Essay by Francine M. Tolf
I never longed for piano lessons as a child. I got them because my own
mother had wanted them badly, but her widowed father, who was a guard at
Illinois’s Stateville Penitentiary during the Depression, could not afford them.
Mom was determined that her six daughters would not be thus deprived. I was
in third grade when she informed me that my older sister Claire and I would
begin lessons with Miss Pruessner. I was glum about this but had no choice.
I knew who Miss Pruessner was because she rented a room in our piano
store, which was managed by my mother. Often on Saturdays, I would walk
downtown with one or two of my sisters. Before visiting The Boston Store or
Lawrence’s (where we looked but never bought), we would stop at the piano
store to visit Mom. Downtown Joliet was the boundary that separated black
neighborhoods from white, and I’d see little black girls from the East Side in
dresses and lace-trimmed anklets, slipping into Miss Pruessner’s windowless
room for their weekly lessons. They never looked happy. I could understand
why. I could hear Miss Pruessner thumping on the piano ledge and yelling at
them over stumbling scales and wobbly-sounding melodies.
Viola Pruessner suited her name exactly. She was a tall, humpbacked
old woman with a pin-straight gray page boy and small, discerning eyes behind
rimless glasses. Her shoes were sturdy and mannish, supporting ankles that
were almost as thick as her shins. Except when it was extraordinarily hot, she
wore a red ribbed cardigan that hunched way up in the back due to her
dowager’s hump. The skirt of her dresses (she always wore dresses, flowered
or plaid or plain, and they almost never matched her sweater) consistently fell
below the length of her dull-colored woolen coat which, during the Christmas
season, was adorned with a cheap costume broach—a wreath, or a candy cane.
Claire and I took lessons at her house, a modest but nicely kept bungalow
on Wilcox Avenue, across the street from the College of St. Francis. A block
away was St. Raymond’s Cathedral, whose silver steeple could be seen for
miles. I remember hearing the chime of cathedral bells as we walked home
after our lesson, the winter sun sinking orange behind smokestacks you could
see from our neighborhood, but not from Miss Pruessner’s.
Her front room, where the walnut upright piano waited ominously every
week, was dark as I imagined a funeral parlor to be, cluttered with pictures and
knickknacks and hand-crocheted doilies. Spine after spine of fading National
Geographics—hundreds of them, it seemed, more geography than anyone
could read in one lifetime—were crammed into a bookcase and stacked in tall
piles behind the stiff brocade love seat where one of us sat while the other
sister had her lesson.
Claire always did well. My sister, two-and-a-half years older than I, was
musically gifted and enjoyed practicing. I hated it. A half-hour of practice
every afternoon may not sound like much, but I resented every minute and
would avoid it whenever possible. Of course, that meant a miserable walk with
Claire to Miss Pruessner’s on Wednesday afternoons, a walk full of dread and
remorse. Why, oh why, hadn’t I practiced? If only I had the week back!
Claire, who knew how much I hated my piano lessons, would comfort me and
promise to go first, but that was small consolation. I’m sure I prayed to God
and Mary and Jesus on those walks. Help me, God! Please let me do OK
and I’ll practice every day from now on! Let me know the notes, Mary! I
probably wished for catastrophes, too: a tornado, a flood, anything that would
get me out of the piano lesson.
Divine intervention never occurred, but I did faint once while Miss
Pruessner was yet again berating me for my lack of preparation. It must have
been nearly a hundred degrees outside, a sweltering July afternoon in which
heat shimmered in waves off the blacktop of streets and driveways as we
walked to our lesson. Even the birds were quiet. Miss Pruessner’s house
was stifling. I don’t think she had one window open, and she certainly didn’t
have air conditioning. (Even if she did, Viola Pruessner was not the kind of
woman to let a little hot weather bully her into using it.) Sitting on her piano
bench, trying to concentrate on the sheet music in front of me, I began to feel
very sick. A black fog came over my eyes and Miss Pruessner’s voice began
to fade. I wanted to tell her I didn’t feel good but was too scared. Finally, I
whispered, “Miss Pruessner, I think—” But it was too late.
My head, Claire told me later, hit Middle C with a fateful crash. When I
regained consciousness, Miss Pruessner was poking at my slumped shoulders.
