A half hour’s talk followed, and then I sat at the piano bench and warmed up the fingers with three or four arpeggios on the white keys and a lift-off of the same on the blacks.
Fingers then settled into familiar themes, “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You”, Brahms’s “Waltz in A Flat Major”, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” some of Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and, in a pause between selections I asked the fifty residents in the audience if they had particular songs they would like to hear, songs that were favourites with them, and which, if I knew them, I could play for them.
“Annie Laurie,” came one request. “The Anniversary Waltz” followed. “Bonnie Wee Thing,” came too. And I mused about them as the fingers played on the keys. For what reason, I wondered, for what event, what recollection, or memory of some loved one, does a particular melody stand rooted in our memories? Some kindness, a loved one’s smile, recollection of a good deed received, or given too. What stories could favourite songs tell? I wondered.
At the conclusion of “The Tennessee Waltz” I glanced at the corner of the piano where Alice’s little hands clapped, and happiness spoke from her face. I dared the utmost. “Alice,” I said, “Would you have some favourite song too?”
Expectation in me said ‘hardly likely’, but it was kindness to ask at least. Alice said, “Yes, I do.”
Surprise knocked me sideways.
“Could I play it for you, Alice, that is, if I knew it? What’s the title of your favourite song?”
“‘The Last Rose of Summer’.”
Great golden days! On the piano in the parlour of my grandmother’s house on Colborne Street sat two pieces of sheet music, ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and ‘In The Shade of the Old Apple Tree’.
At the age of ten these seemed to open up for me a fitting entrance to the Bowery in New York City, the most up-to-date music of the era, and I learned to play both pieces without disturbing the motes of dust swirling in the shafts of sunshine pouring in the front window.
Out on the keyboard poured my grandmother’s music, dust and all. Alice, sheltered by the end wall of the piano, sat entranced.
The end brought rapturous applause from Alice’s two little hands. Her eyes crinkled with recollections, from somewhere, and from sometime in a distant past. “Thank you so much,” she said. “That was just grand. How is it that you remember such an old song as that?”
And I told Alice about the Bowery music. “That’s where I learned to play it, sixty-five years or more years ago.”
A question rose in my mind. I said, “Alice, could I ask how it comes about that ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ is your favourite song?”
“Would you like to hear that?” she asked, as if it were a trifle from some old time.
“Yes, very much Alice.”
“Well,” she said, wondering if everything were in order. “There were five of us,” she began.
“Five children?” I queried.
“Yes. I was the youngest.”
“Both our parents died about the same time. That was an awful time.” Alice went silent for a moment. She recovered and recollection resumed. “We had nobody to turn to, nowhere to go, all five of us, only the Home.”
“In London?” I asked.
“Yes, in London. About two years later the three oldest were taken away. We never saw them again. Ever. That left Eddie and me. And after another two years, Eddie was told to get ready. He was to go away too.”
“That must have been terribly upsetting,” said I.
“Oh it was, just terrible. I was left, all alone in the Home. I didn’t know where in the world they were taking Eddie, and he didn’t either. But just as they were taking him away, just before he left Eddie said to me: ‘I won’t forget, Alice. I’ll send for you.’ That’s what he said. And he was gone.” Alice paused to get a grip on her memories.
“You must have been discouraged?” I said.
“Yes. It was awfully hard, living in the Home.” Alice remembered. “Being all alone for years on end is a hard time.”
“Then, one morning at the Home they told me to put my few things into a little cloth bag. They were sending me away too. Oh, that was an awful time: I was so afraid. Life at the Home was hard, but it was the only home I really ever had known. Anyway, they took us to a train station in London and we got on a train, and it took us right on to the docks at Southampton. And there, right beside the train, was a huge ship. I was so afraid.”
“Well,” said Alice, “When they told us to go up that plank from the dockside, with the water right below, and go into the side of that huge ship, I shook all over. My goodness, I was really afraid. But, well, there was nothing I could do, so I followed the others, and we went up some stairs, and more stairs, and came out to a railing, where I could just barely see over. I saw the train we had come on backing up, and I thought “We’re being abandoned”. And then a man picked up a huge chunk of rope and flung it into the water near the front, and right away the ship shuddered and shook all over and began moving away from the dock. I looked over the railing, because there was a band on the dock, and the band was playing music. And do you know what song they were playing? ‘T was the Last Rose of Summer’. Now what do you think of that?”
“Were you sad?” I asked Alice.
“Tears filled my eyes. Even though living at the Home was hard, it was the only home I knew. It was so hard to leave.”
“You landed at Halifax, Alice?”
“Yes, and there they put us on another train to Montreal, and then another train brought us to Ottawa, and then one last train away from Ottawa. And do you know what?” This time Alice’s introductory “Do you know what?” came with a smile full bore, enough to melt ice at ten below zero. “The conductor came to my seat and said, ‘Next stop is yours, little lady, it’s Almonte’.
“I got off, and there, on the platform, was my brother Eddie, the only family I had in the entire world. Eddie. He’d said he’d send for me, and that’s what he did. It took him seven years, but he did it! Eddie sent for me!”
My tongue had knots in it. “Thank you, Alice,” I managed to murmur. “Could I play your piece once more for you, perhaps on the organ?”
“It wouldn’t be too much trouble?” asked Alice.
“Certainly not, Alice.”
The organ, queen of instruments, responded in majestic style. Bourdon, diapason, principal and great organ, all combined and Alice’s special song swelled out, spilling sadness for a summer that would never return into the corridors of the Manor. In the lee of the piano’s end wall Alice sat, smiling as the music repeated the Southampton band’s ‘bon voyage’ piece, the first, and last piece ever played for a tiny Home Girl, Little Alice.
19 Dec 99