Certain melodies can break your heart
just seeing them on the page, their plump ovals
bobbing like sea gulls on the surface
of some moonless tide…
There’s a small music chest next to our ancient Kimball upright piano. Tellingly, the top drawers these days hold computer and photo papers, but the others are crammed with old collections of Simplified Classics, Irish songs, folk ballads, pop hits, and Christmas music. Some time ago, I pulled out a thick and battered book, Masterpieces of Piano Music, published in 1918 and held together with black tape. Many pages were bent for easy access, but when I began to flip through it, the book opened naturally to page 53, Beethoven’s “Minuet in G.” I played the first measures (with difficulty — my right pinkie no longer works), and was carried back to Brooklyn and Mr. Herbert, my long-suffering piano teacher.
When I was growing up, America was a socially fluid country. We loved our crowded block of newish rowhouses in Flatbush (from vlacke bos, early Dutch for “flat woodland”). Flatbush was flat, all right, but bushes and trees were minimal. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, came out in 1943, when I was 11. The story, with its symbolic tree, spoke to us deeply: an Irish-American family — our mother was Kathleen McDonald — trying to rise in the world, battling alcoholism, poverty, and prejudices of various kinds. Music is a large part of the book (Neeley, the brother of the heroine, Francie, becomes a jazz pianist), and each night Francie “had to read a page of the Bible and a page from Shakespeare. That was a rule.” I thought it was the greatest, saddest book I had ever read, and although I don’t remember exactly what year I read it, at that point in my life, it was.
On any given day on our street, small groups of us would be playing stickball, stoopball, or games like “3 Steps to Germany” or “Red Rover Red Rover.” It wasn’t crowded, because up and down the street the tinkling sound of hesitant fingers trying to master “Robin in the Cherry Tree” floated through the open windows. We children were taking piano lessons to show that our families were upwardly mobile, and were going to get cultured whether we wanted to or not.
Our mother was a gifted pianist and, eventually, a piano teacher, so she taught my sister Pat and me the basics before shipping us out to Mr. Herbert. Brooklyn, even back then, had fine transportation, and we learned to take combinations of subways and buses from Flatbush, through Bensonhurst (“Bensonhoist,” we’d say, and for that matter, “Mr. Hoibet!), to his home in Bay Ridge. Of course, we worked on losing our accents, but didn’t until, after the war, we moved to Noo Joisey. Back home, Pat and I would race each other down the stairs in the early morning to be first to practice (freeing us to play in the streets later).
Now, fiddling inexpertly with Beethoven, I feel waves of affection for our old neighborhood, when music got implanted in our lives. Pat and I, and our youngest sister Carol, never reached the heights of our mother’s musical ability (though Carol could sing like an angel), but the three of us have been shaded by that tree all our lives.
As the 1974 movie, The Lords of Flatbush — starring a young Sylvester Stallone — showed, our street went through some tough times, overrun by drugs and gangs; but it’s come back to life, stronger than ever. We knew Brooklyn was tough.
During her 90th birthday celebration (she died at 93), Mom, under some pressure, sat down at the grand piano in Pat’s home — Pat’s husband Dick is a fine pianist. “I can’t remember anything,” Mom said, holding her frail rickety hands over the keyboard. And then, after a few tentative chords, Beethoven returned to her fingers, and she began to play.
on their frail stems still skittering
in clusters down the yellowing page
like children playing “3 Steps to Germany”
in Brooklyn, one December evening, 1941.
—Both quotes from “Minuet in G” by Peter Meinke, from Liquid Paper, U. of Pittsburgh Press (1991).