“Are you faking it, girl?” were the first words I heard, coming to. I’m sure she
was nicer when she realized I had passed out.
It did not occur to me how cruelly I must have frustrated that woman, for
she knew I had talent. When I set my mind to it, I could learn a piece and earn
her praise, but I seldom set my mind to it. I remember executing one afternoon
a mournfully slow, mistake-riddled version of “Jazz Prelude,” a piece that Miss
Pruessner had chosen for me to play at the upcoming recital. The first time I
looked at it, the sheet music’s bars of notes looked almost solid black, packed
with menacing sharps and flats. I was sure I would never master it. That
afternoon, Miss Pruessner listened with growing impatience to my hesitant,
sour chords, her pen tapping staccato irritation against the piano ledge.
Suddenly she told me to move over. Settling herself lumberingly on the bench,
she adjusted her glasses and began to play. The sweet, bluesy rhythm of ragtime
leapt from her bony fingers. I was astonished. I had no idea “Jazz Prelude” was
supposed to sound this way. Or that homely old Miss Pruessner, her humped
torso swaying to the melody, was capable of making such music. It was like
sun bursting through clouds in that stuffy room. I learned how to play “Jazz
Prelude,” and to play it well. Not as well as Miss Pruessner, but not at all
badly for a ten-year-old.
That was one of two instances when I saw a different side of Viola
Pruessner. I wasn’t there for the second but I heard about it, and at the time
thought it very funny. Either Claire or I had left a pair of mittens or a school
book at her house after a lesson. Claire and our sister Myra knocked on her
door the following evening to retrieve what was left behind. Miss Pruessner,
who appeared in the doorway with an afghan draped over her shoulders, was
not expecting them. She asked them to wait in the front room, but from where
they were standing they could see her dinner laid out on the cluttered dining
room table: steamed prunes, a plate of graham crackers, and a mug of hot
cocoa alongside a National Geographic. How we howled with laughter over
that meal. Steamed prunes! Hot chocolate! Exactly what an Old Maid would
have for supper.
I’ll never know whether Miss Pruessner minded two kids gaping at what
were in fact intimate details of her life. I suspect that she did. Nobody likes
being caught off-guard. It was only food on a table, but it revealed something
private and vulnerable that shouldn’t have been ridiculed. I imagine Miss
Pruessner—who might have written poetry when she was twelve; who might
have saved for weeks when she was twenty to buy a hat with silk violets; who
in her sixties, I found out later, gave lessons at practically no charge to kids
who really wanted them—I imagine her bent over a cup of hot cocoa in that
dim dining room after a long afternoon of listening to recalcitrant children
pounding away at barely discernable songs. December cold outside. The
new National Geographic to keep her company. Dinner for one consisting of
cooked fruit and graham crackers. Sweet things. The kind of meal a mother
might prepare for a small child in need of comfort.
Francine M. Tolf has been published in many journals including Southern
Humanities Review, Nimrod, New Letters, Harpur Palate, Spoon River
Poetry Review, and 5 AM. She is the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts
Board Grant and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook,
Blue-flowered Sundress (Pudding House Press), is coming out this fall. Tolf
worked for many years as a legal secretary in Chicago before returning to
school. She teaches literature at the College of Visual Arts in Saint Paul,
On “Viola Pruessner”:
I wrote “Viola Pruessner” two years ago, after first writing a twenty-
page essay about the town where I grew up. “Joliet, Illinois” was the
unwieldy creation of a poet who entered the unfamiliar element of prose
and found it’s very easy to flounder. It lacked focus and contained the
beginnings of a dozen separate pieces. After realizing the essay was a
flop, I was still determined to write about my childhood, and to write
about it in prose: prose that, unlike most poetry, could tell as well as
show; could meander a bit and linger on details remembered. I had
bitten off way too much with my first try. But I thought: what if I chose
just a sliver of my childhood, examined it closely, and tried to discover
some truth in it? My former piano teacher was an easy choice. One
doesn’t forget a character like Viola Pruessner. And the two moments
that are key to this piece—one, where Viola plays ragtime, the other,
where she sits down to a solitary meal—have always stayed with me.
Such moments are the seeds of meaningful writing. Viola Pruessner
provided me with two; I’m grateful to her.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 1, Number 2
Copyright © 2006
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors