The promise of an idle summer beside a lake of regattas and long drives through shady woods, with the gathering of water lilies as its hardest work, had all the trappings of a Cinderella gift. These gilt-edged perquisites I was to enjoy by grace of an ardent friendship.
In the month of May, at the conclusion of my annual recital in the school recital hall, a small, thin-faced blue-eyed woman in her thirties, with a pathetic droop to her figure and a mass of black hair coifed tightly in an old fashioned style, had waited to congratulate me. She had been coming regularly to every program on which I appeared (so she said) and expressed the wish that we might become friends since we were neighbors. Then, having shattered the ice, Jeannie proceeded to unloose a flood of hyperbole that was difficult to account for, however grateful I might be in thinking that my appearances had been anticipated with pleasure.
In our house, when admiration exceeded the normal quota, Maynard would cover the subject with this term – “hootowl gizzard” – and we all understood its implications. I had heard it applied to my friends more than once, and it wasn’t long before he told Jeannie that she had “hootowl gizzard.”
For as far back as I could remember, Brother had flouted my musical tendencies. When I was an infant he had addressed me in front of strangers as the “child wonder” just to watch me writhe. Then, when grown-up, I began to sing and he referred to me as “the diva”. As a matter of fact, I had long ago ceased to mind, for back of it was a deep loyalty and a fear that I might believe the compliments paid to me.
Jeannie’s house was less than a block from ours and, once I knew her identity, she seemed to rise out of the shrubbery everywhere I went. It became almost a family scandal that a member of the clan should so deceive a neighbour. She was so self-effacing that no one could deny her anything and her exaggeration of my abilities, while it outraged common sense, was both comic and embarrassing.
She would appear at the most astonishing moments with a cake she had baked for me, or a box of fudge. Such indulgences almost ruined her standing with Mother. For, in spite of my years, Mother rigidly regulated my diet and directed the lives of all her children. Every beau I had, called on her when I was out and confidentially talked me over. When Eric regaled her with tales of my unreasonableness, Mother would adroitly say, “You know, Eric, I wouldn’t have anything to do with her if I were you,” and Eric would look foolish and try another tack (or so Mother said).
Bill had run too far to another extreme and Mother would sometimes tell me that his “white face” haunted her. Mother was innately dramatic. But when it came to Jeannie, a woman, Mother threw diplomacy out the window. If poor little Jeannie protested that I should have something that was out of line, Mother told her where to get off, with crass realism, and that was that.
When Christmas or my birthday came along, Jeannie made and bought everything from toilet articles to jewellery or a party cape, and if I were more pleased with a simple gift than a luxury line, she was crushed with disappointment. Brother loved to pile her presents high to make a good display, carry them in to me and then say, in a casual way, “A slight token of Jeannie’s love.”
Though everybody tormented me about her, we were all very fond of her. It was when one of us tried to explain her attitude to others that embarrassment blocked the path. You couldn’t just say “hootowl gizzard” to outsiders. They wouldn’t understand. That was a copyrighted sixty-four dollar term not in general circulation.
I was very fond of Jeannie, but at times I couldn’t stand the suffocation of her sentimentality. If I took the back street route home and didn’t pass her house, she seemed to know just when I arrived and that gave me the “creeps.” When I sang or played, she was as close to the piano as she could get with a seraphic look on her face that annoyed everybody. She saw no reason, either, why she could not beau me to the theatre or a night rendezvous as well as my boyfriends.
On paper she painted me in such glamorous colors that two of her friends at once invited her to bring me along for a visit to their summer homes. (Such a paragon should be worth a look.) Before seeing them I decided that curiosity had probably induced their hospitality, but once I looked in their faces, I knew that they were perfectly aware of the situation and that sympathy for Jeannie had impelled them to give her the green light.
Both friends lived in Wisconsin and had charming families. They had horses, carriages, boats – even a cruiser and a houseboat were at our disposal – and since all I could offer in return was music, I gave it in all kinds of situations and measures. Everywhere we went – village church, swank hotel, or to call on the sick – I played and sang. Tommy Tucker had nothing on me.
A piano or cottage organ stood out as a personal invitation. Pianos sealed for fifteen and twenty years were opened and dusted for my delectation and many a mouse shuddered. I played rippling brook accompaniments on broken-stringed keys and sang to the squeaks of rusty pedals. Composers’ bones must have rattled at dissonances never motivated by them. Our hostesses couldn’t believe their ears at times but, being polite, restrained themselves while within earshot to howl hysterically later at the remembrance of my imperturbable demeanor. We had a happy summer and Saturday seemed tied to Saturday, so swiftly the time flew by.