"The Fabulous Anna"
I wanted it to be perfect. A reason to postpone the event always seemed to pop up. One day, Anna didn’t feel well – her eyes bothered her. Another time, she told me she had a doctor’s appointment. Once, she admitted she simply wanted to be lazy and lie in bed all day – that she wouldn’t be very good company. One Saturday, the hesitation came more from my side – I was worried about her reaction, so I decided to put off my big surprise.
Anna was 91 when I met her two years ago as part of The Tobias Senior Center’s “friendly-visitor” volunteer program. The first day I walked into her tiny one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, (her home for 43 years), I immediately noticed the stained carpet and faded yellowish paint, chipping and peeling off the ceiling and walls. A strange odor hit my nostrils – perfume with a little cat litter, urine and stuffed cabbage mixed in. I didn’t think I would ever get used to that smell.
She looked to be about five feet tall back then, although Anna quickly informed me she was shrinking. “I think I lost a whole inch just this past year,” she chuckled, slapping her hands on her lap. Her dark gray hair was beautiful, long and still very thick. Because of an inner ear problem, she always held onto a table or couch arm as she navigated around the apartment. Her fancy walker gathered dust in the corner. “I only use that thing when I go outside,” she boasted. Though married three times, Anna never had any children and her only brother died many years ago. So aside from me and her roster of doctors and social workers, Anna was alone in the world. Sure, over the years the center tried many things to involve her in activities, but she resented these attempts.
“There’s a great casino night this Tuesday,” I once mentioned, noticing a yellow flyer in her mail pile.
“I don’t want to be with all those old people,” she yelled back at me, slamming her tea-cup into the saucer, causing the end-table to shake. “All they ever do is yak and yak away about their children and grandchildren. They don’t want to have anything to do with someone like me.” I quickly learned to stay away from certain subjects. Part of my Anna education.
Our weekly visits were filled with all kinds of discussions ranging from cooking to current events to Broadway shows to the evening’s TV programs. Rarely was there more than a second of silence between us. Still, after a few weeks I noticed a pattern: Anna often talked about her special love for music, and she always relayed this one story about her very first (and possibly only) piano recital. “It was at St. Joseph’s Academy, down in Virginia,” she explained to me one snowy Saturday afternoon. “Oh God, I loved that place so much, Harry. You know, I didn’t want to go at first, but after a bit I fell in love with it. Oh!…and my recital… What a day that was, Harry.”
“When was it?” I asked. Anna started to laugh.
“Oh my…it was a long time ago, Harry. A long, long time ago. Another lifetime, I think.”
We crunched numbers and calculated that the recital took place in June, 1925, when Anna was 13.
“You know, it took my mother weeks to find material for that lavender dress. She made everything for me back then. She wanted me to look like a little princess.” Anna leaned back in her chair, fiddling with the strings of frayed orange fabric hanging off the arm, “Oh my, it was so beautiful, Harry. You should have seen it.”
When Anna reminisced this way, her gaze drifted up to the cracked ceiling – as if a movie was playing up there. “The dress had white ruffles all around the bottom and around the collar, too. I loved that dress. Oh, how I loved that dress,” she repeated as she sipped some water. “And oh my lord, how it rained that day,” she explained, patting her hands rapidly on the chair arms. “With the wind and…oh, so much rain. You should have seen it!” her eyes turned back to me. “And they had these little powdered-sugar cookies and iced chocolate cupcakes, with little sprinkles on top. You would have loved them, Harry” she giggled. “All kinds of beautiful colors.” Anna turned serious and leaned forward, “It was quite a fancy party, you know. A real extravaganza.”
Sometimes our entire two-hour visits centered around the recital memories. As she reminisced, Anna’s eyes twinkled and her face often appeared younger, energized – almost mischievous; I could only imagine what she was like when she was, reportedly, a genuine man-killer.
“You know, after we’d finish at Abercrombie and Fitch, we girls used to go out for cocktails and meet nice, handsome young men. We’d stay out all night and…oh my…” Anna bounced in the chair, her hand waving, “Oh dear, you don’t want to hear about all this, Harry.”
“Are you kidding me?!” I laughed, egging her on.
“You know, I once had a very delicious supper with Montgomery Clift. Elliot introduced me to him that night. We were at Sardi’s. Very fancy, you know.”
