The Telltale Heart

My notion of time gets whacky in the Fall. 

During a walk I saw suspended in midair a golden maple leaf, caught on some invisible thread connecting this world and the next. I’ve come to call October my tender time because of loved ones lost this month yet still brilliantly before me.

As much as the Fall draws me to the past, it also creates a sense of urgency as I prepare for the coming cold. Leaves to rake and bag. Spent plants to cut back. Hoses to drain and bring in. The canna and elephant ears to dig up and store. Fireplace wood to order. Storm windows to wash and put in. The furnace filter to replace.

And despite my refrain, “I don’t want a dog,” Eloise has made the present fuller with her steady companionship. I linger in these moments even as I know she needs a permanent home before we are so attached that I will have to buy a bumper sticker that reads “Proud Foster Failure.”

Against this ever-shifting notion of time is Lela Gore, my childhood piano teacher. If I learned one thing from her, it was the absolute steadiness of time. Her metronome was the corrective to my varying tempos as I managed a few good measures before hesitating to find my next notes.

I wasn’t diligent about practicing between lessons. So when I walked down the block to her dreary house (a rental that the wealthy landlords were too stingy to fix up), my dread mounted. Like Poe’s telltale heart, her metronome became my terror.

When she wasn’t teaching, Miss Gore lived in the past, or at least in a world that suggested more dignity than her current circumstances. She often spoke of her training at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, her mother, and her travels to England and Scotland as she served me tea and shortbread still warm from the oven.

As long as we spoke of other things, another time, I could forget her metronome sitting on her Steinway in the living room. But when I sat on the bench under the bright single lamp and she set the metronome’s arm swinging at the tempo I was to match, I couldn’t keep up. Undoubtedly there was a pedagogical reason for using a metronome, but to me it was an instrument of torture. When my hands stopped and my shoulders dropped in defeat, she sighed and adjusted the beat. But by then, any tempo felt impossible.

I think I would have confessed to anything if she’d only stopped the telltale tick-tick-ticking. Yes, I should have practiced more. No, I wasn’t the prodigy she had hoped I would be, just another student whose mother thought I should have some musical training.

My career as a concert pianist never took off. Instead, I became my mother. There were many things I vowed I would do differently, but this wasn’t one of them. As soon as my kids turned four, I signed them up for piano lessons. To ensure it was a better investment, I sat with them when they practiced, my own relentless “one more time” on a difficult passage acting as a kind of metronome that must have been equally irritating to them. They too eventually quit. They too survived.

Fall feels like life without a metronome. Fleeting, transient, and unsettling. I have the past tugging at me. I have my list of chores, my monthly blog post, a manuscript to promote, a web site to update, agents to research filling each day. And I have the future, whose shadows lengthen with each year.

I found a much-needed steadiness recently when I came across Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Let Evening Come.” Her pace is measured and the truth doesn’t falter. The last stanza reads:

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

How I want to believe that this is so.

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