Meet Mrs. Hanks

by Elouise


It’s 1952. Mrs. Worth Hanks has just answered the door bell. Her gray hair is piled on her head, with wispy bits escaping here and there. She’s wearing eyeglasses, and has bright red lipstick on her lips, slightly smeared. Her clothes are a little wrinkled and she looks a bit worried.

My mother and I are here to talk about piano lessons. Mrs. Hanks plays the organ at the Independent Presbyterian Church in downtown Savannah. That’s the big church that runs the grade school where I’m a student.

Mrs. Hanks invites us into her parlor. It’s crammed full with a baby grand piano and a long piano bench. There’s also a small chair sitting right beside the piano bench.

Mrs. Hanks invites us to sit on the sofa, just behind the piano bench. Do I already know how to play the piano? Yes, I can play from the beginner’s book we brought. I can also play hymn tunes and chords by ear.

She asks me to show her. She opens the beginner’s book and asks me to start from the beginning. She keeps turning the pages until we get to the parts I can’t play yet.

Next she asks me to play some hymn tunes. She thanks me and I go back to the sofa. Mrs. Hanks says some nice things about my playing and tells Mother she will take me as a student.

Mother asks how much it will cost. I know we don’t have much money, but Mother says we’ll find a way. Later on, Mrs. Hanks tells Mother she wants to teach me for free. I’m relieved.

Mrs. Hanks is strict, but in a nice way. I bring my music and practice book to each lesson. The practice book is a spiral notebook. During each lesson, Mrs. Hanks sits on the chair beside the piano bench. She writes notes in my practice book about what I need to work on for my next lesson.

Sometimes she numbers or underlines things to let me know what I have to do before the next lesson. She writes down everything: scales, chords, piano exercises, new music, pieces I’m going to play in a recital, and anything else I need to work on.

Mrs. Hanks keeps a baton lying right on the piano. Not to hit me, but to point out things in the music and to point to fingers or hand positions that I need to correct. Sometimes she makes notes on the music to remind me of things I keep forgetting.

Every now and then she sits on the sofa and listens to me play a piece by heart. Sometimes she asks me to sit on the sofa while she plays the same piece for me—her way! That means with more passion, more expression, more ‘coloring’ as she calls it.

Just between you and me, she’s good, but I can tell she’s an organist first and a pianist second. Her fingers don’t always make it to the right keys in time. I think it’s because she’s very emotional when she plays.

Here are a few other things.

  • The parlor has a fireplace. Above the mantel there’s a gorgeous painting of a scene from Europe. Mrs. Hanks is an artist and a world traveler! I’m super impressed. She’s now a widow. She and her husband traveled a lot.
  • Every other week Mrs. Hanks bakes bread. I know, because the house smells of just-baked bread even before I open the door to come in.
  • Once a year, just before Christmas, she makes her favorite ‘delicacy’ to give away as Christmas gifts. Sugared citrus rinds. She keeps some in a dish on her piano and offers a piece to me after my lesson. It’s yucky, but I don’t complain. I just chomp down, smile and say thank you!
  • On my birthdays, Mrs. Hanks always gives me a little gift. Often a piece of jewelry from her collection. My favorite is a sterling silver musical note pin. I still have it.

Mrs. Hanks knows me better than I know myself and loves me just the same. I take piano lessons from her right through my high school years. The photo at the top shows us after my senior piano recital in 1960 at the downtown YWCA auditorium.

I didn’t have any ‘soul sisters’ growing up, but I had Mrs. Hanks. She was my ‘soul mother.’ She died several years after D and I got married. Breast cancer. A beautiful lady with a musical heart.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 March 2015