Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
keys made of ivory
Although she slept on the fire escape to catch any limp wind that might make a sultry summer New York City night less exhausting, she noticed the stars. Inside the open window five stories up, without elevator assistance, was a bedroom shared by five children who all attended P.S.#28; her mother slept on a day bed in the parlor.
She recited "Evangeline" to the darkness, hummed a tune, imagined what it would feel like to stroke fibers on a puffed-sleeved dress that was not handed down from a relative's closet. She also figured how many coins she'd need in order to buy a doughnut filled with strawberry jelly. The metal of the fire escape did not feel like iron bars but rather a bird cage and she was the songbird.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star..." Her hazel eyes looked upward, past the tenements' tops, and searched for silver flickers in the night.
For five cents, she could see a chapter from the "Perils of Pauline" on a Saturday afternoon at a movie theatre, if she could find an adult to purchase the ticket. This treat was worth the chore of waiting on line for coal for the stove used to both cook and, in winter, heat the apartment. A movie was a luxury but music a necessity.
Street sounds of women singing in Yiddish, Italian, French, and so forth were a merging of cultures. Each lullaby was also a remembrance of a loved one left in an Eastern European country. Caruso was idolized in the opera world, but the women rocking babies and repeating generations of soothing sounds gave her more satisfaction. She, too, would keep this chain of chanting and give it as a gift to her own children.
Music. Wealthy women traveled in elegant horse-drawn carriages; they used powder puffs made, for income, by poor widows. But even the poor could listen to the magic of instruments and vocal chords blending into a beautiful composition.
"Piano, Mama." And in a middy blouse and navy skirt, she learned to play ivory keys that made sounds when felt-tipped hammers struck strings. With dexterity, she moved slender fingers and depressed keys. "I can earn money, Mama, by teaching piano. I can earn enough so we can have a collection of 25-cent pieces to run the apartment gas meter."
Did her mama stroke wisps of hair and smile at a twelve year old in 1920? Did her mama imagine the possibilities of American dreamers? Did her mama ever share the stars from the fire escape?
How many pennies did it take to buy frail white ribbons to place in a thirteen year old girl's shiny hair? At least there was no sales tax added to the purchase. And, as in her copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline, "Something there was in her life incomplete, imperfect, unfinished; As if a morning of June, with all its music and sunshine, Suddenly paused in the sky..." Was she nervous? Was she filled with disbelief? Had she wished on a star for such a situation where the powdered women would wear fine attire and settle in seats to watch and listen...to her?
My mother was thirteen when she stepped on the stage at Carnegie Hall and played the piano. With a dancer's grace, she slid from the wooden bench to accept the audience's applause. A sliver of satin ribbon touched her cheek as she nodded to the crowd. No one before had ever worn that ribbon; no one in her family had ever performed at a world-famous music theatre. No one in the audience knew about her feather bed shared by siblings, five floor walk-up tenement, hand-sewing she did to make the dress she performed in; no one cared about anything except the talented teen who had provided tender music.
As I now sing the same lullabies to my grandchildren that her mother sang, I feel privileged to add another link to the chain of generations. But my mother taught me that the darkest, most sultry night need not be filled with moist skin and despair; there are always stars if one looks through the clouds. My mother encouraged the endless possibilities of imagination, and made me understand that dreams do come true sometimes.
Whenever I have moments of self-doubt, I've only to go into my living room, sit down on the wooden bench upholstered with her 1941, handmade, petit-point cover, and play melodies from my own childhood on the Baby Grand my father bought in 1939. Now, 2019, five generations have made music on that specific instrument which has always been called 'my mother's piano'. Her legacy. We've each our own 'Carnegie Hall' type places in our dreams, and as I slipped a sliver of pale satin into one of my great-granddaughter's blond strands, I knew my mother's philosophy would continue. I also, occasionally, have doughnuts filled with strawberry jelly that I eat in my air-conditioned kitchen, and remember a strong, sensitive, spunky woman who searched for twinkling stars.
