Readers of this blog might have the impression that my mother was only a featured player in our family variety show. That flamboyant Rosie was the star. Indeed, when he was present, he was usually the Top Banana; but he would be the first to declare that my mother was the Class Act.
In telling her story, I shall try to resist the cognitive distortions of Black & White [all or nothing] and catastrophic [“This is awful!”] thinking. But it will be hard. Myrna [Deal with it. She had to.] was a precocious pianist, who began concertizing in Ohio and Washington, DC, in her early teens. She won a national piano contest, the prize for which was a scholarship to The Juilliard School of Music [whence she graduated with a Bachelor of Science (!) degree in 1943]. You are given a main mentor there, and hers was James Friskin [a Bach maven]; but Alexander Siloti [Rachmaninoff’s cousin] also taught there during her Juilliard years.
Now, Mumsley [a silly name my sister & I gave her, about the time our English cat got saddled with Ying Tong] was an elfin little creature: 5’2″ with very small hands. This is crucial to the absolutely true story I am about to relate [which I have fact-checked with my sister and the Internet]. One day in 1954, when we were living in Tarrytown, NY, our parents piled us into the wallowing Buick for a mystery tour, to a sprawling country house in a not-nearby-enough-for-me town [possibly Mt. Pleasant, near Valhalla, where Rachmaninoff is buried]. Myrna had been invited by “some Cousins of Rachmaninoff” [we figure, Siloti’s family], to “show them how she did it.” See, Rachmaninoff has been retrospectively diagnosed with Marfans. He was 6’6″ with huge paws, and wrote music for big-handed folks like himself. Now, whether they had heard her nifty 15-minute wartime radio show, or read a review of a concert she gave featuring the Russian giant, they wanted to watch her in action.
At 5 years old, and already dreading the drive home, I was morose…until the Cousins let fly the parakeets. Talk about chaos! As Myrna was playing, a bird alighted on the temple of her glasses, and stared her in the eye. Trouper that she was, she just kept on playing. “Open your mouth,” invited a Cousin. “He’ll check your teeth.” Myrna smiled, but kept her jaw clenched. When the command performance was over, a Cousin asked if we had a cat. Rosie piped up, “Yes, but we’ll take another, if you’re offering.” “Actually, we were going to offer you ‘Pretty Bird’ [the avian dentist]; but you have a cat.” “We’ll make it work!” assured Rosie; and home we drove, with a blue parakeet, who withstood the aerobatic maneuvers of Chip-Chip the tabby tom [whom you have yet to meet], and later of Alfred the dog, for 6 years, without mishap.
When Myrna was 35 [and I was 10], she got Multiple Sclerosis. The English still call the most rapidly-progressing type [which the cellist Jacqueline du Pre had] “galloping.” Mumsley had “cantering” MS. She continued to play publicly for another 10 years, although she required a wheelchair by then. She died 3 months before my first child was born, at 61 [my age now].
Because she was a Goody-Two-Shoes, teetotalling, sweet-natured person, it is tempting to reduce her life to an ironic cliche: “Virtue is its own punishment.” My sister’s & my fears for her led us to many impatient [angry] outcries of “Oh, Mums-ley!” As if we could shout her back to health. But she never lost patience with us, and not often with herself. She remained the mistress of the deadpan one-liner. The last time I saw her, my in-laws were visiting and she was listening, as always, to the classical music radio station. “Oh, I just love La Traviata!” enthused my mother-in-law. “How ’bout Il Trovatore?” rejoined Mumsley.
A Class Act.