• October 25, 2014

Ode to a special piano teacher

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Posted: Friday, June 6, 2014 4:30 am

Eva Armstrong was music. With her eyes closed, her body moved as she swayed deep into the notes with each beat she played on the piano. Every part of her moved ... except for her legs. Eva was paralyzed from the waist down by a car accident when she was 21 years old.

I met Eva when she was 26 and I was 7. She was my first piano teacher. My mother told me about Eva. After the accident, she couldn’t work as a waitress anymore at Vandenburg Drug Store in my hometown of West Des Moines, Iowa. Her wheelchair was too clumsy to fit behind the counter, so she couldn’t even be a cashier and lost her job.

Eva lived at home with her mother, Mrs. Armstrong, who smelled of Lysol because she cleaned houses for a living. Eva’s older sister, Lizzie, worked at the grocery store ordering produce. Somehow they acquired an upright piano, but none of them could play it. With nothing else to do, Eva taught herself to play by listening to songs on the radio.

Once Eva knew enough about the piano, she started giving lessons for donations. Momma, who insisted I take lessons because she was eager to pry the football out of my hands, paid her with homemade tortillas. The first time I walked to the Maxwell house, I saw curtains dancing in the breeze in the open front porch windows and heard the sound of the piano floating in the air.

I had never seen a person in a wheelchair before, and Eva could tell it scared me. The chair was taller than I was and looked like a machine was eating her, but Eva called me over to touch it and then called me “little Val.” The fear went away instantly.

She taught me to play in a way that astonished me with its simplicity. Eva assigned numbers to the piano keys and then numbered each finger on my hands, starting with one on my thumb all the way to five on my pinkie. She wrote out a page of numbers for each note of music, then taught me to play the corresponding numbered keys with my numbered fingers. The first song I played was Bach’s “Ode to Joy.” I flew home after my lessons every week.

Then the worst thing that could happen did: the music lady left. I never knew what became of Eva after the Armstrongs moved away. I only knew the music stopped coming through the laced curtains that once covered their open windows on the front porch.

Still, I walked past her house clinging to the faint hope that maybe a note or two still lingered in the air — special notes that Eva left behind just for me.

I didn’t touch the piano until after Sept. 11, 2001. A new fear gripped the country, and suddenly everyone reconnected with people and things they previously ignored. That’s when my fingers found the keys again. I took refresher classes at a music store in Austin and became a good beginner again.

So my new instructor asked me to teach scales to visually-impaired students from the Texas School for the Blind. Every Saturday, students came to the store and I taught them how to play Bach’s “Ode to Joy” the way Eva taught me.

These days, when I’m not writing, I’m playing the piano and that’s what I mean when I say, “I go play now.”

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