©1994 The United Methodist Pub. House reprinted: in softcover book “A Cup of Comfort for Courage”, released March 2004 by Adams Media/ F+W Publications; ©2004 F+W Pub. ISBN 1-59337-003-2
a solo journey
Slight smell of cleaning solution was present as I walked into the room. All the seats were filled with people chatting among themselves; the patient in the bed was surrounded by conversation although none talking to him. I formed a totally fake smile, waved to the ill one, then leaned against the wall near the gathered visitors. “The weather is lovely.” “Did you see there’s a helicopter pad right outside this window?” “The cafeteria lines were so long I just couldn’t wait.” I nodded, pretending participation. Why are these called ‘visiting hours’ when no one really visits with the patient!
Gradually, those who were there before me exited. I slid a metal chair close to the bed and spoke. “Ed. Tell me about your life. I want to know more about you.”
My blue-grey eyes looked into his brown ones, and my porcelain-color hand reached for his ebony one. I realized he, my husband’s colleague and my personal physician, had played other roles in life. His cancer may be terminal, but his mind was untouched by the disease.
“I’ve a son who is a dentist. Don’t know much about him since divorce long ago, just that he went into dentistry.”
I did not move my fingers from his.
“So hard never being anyplace I belonged. Did you know I’ve a PhD as well as an MD?”
Wow. I thought to myself not allowing that to show.
“In the armed service, I couldn’t be with the whites, but my people didn’t want me either as I was too educated. Slurs, whitey, were often directed at me as if only “others” should become doctors or more. But to the educated whites, I was just another Negro in uniform.”
Coming from the north, in the mid-1950's, and teaching high school in the south where my husband was completing medical school before we returned to our familiar part of the country, I was unacquainted with the ‘rules’ where I was to sit on a bus, or even that the school I taught in was caucasian-only. Divisions of people had only been some elementary school stuff about the Civil War which took place in the 19th century and was certainly literally-history. But it wasn’t. Why weren’t people colorblind! Ed was a friend, and I also trusted him with my health: he was a person and not a skin tone. I listened, gently squeezing his hand to show him I was attentive. It was 1984, not 1956, but society had bent without really breaking off power-games and put-downs as quickly as it should, according to my values.
A nurse came in to check vital signs. I quickly lifted myself and went to the window, and casually said, as if replying, “Yes. The sun is really bright today. We’d need sunglasses on the golf course!” Nonsense talk. What’s expected, or just only what visitors can handle.
Exit nurse, and I sat on the plastic-covered seat again. “No one ever wants to talk TO a patient, Lois. Thanks.”
Thanks. I wanted to breathe health back into him and couldn’t. I’ve never liked social-conversation, games of one-upmanship, superficial anything. This is me. I don’t need thanks. I should thank him for his brains with medicine that has kept me healthy, and his personality that I could speak to him in his office about anything I feared or tried to deal with. I should thank him for his friendship with my husband, and respect that’s mutual as colleagues.
“Going through dying, and having no family-loved-ones is harder than I thought.” He almost whispered. The passage from life is a solo journey. I knew that when my dad’s soul exited his 45 year old body as he held my mother’s hand yet he was in a safe-place, on his living room couch!
Some hospital staff appeared at the door. “May we come in, Ed?”
I joined them pushing the metal chair against the wall with the others. ‘How’re you doing?” What a lame question as no one wanted an answer but this was expected questioning. And, of course, the patient was supposed to say “fine”, and did. Sentences exchanged about the Grand Rounds lecture, or the bitter taste of today’s coffee from vending machines, or how awful to be working indoors on such an unusually perfect-weather day, went on. The patient was to simply appreciate his audience while he performed an act of making-it-easier-on-visitors-by-saying-little. ‘Talk to HIM’ I wanted to blurt out, but, of course could not as the rules were what these visitors were playing by and my feelings were, as usual, out of synch with others.