Elliot was a well-known Hollywood movie producer, married at the time, but he still carried on with Anna; she often talked about him as the only man she ever really loved. Anna turned and reached toward the back of the chair, fumbling through a pile of books and papers, knocking things over. “Here,” she zeroed in on a stained, tattered book. “Look. He wrote this here,” she shoved the book into my hands. It looked like if you blew on it, the book would crumble onto the carpet. “Look what he wrote to me, Harry.” Anna banged her feet against the side of the chair as I read Elliot’s handwritten note. “You know, he wrote all kinds of books about cars. And boats, too. We used to sail out in the bay off of Long Island…in that Sound. Lots of cocktail parties. Very fancy,” Anna paused. “The water was so pretty…very beautiful.” I picked through another pile, a small collection of what looked to be her special stuff.
“What else is in here?” I asked. “I want to see more.”
Anna fell back into the chair, “Oh no…no…I threw all those things away years ago. Just a bunch of junk anyway. No point for an old woman to have that stuff lying around, cluttering up the place.”
And then Anna looked up at me, her eyes looked tired from the trip she had just taken. “It’s over for me, I think, Harry. Oh listen, I’ve had such an exciting life, don’t get me wrong. So much fun, really it was. But what’s the point now? I mean, what else is there for a 91 year old has-been like me?”
I tied the cord together on my old navy blue laundry bag, closing the top to protect the contents from the rain. Earlier that week, I mentioned to Anna I was bringing her a surprise. "What is it? What are you bringing me, Harry?!" "Well, if I told you what I was bringing, Anna…it wouldn't be much of a surprise now would it?" I heard her laughing on the other end of the phone.
Otto, the chubby mustached doorman, greeted me at the door of the high-rise with a warm smile. “Miss Anna was just asking me about you, Mr. Harry.” I leaned against a fake palm tree trunk while Otto called up to announce my arrival. I let the weight of the bag settle onto the edge of a lobby table and watched people come and go for a few minutes. I couldn’t imagine living in one building for over 40 years.
Otto gave me the thumbs-up signal.
As usual, the door was already open a crack, so I nudged it with the edge of the bundle. “What's in that bag!?" Anna was already standing there, dressed only in a beige slip. “Is that for me, Harry?” Anna stared at the bundle, her hands clasped together under her chin. I leaned over to give her a kiss on her warm cheek, the usual start to our weekly visits. Her skin was so soft – I noticed that every time.
“What’s going on here? You think you could put some clothes on, Ma’am?” I playfully looked away, covering my eyes. She laughed hard at this. She always does.
I remembered how, at the initial volunteer meeting, the social worker told some “things-that-could-happen” stories to our group. One highlight was this one tidbit about a real “belle-of-the-ball” type of woman, a center favorite, who once greeted her friendly-visitor at the door wearing practically nothing. Apparently, this freaked out the volunteer and he never went back. I laughed when I heard that story and, as I waited for my visitee pairing that week, I had a feeling who my partner was going to be. I just knew it.
“You know where the cookies are,” Anna directed, pointing to a bag of Pepperidge Farm double chocolate Milanos sitting on the counter. “And there’s some fresh cold milk in the refrigerator, too,” she added as she shut the dressing room door behind her. I suspect Anna supplies the cookies as a lure to insure my weekly visits.
While Anna was in the other room, I opened the laundry bag and looked for a place to set things up. I munched on Milanos as I connected wires and positioned everything near the couch; close enough so Anna could easily reach. My heart was pounding – I didn’t know how she’d react.
“Do you want some Dubonnet, Harry?” Anna yelled out from the other room.
“That stuff is way too sweet for me,” I shouted back to her as I finished my prep work. “And besides, Anna. I’m not allowed to drink with you and you know it!” I heard her humming as she rattled around in the dressing room.
“You’re not a drinker are you, Harry?” her voice now getting a bit louder. “You took some milk, didn’t you?”
The dressing room door squeaked and I heard Anna shuffling across the kitchen floor, her slippers scraping over the top of the yellowed white linoleum. “OK, now. One second, Anna. Go slowly now.” I scurried into position, pushed up on the power switch and started to plunk out a bit of a piece I remembered from when I was a kid.
"What is that!? Is that the radio? Did you get my Victrola working? I thought I told you not to touch that, Harry. You’re going to break it!”
