here, there, everywhere

Mrs. Williams

In Obituary on June 20, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Georgina Williams
Nov.17, 1910 – Jun.11, 2009

I was 7 years old when I started taking piano lessons.  My teacher, Mrs. Williams, was 69.  She had been teaching my siblings and cousin for a few years already so I knew enough about her to know she was a good person.  She was patient and kind, she had a lovely way of helping young children learn their notes and hold their hands in the correct position.  She said the arch of my hand was a tunnel and her pencil was a train that always had to be able to make it through.  I’d be playing a scale and the pencil would be there making sure my ‘tunnel’ didn’t crush it.  She’d hold a book over my hands so I couldn’t see them and in this way I learned to play by touch.  She wrote instructions on the music and in notebooks to guide me through my practicing during the week.  Her handwriting was strong and sure, and projected the confidence of her ability to teach.  If another student was still having a lesson before mine, she’d bring a chair into the hallway where I could sit and wait.  Often the other student was my sister or brother and I could hear her teaching them the way she taught me.

She knew I was competitive with my sister who was 7 years older than me, and she knew how to rein in my determination to play 7 years beyond my skill and get me to start with the basics and build on a strong foundation.  I learned constructive criticism from her.  She never said my playing was bad, she just told me what I could do to improve.  When I thought about it after her death, I realized that she had never said my playing was good either.  In fact, I don’t remember her ever telling me she liked how I played which is strange because I never felt I was letting her down.  She had a unique way of making you feel wonderful and talented even if she never said it.

Once I was playing a piece, completely absorbed in it, when she stopped me all of a sudden and asked me to tell her what I was seeing in my mind at that moment.  She was the first person to let me know she understood I was trying to tell a story through my playing and she wanted to know all of it.  She was interested in how her students interpreted the music and would find ways to help us bring out the best we had to give.

She loved beautiful things and her house was filled with art and flowers.  My older brother would wander around the lesson room with the beautiful grand piano and pick up the knickknacks she had on the tables and over the fireplace.  Her grown children were art lovers and collectors themselves so they would often change the pictures in that room.  There was always something different to look at, and she would explain what the art meant or how it fit in with the room if you ever asked her, and I asked her everything.

I had lessons with her until I graduated from high school.  When I came home in the summers from university I’d go back for more lessons, but this time mostly because I loved being in her presence.  My grandfathers both died when I was 6, and my grandmothers faded from life after that until they passed away six and twelve years later.  Mrs. Williams became my surrogate grandmother.  I don’t think I ever told her this but maybe she instinctively knew because she was smart like that.

Although she physically aged with the years she never mentally changed.  She was a perpetual optimist and looked at life with joy and pleasure.  She had seen the city she was born in and grew up in change in ways we’ll never experience.  She was born into a small town of 300 settlers, before the time of automobiles, telephones, and modern conveniences.  She went to the Royal Conservatory in Toronto in the 1920s and could tell stories of horses and buggies on Bloor Street.  She showed me her copies of The Etude, the music magazine from the late 1800 and early 1900s that contained sheet music and notices of pieces that would be performed around the continent.  She told me the story of how she used to play the organ or piano for the silent movies at the local cinema.  “I always played for the entire 7 o’clock show, but only for the first 15-20 minutes of the 9 o’clock show.  After that the movie was for lovers”, she said.  Her speech was gracious and eloquent and she always had a secret smile when she’d talk about the past, as if she was actually there seeing it before her eyes.

Sometimes I saw her out walking, always wearing a skirt and nice jacket.  If it was sunny out she’d wear a fluorescent green baseball cap to shield her eyes from the glare.  I once asked her how it felt turning 90 and she said she didn’t know because she’d stopped thinking about it at 30.  At this point there weren’t anymore more lessons.  Instead we’d meet to go for walks and she’d show me the house she had been born in.  We’d go for meals at the restaurant across the street where everyone knew her and treated her like royalty.  After my parents moved away from Prince George, there weren’t too many opportunities to go back and visit her anymore, but we kept in touch by mail and sometimes by phone.  I was flattered when she’d ask for my opinions on teaching or children or the world around us because I realized she now counted me as a friend.  I sent her pictures of the family so she could see her other students had grown up, too, and now had families of their own.  In her last Christmas card it was easy to see her time here was almost done.  The once strong handwriting was now shaky and her caregiver had to finish writing it for her.  But her thoughts were still clear and strong and the sentiment of love was overwhelming.

After she passed away my sister, cousin, and I went out to dinner to talk about Mrs. Williams and celebrate her life.  We all loved her deeply and she left a lasting mark on each of us.  She was the most influential person in my life, and while I miss her and our conversations, I am grateful and so wonderfully blessed to have known her.  She was magnificent.

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