Crossing the Delaware

Christina Hunt Mahony

Christina Hunt Mahony

When I was eleven I started to take piano lessons from a man named Eddie Hatrack. He lived in a gaunt house around the corner, alone except for his withdrawn teenage son whom most of us never saw. A Juilliard graduate of great promise, Eddie had played piano for Ernie Kovacs, first on the radio and then on live television. But that was years earlier. He had hands that spanned twelfths, which meant he could play Dave Brubeck as written. Now Eddie Hatrack taught people like me.

I had started lessons quite late, but when a scholarship exam came up a couple of years later it was decided I would try for it. Success meant a private convent-school education a cut above the archdiocesan alternative. There was an academic scholarship exam too; that part was easy. The musical audition took place at the school’s dark Victorian mansion under surreal conditions, and was terrifying. I played a Chopin nocturne. Recently I heard the piece, played by Rubinstein in a classic recording. I was stuck in traffic, listening to the car radio. Every note reverberated through my skull, with love, panic and total recall. Every pause, every adagio. I could smell the furniture wax from the day of the audition.

I told the nuns at my elementary school that I had won. No one from the school had ever won a scholarship. The principal was beaming, and sent me immediately to the pastor, Thomas E. Kearney. When I rang the bell at the rectory I was ushered in by the elderly housekeeper, who never spoke in anything but a whisper. Fr Kearney always wore the belt of his soutane under his belly. I think he was from Clare. ‘I’ve won a scholarship to the Villa. For music and academics – half tuition – Sr St Joseph said I should come and tell you.’ He was red-faced and white-haired, and didn’t miss a beat: ‘Hope you like spaghetti.’ He was talking about the Italians.

The school was run by an order of nuns who had been brought over to teach the children of Italian immigrants. It was situated on the banks of the Delaware. I remember being fascinated by the term ‘riparian rights’, something the school retained. Private access to waterfront property was no longer allowed, but the school’s deeds predated the legislation. The house had been part of the old Fisk estate, and a lot of people still called it that. It had been built with money from the gains of the Credit Mobilier scandal under President Grant. Its purchase by the Church had been arranged by Diamond Jim Brady, a Gilded Age tycoon and gourmand who favoured diamonds for himself, not for the ladies, and whose name was once a byword for nouveau riche ostentation. In appreciation for Diamond Jim’s efforts the school had been named the Villa Victoria, after his wife. The story was told that she had died young, and I had always thought it was a sad, romantic story, and felt sorry for him. Somehow I had the idea that he had built the house for his bride. I knew the true story, but I preferred my own version. I was thirteen by then.

The Victorian Gothic mansion was where the nuns and the boarders lived, and where we had our music lessons. Scattered about were a number of outbuildings, some old, and some new and ugly, including a Quonset hut for the sciences, which weren’t a priority. The elementary school was housed in a charming bungalow with a screened porch, set in a small apple orchard; it had been the groundskeeper’s house. There was no playground. The little ones played in the orchard at recess, and I always thought their building was much nicer than ours. All the classes were very small. There were only fifteen freshmen who entered in my year, and the school’s traditions were elaborate. For First Communion the little girls wore ankle-length gowns with long veils, and carried sprays of fresh flowers like baby brides. When we performed in recitals, and even for graduation, we wore white ball gowns. For graduation, girls also had to wear long white gloves.

The chaplain, a German monk, came straight out of central casting, rotund with a tonsure. He occupied a tiny cottage, no more than a hut, in the pine woods at the rear of the campus. He was a Franciscan, always surrounded by dogs, and rather comically fond of critters – the school cats, and even Sister Lillian’s inexplicable flock of white ducks. They had imprinted on her at birth, and scurried after her whenever she left the Quonset hut, her domain. I guessed the chaplain took the Franciscan thing seriously enough. That his name was Godfrey Wolf simply added to the mystique. He was the only man there, but there were other Franciscans in town so I suppose he had company when he wanted it.

I went from being an ordinary girl in my neighbourhood of clapboard houses and kids who played on the sidewalk, to being someone who was whisked off by bus early each morning to an exotic venue about which the neighbours were curious and knew nothing. I wore a school uniform that no one could readily identify. All my friends went to other schools. Gradually I lost track of them and they of me. Lou, the bus driver, was my friend. I was picked up first, as I lived the farthest away. I had been urged to accept the free boarding that went with the scholarship, but I wasn’t ready to live away from home. Boarding school was a rarity in my world, it was for rich kids with divorced parents. We didn’t know anyone who was divorced.

