Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Ma soeur"

My sister and I started piano lessons when we were in grades 3 and 2, respectively. Why do I feel so old, now, remembering that we spent all our weekday lunch-hours at the convent, alternating between practice rooms not much bigger than the upright pianos they held, rooms where the glass-paned doors pushed out into the central room with its semi-circle of tiny desks surrounding the teaching sister, perched kind and attentive behind a slightly larger upright?

She wore a wig--or, rather, more than one, because I noticed one day that her hair changed colour from day to day, perfectly curled, immovable. She had thick-lensed glasses in thick plastic frames. Her eyes were owlish, comically enlarged. Her face was crinkled, but somehow dewy, too, pink-cheeked and radiant. She wore drab, practical A-line skirts, secretary blouses, acrylic sweaters in roses and mauves. Her glasses had a chain.

Her fingers were not long, that I noticed, but each one seemed articulated on its own, pinky as powerful as index, thumb delicate, the whole hand deft and quick in ways running counter to her age, her dress, her implacable demeanour.

Her name was Soeur Lucia--we all called her "Ma Soeur", 'my sister'. The music rooms took up about a quarter of the first floor of the French Catholic convent across the yard from our French Catholic school. (There were fewer English Catholic nuns, associated with Holy Name rather than la paroisse francaise, and they lived in a small house near the downtown, the house my friend P now lives in.)

When the lunch bell would ring, my sister and I walked over together from school. There were two practice rooms and the main piano. There were seats enough for about six children in the main room, although sometimes we spilled out into the vestibule. We would take turns daily in the practice rooms, for ten or fifteen minutes, and spend the rest of the hour seated in the main room, puzzling over musical theory, writing out scales and notes and rests in proper notation. Later transposing passages from one key to another, and naming intervals and chords. Once a week we had our 30 minute turn at the main piano with Ma Soeur, where she would listen to what we had practiced from the week before, teach us something new.

I remember: beautiful new books full of songs to learn, 10 notes all told, for one hand to play. Illustrations that sparked the imagination. Snatches of tune: old black Joe? Really? I remember: the soporific heat and damp of so many kids and their wet snowsuits, crammed into a room together. Hissing radiators. I remember: the days of my proper lesson, I was permitted to leave my grade 3 class early, to eat my lunch in blessed solitude and quiet in the A/V room before heading to the convent. I remember: loving Soeur Lucia, wanting to please her, but being, at the same time, generally lazy about practicing. Many details are really fuzzy, though: did we do the lessons in French? (I think so) Who were the other kids? (I absolutely do not remember) How many years did we do this? (I'll have to ask Mom).

I remember: before doing my first Royal Conservatory exam, for my Grade 1 Proficiency, entering the convent proper. What a shock! Behind the music rooms, a house! Hardwood floors and plaster walls in a pale green. General quiet and peace, and murmurings of French. A very old television, in a large wooden casing. A couch with wooden arms. Cold winter daylight.

I remember ma soeur getting thinner, quieter, disappearing into herself. I remember she died and the lessons at the convent stopped. I remember being sad about this, and I remember the other nuns having the children and their parents over to the music rooms one last time, to pick over Soeur Lucia's meager teacherly effects, for a remembrance. We chose a wooden pencil-holder, a carved but unassuming block of oak, with holes drilled in for pencils and pens to stand in. Today it sits on my parents' breakfast bar, Way the Hell Up North, next to their telephone and message pad.

I look at it and remember my own past, but as that time recedes further away it strikes me more and more as implausible, archaic, incomprehensible. The convent has closed, been torn down, actually. My elementary school now houses all the French students in the districk, JK to 8, and rooms still languish, empty. My parents have moved away. Ma soeur. She smelled like soap and steam. My fingers could span five notes, and my feet didn't touch the floor.


Omaha Mama said...

It's a beautiful picture you paint here. Although I'm having trouble picturing you at a Catholic school. The French part though, I totally get.

slouching mom said...

this is lovely. really lovely.

NotSoSage said...

They're disappearing, the old girls, aren't they? Sad and strange it is.

Lovely post, Mimi.

Mad said...

That's a killer last line.

Did you know that MadDad comes from a long line of Nuns and Priests. Figuratively speaking, so to speak.

Pacing the Panic Room said...

totally put your reader in that practice room with you, great post. And I agree on a killer last line.

Beck said...

Oh, so pretty. Did you know there used to be a convent in my town, and they had a bakery? It was torn down right before 1980, but I still remember seeing very, very old nuns walking together through town.