And then…the shuffling stopped. I glanced up. There was Anna’s face – tilted a bit and peeking out from behind the kitchen-living room wall, the rest of her body hidden around the corner.
What a smile – I swear for a split-second she looked like a teenager. “What is that, Harry!? Oh my Lord!” Anna raised her fingers to her smiling mouth – her hand trembling. I think it took her less than three seconds to scoot across the room to where I was playing the piano, not an easy thing for this vertigo-challenged woman to do. She elbowed me out of the way to get her hands on that keyboard, checking me like a hockey defenseman chasing a puck. I wish I had remembered to bring a camera with me to capture the moment.
Anna's fingers, long and sleek, poked, at first, somewhat awkwardly over the keys. “Where's the sustain pedal? How do I sustain, Harry?!” she shouted. Within minutes, Anna had plowed her way through the first song that popped into her head. This woman had not touched a keyboard in over 43 years and yet, on this day, her brain's memory banks tapped into one particular melody and that’s the song she immediately started to play. And she kept playing. Her hands looked so young – it’s as though they didn’t quite fit with the rest of her body. I watched as she bit her lip while she worked her way through that first song. “I need 88 keys, Harry!” she yelled out. “Where's the sustain pedal, Harry!?” I can still hear her shouting at me as I write this. One of Anna’s two cats – Oscar, the brown one – poked his head out from under the couch and surveyed the room. Slowly, he slinked his way onto the coffee table and started to sniff and rub up against Anna’s arm. Nudging the cat away to keep her hands free, Anna complained, “There’s no sustain pedal…and these keys aren’t weighted like a real piano’s, Harry!!”
Anna looked so intense as she played the next song ... and then the next. The lip-biting reminded me of that thing Michael Jordan used to do with his tongue whenever he drove hard to the basket. Clearly, the performance was choppy and, believe me, Anna let me know at least 50 times that she sounded awful. "Well, it's only been 43 years, Anna,” I reminded her. “Imagine if you hadn’t played in 80 years, how lousy you’d sound then?"
She smiled without looking up and then added, “This just can’t sound right without weighted keys and a sustain pedal, Harry.”
As Anna practiced, I went to the kitchen and poured one small glass of Dubonnet, “with plenty of ice in it,” as Anna always demanded. I knew I was about to break the no-drinking rule, but decided that if ever there was a time to go wild, this was the day. I nudged the glass in front of her nose, interrupting her rehearsal.
“Is that…?” Anna asked me, playfully annoyed.
“Fat chance, dear – mine is milk,” I broke the news to her.
“You never have a drink with me, Harry. You’re such a lightweight,” she laughed hard. I wagged my finger at her as we prepared for our toast.
Anna lifted her Dubonnet – I raised my cup of skim milk. Only half a broken rule, I thought.
Quiet and still as she leaned back on the couch, Anna watched me as I slid the keyboard back into the laundry bag. She studied my every move with worried eyes, the smile slowly fading from her face. “I can’t play a thing like that without a sustain pedal,” she broke her silence. “And the keys feel so funny. It’s not a real piano, you know, Harry.” Her eyes shifted to the corner movie screen. “You know, I almost bought a piano. A Knabe upright, I think it was. Dark Brown.” I glanced up to see if I could see anything. “About, what was it? About 30 years ago. I was up in Stockbridge and…” Anna told me the whole story as I packed up. The fact is she didn’t buy that piano or any others she’d seen after that. She told me she’s thought about it a lot, even picked out the spot along the wall where one would go. But for some reason she’s never made the move to actually buy one. “This thing has too many gadgets, too complicated,” she barked as she pointed to blue bag leaning up against the door.
Suddenly, Anna caught herself complaining. “You know, no one has ever thought of doing anything like that for me,” she smiled, looking a bit embarrassed. “It’s strange. Elliot made me give the damn thing up. For some reason he thought it caused me to drink too much, I don’t know,” she lamented. And then there was the time…”
I walked over to the couch and leaned over to give her a hug and kiss goodbye while she was still talking – it was time for me to leave.
Weeks later, I spoke with the center director about my great piano caper and she told me about a particular fund earmarked for special purchases. As I listened to the woman’s voice on the phone, I tilted my head to look at my living room ceiling. I could have sworn I saw a marquee with flashing colored lights:
“Appearing Tonight – The Fabulous Anna”
It will be her moment again. Then she’ll be able to show all those “old people” just what she can do.