August 3, 1998
Volume 50, No. 36
Pam Clark's life lessons included more than just piano
Small towns tend to have people living there who are different, eccentric-usually known as "characters." Rome, Ga., is no exception.
Helen Dean Rhodes, director of the Rome Symphony Orchestra, lived there with her sister, Fannie Wood Rhodes. Neither woman had ever married. All her life Miss Fannie had been admonished by their mother to "take care of your little sister"--a task she indeed took seriously.
Miss Fannie was known to everyone by the nickname "Beechie." When I was growing up I had eight years of piano lessons with Miss Helen that began just before my 8th birthday. Miss Helen had received her formal music training in New York City, and she taught me everything I know about music and music theory.
Miss Helen and Miss Beechie lived in a wonderful, rambling Victorian home. It was not hard to imagine the grander home it probably once had been. Located across from "City Clock Hill," I could always hear the chiming of the clock when my lessons were through.
There was a very pleasant front porch equipped with a swing, and I sometimes arrived early for my lesson, spending many happy times there waiting for my turn. The front door of their home had an old-fashioned turnkey doorbell and lace curtains that allowed you to see Miss Helen come to answer the door.
But as soon as she let me in the house, I had to hold my breath until safely ensconced in the music studio. The neighborhood cats, much to the dismay of their owners, would take up with the sisters because Miss Beechie would feed them. The sisters adored cats, but there was no litter box in the house so the cats "went" wherever they could.
My daddy simply would not go into that house. When he took me for my piano lessons, he waited outside in the car or ran errands and came back later. Miss Beechie, a retired elementary school principal, believed that because she spent so many years around poor children, whom she felt were severely lacking in good personal hygiene, God had taken away her sense of smell.
Miss Helen's studio forever fascinated me. It was probably intended to be a parlor or sitting room. Instead, it was an eclectic disarray of memorabilia: musical instruments in their cases and old, brittle stacks of New York Times. Although the piano's keys were yellowed with age, it was impeccably in tune. The wall perpendicular to the piano featured white double doors with antique, milk-white (probably original) knobs. These doors were never opened and shoved against them were stacks upon stacks of sheet music and music books.
A gas heater sat in what was originally a small fireplace. The marble mantle over it contained a number of souvenirs from Miss Helen's days in New York. The ancient dark and dingy floor was covered with a large, threadbare oriental rug that had thinned with age. The eaves of the house were drooping under the weight of roosting pigeons. But who possibly could have kept this home in good repair for these two elderly sisters?
One day I was in the middle of my lesson when I heard Miss Beechie saying behind those marvelous closed double doors, "Now, Sai, you talk!" Sai was their own cat, a Siamese. Then I heard, "Mraw, mraw, mraw." On listening to this ridiculous exchange, I envisioned Sai sitting in a chair and Miss Beechie towering over him, demanding that he talk!
We had a recital every spring that was held in the auditorium of the Carnegie Library. Although she primarily taught piano, Miss Helen also gave lessons in flute, violin, viola, cello, guitar and double bass. A string ensemble ended the recital every year, usually doing a jazzy number because Miss Helen believed we should apply our classical training to contemporary music. She preferred that we commit our recital pieces to memory, which we all managed very nicely. However, one year Miss Helen completely forgot about the recital herself and never showed up. She later said she got the nights confused.
I ended my lessons and went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Rome's own Shorter College. A few years after I graduated, Miss Helen succumbed to a very lengthy bout with cancer. It was not long after her death that I realized what a wonderful opportunity my parents had given me and my brother, Steve.
There was far more going on during these years than piano lessons. I was being indoctrinated with lessons in tolerance. Some people among us have a different way of doing things and are stepping to the beat of a different drummer indeed. I shall never forget Miss Helen and Miss Beechie, or that remarkable old house. And, oh . . . those cats!
Pam Clark is secretary to Kamal Mansour in the section of cardiothoracic
surgery at Emory Clinic.