Lou called me ‘Red’. Every morning he would open the door of the bus with the huge cranking metal arm, and he and I would have freewheeling conversations at 7 a.m. He also called me his ‘paysan’. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was a compliment, and when I asked my father he laughed and said Lou must like me. Lou didn’t like the rich girls on the bus who treated him like a servant, never talking with him or even looking at him as they passed by and took their seats, opening pocket mirrors to make sure their hair hadn’t blown.

I was skinny and red-haired and from an Irish family; it seemed all the other girls at the school were Italian-American, and had figures and boyfriends. Later I learned there were more exotic boarders – wildly privileged older girls from Caracas and Buenos Aires. They actually had apartments in New York, or rather their parents did. During the week their duennas lived there, and came to collect them on Friday afternoons to take the train back to Manhattan. The duennas disapproved of the convent food, and monitored the girls’ intake religiously. They were being groomed for rich husbands after a year or two of acquiring English. They would return after shopping expeditions to Henri Bendel with silk underwear and suede pumps. They held hands and giggled in Spanish. There was one boarder with an Irish name, motherless, with a father an army officer. She had lived as a pet in the convent for years. Her name was Margaret, but everyone called her Happy. She became a nun and died of cancer at twenty.

First thing every morning we had singing. Mother Superior was from an exalted family in Rome. It was rumoured she was titled. Tall, thin, pale and elegant, she exhorted us to breathe, suggesting, not entirely discreetly, that it would be good for developing our breasts. I loved the music and sang with gusto and high hopes. I have a decent voice, but my real value in these sessions was that I have relative pitch and could be counted upon to come in on key in either the second soprano or alto range. We sang Italian operas as though our lives depended upon it. In ways they did. Mother Superior filled in edited versions of the passionate story lines, and we were suckers. This was as close as I got in those days to passion.

‘Miserere d’un’alma già vicina alla partenza che non ha ritorno!’ – I can still do it. My problem was that I never knew Italian, and since nearly everyone else came from an Italian background the language was not taught in the school. My mother begged them. They were polite, but they didn’t get it. So I learned the syllables off by heart. There always seemed to be months and months of preparing for recitals, tensions building, tempers getting shorter. Certain star performers took to developing strange illnesses. But ours weren’t always the usual school concerts. Sometimes we got to play in places like the old Carnegie Hall. I played Finlandia – six pianos, twelve girls, twenty-four hands. That one still gives me a start when I hear it too: especially the part where I was supposed to come in. A vast Cuban girl called Carmen, whose parents had come to the States at the end of the Batista regime, led us all. She went on to the Southern concert circuit – Montevideo, Nairobi, Sydney. She was powerful at the keyboard, unlike most young women, and could handle the Grieg piano concerto admirably, even then.

The pianists, myself among them to a lesser degree, were brainiacs. We all did well, naturally, in math. The dancers were something else. Scraping through the academic subjects, they lived another life within those limited grounds with their formal garden and fountain, and the big iron gates on the road to Princeton. One of them was also an Irish girl, and our fathers had gone to school together. She asked me in our final year to be her accompanist for an audition. We practised together for weeks, every day after school. Eventually we went to Manhattan on the big day, and I played while Jeannie danced. She made the cut and went into Harkness House, a good company that no longer exists. The process was incredibly cruel. There were names on a huge chalkboard high up. If you didn’t make the cut, someone came along with an eraser on a long rod and swished your name away. Girls were crying everywhere. That’s all I remember: girls crying in the halls and throwing up in the bathrooms. I don’t even remember Jeannie being glad, but she must have been.

I remember that there was another Jeannie. She was the one who entered our French class one morning late and blurted out that the president had been shot. Sister Dolores was Canadian, half French, half Italian, and she said calmly, but sternly, ‘Jean, take your seat please, that’s a dreadful rumour to spread.’ Nicknames were not permitted.

There was a gilt harp in the main drawing room, and only one girl who played. When she left the school I was asked to learn. I never learned well, but the harp was only used incidentally in concerts. Meanwhile my career as a pianist wasn’t taking off. In my third year I was changed from lessons with Mother Superior to her sub-altern, who was not the least bit inspiring. Sister Stella was small, dark and dour. I knew it was a demotion and was demoralized. Years later I read a Carson McCullers story, ‘Wunderkind’, in which the lone girl with a vaguely WASP background studies music in a world of Mitteleuropean males. She is given MacDowell to play in an act of desperation on the part of her well-meaning teacher after she seems to lose her touch for the music. He hopes she will regain her confidence and have a rapport with a composer who had an inspiration closer to what she knows. She doesn’t. I was given MacDowell to play too, all those years earlier, by nuns who were Mediterranean and saw my heritage as being something that was alien. Does anyone ever play or listen to MacDowell anymore? I never hear him on the classical music stations.

