"We had the experience but missed the meaning."
I was a thin 12-year-old walking eight blocks to the music house, located, fittingly enough, at the top of Summit Avenue. In the parlor on the right stood a baby grand piano with top lifted and bench waiting. Next to the bench, Mrs. Susco sat in flowering, flowing garments. The door was always open, so pupils came and went, even as Mrs. Susco sat and waited.
Having graduated to Debussy's "Clair de Lune," I began. Outside, the sun shone brilliantly. Inside, "the moon" of the piece slid from one phase to another as my fingers rose and fell on the keys. I played through every stage of the moon even as Mrs. Susco sat in flowing fashion, with now and then a tap on my slack fingers.
One day my mother announced that Mrs. Susco would no longer be giving music lessons. "She's expecting."
My mouth dropped.
Still no response.
Finally, my mother said, "Mrs. Susco is having a baby."
I thought of the flowing garments and what they were concealing. I wondered what it all meant.
What it meant was that my enterprising mother had to find a new music teacher.
What it meant was taking a bus, then walking five blocks to the De Silva Music Store, a dark, dusty place with used guitars dangling from walls.
A narrow stairwell led to a dim basement with mouse droppings and an overwhelming stench. No grand piano there, only a simple upright and the proprietor's daughter giving lessons. And so I descended from Summit Avenue to a dark cellar, from the light of the moon to a small lamp, from "Clair de Lune" to "Malaguena."
Soon the moon gave way to dancers and a stomping, clapping, swirling sea of color in a rodent-infested basement. My mother had no idea, only that "Malaguena" would forever be her favorite piece.
Come recital time, the De Silva pupils assembled in the city's Museum of Fine Art. My parents and restless siblings sat through an hour of fumbling fingers and polite applause.
Finally, it was my turn. If medals were awarded, mine would be bronze. Since neither teacher used a metronome, my rhythm was erratic. Even so, "Malaguena" was rousing, dramatic, bringing the audience to its feet.
Many years have passed, many miles, many changes. All the while, Summit Avenue and the dark basement remain. So does the music, rising and falling in major keys and minor.
These are the things I learned.
That every peak comes tinged with darkness this side of heaven.
That it is a steep climb to a world transfigured with light and God's voice in the clouds.
That every heart harbors a moon, waxing and waning and sometimes disappearing.
That the sun rises a ribbon at a time wrapping the day for a gift.
That pinpoints of light dance on darkness, stomp on darkness.
Always, pinpoints of light.
That life is an Olympic event. You can play it safe or fling yourself off a snowy hill, do glorious flips in the air, and land with broken bones or flat on your feet.
[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. "We were called Sister" (U.S. Catholic) was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the Catholic Press Association.]
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