedazzled, he drew back. "Honey, can you sing?" Indeed she could, not to mention dance on the prettiest legs he and the management at the Earle had seen in years when she performed for them the following Saturday morning. They put her in the chorus, but a face and figure like hers couldn’t be tucked away in the background for long. In a month, she was dancing out front as a solo butterfly, soon to be followed by her debut as a singing star. She was on her way.


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