One day before the demotion I was having my usual lesson with Mother Superior in her lavish study with its concert grand. There was a velvet drape over the piano to muffle the sound. The other practice rooms, many in converted porches which extended for three sides around the mansion, had uprights. We were working on a Scarlatti piece, and I thought I understood it, could feel it instinctively. It was a day of flutter, as one of the patrons of the school had arrived earlier in a limousine, and had disappeared into the convent for lunch. She was handed out of the car, dressed in white fur. These festive meals in the convent were a revelation to me when I first arrived at the Villa, because I saw the wine merchant’s station wagon arrive at regular intervals. The nuns in primary school certainly never drank wine, but most of the nuns at the Villa were Italian born and the idea of meals without wine would never have occurred to them.

We had only got a glimpse of the patron. She was to speak to us at an assembly before we went home. Mother Superior was in good humour, but distracted. She smiled more than usual, and I was encouraged. And then the door opened quietly. The scent of perfume was immediately apparent (we were forbidden to wear scent, and of course the nuns didn’t). But the scent heralded much more. A woman, not tall, arrived on high heels which clicked on the parquet floors until she reached the oriental carpet secured under the piano. She seemed wrapped rather than dressed. There were shawls and jewels, maybe feathers. But the whole effect was of wrapping, packaging, as though she were an elaborate gift. Even her head was swathed in a turban, also white against her fiercely black hair visible in the front. She had arched, heavy, pencilled eyebrows, a white face and fiery eyes. Her lips were also pencilled around the edges and filled in with a deep red lipstick. Her long nails were varnished in an equally bloody carmine. This was the era of pale make-up and Carnaby Street fashions, and rather than being arrested by her glamour, I thought her ugly and ghoulish. I had never seen anyone dressed as she was. Her hands weren’t nice, stubby, and everything on her seemed to glitter, but not welcomingly. She had a strange European accent, which at the time I could only have recognized as ‘foreign’. As an adult I would learn that she had grown up in New York and acquired this speaking voice later in life. In early recordings she had the usual formal American radio voice of the era.

‘Continue, continue, don’t let me interrupt. I must see, Elisabetta, how you spend your days. And this is one of your fine pupils.’ She settled into a leather chair and crossed her legs showing a lot of shiny black silk stocking.

Mother Superior wasn’t pleased. I wasn’t one of her best to show off. I had risen and curtsied, and nearly fallen off the piano bench while trying to sit down again. I kept thinking that I should have been one of the Italian girls with a figure, who would have at least looked promising as a woman, if not as a musician. Or that Carmen should have been there, in all her girth, to bat out Rachmaninoff and silence all questions of worth. But there I was, all the wrong color and shape, and aware that one knee sock was drooping. I really tried with the Scarlatti, and did a creditable job. Mother Superior relaxed and threw me a slightly appreciative look. At least I hadn’t fallen apart or disgraced either one of us. When ‘Madame’ asked my name, I replied ‘Christina’. It somehow seemed better than if it had been Deirdre, my sister’s name. What would she have made of that?

‘Ah Christina, you play with emotion, and that is what we musicians must always have.’ She then rose, and spoke briefly with Mother Superior, calling her again by her first name, and touching her. They left together, arms linked and laughing quietly. I just hoped they weren’t laughing at my Scarlatti.

Madame could be seen walking across the gardens to the auditorium later that afternoon. She didn’t really walk, she seemed to glide or sweep. People, mostly nuns, were swarming around her, and they all seemed smaller, although she wasn’t a large woman. She could have been sailing; her white turban made her look like a figurehead. I looked at the river close by, and thought of George Washington and his soldiers crossing the Delaware right there on Christmas Day, and how they had changed the course of the Revolutionary War. If you grew up in that part of the world you had the story off by heart. (The Hessian soldiers who fought on the British side were barracked about a mile away. The building is still there.) The painting of the scene of Washington and his troops isn’t distinguished, but it is iconic. I couldn’t have identified many paintings when I was thirteen, but I knew that one. I imagined Madame at the prow of a boat on the river with huddled figures behind her, changing the course of lives simply by her presence. My parents were later thrilled to hear the story of the unexpected guest at my lesson. My mother told the neighbours, my father tried to tell the men at work. Mostly people didn’t understand, except some of their Italian friends. I knew who she was, of course, just like I knew the real story of Diamond Jim Brady and his wife. I had heard her sing on the Ed Sullivan show. My mother had repeated the name of the aria for me – ‘Casta Diva’. But on that day I preferred to think of Maria Callas crossing the Delaware.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 14 Spring 2004