It was a perfectly cozy adventure… it may have been as cozy, Christmasy and small-town Canadian as you get. I was on the Vankleek Hill Christmas Home Tour, where a couple of hundred locals and busloads of city-dwellers longing for the nostalgic, idyllic holidays past tour through restored old houses decorated to the nines in festive glory.
It was a lovely crisp afternoon. I was enjoying bumping into familiar faces I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Then we entered the last house on our tour, Reginald and Rosemary Harden’s house. Next thing I know, I’m in Rosemary’s music studio at the end of the tour, staring at a snapshot from the seventies, crying.
The picture features the back of Rosemary in a woollen, red dress. She is slim and young and in front of her on the music room risers are her students. They are facing her and the camera. All their eyes are on her. Their arms reach from their sides in mimic of how Rosemary is holding her arms. Although her back is to the photographer and you can’t see her face, you can feel the command of her presence and the energy emanating from her as she leads her students in motion. I recognize several faces of kids, just a few years older than me, from Pleasant Corners Public School. Shannon McLeod. Kurt Barton. Shannon, now a schoolteacher herself with kids that are all grown up. Kurt is not with us anymore. He died tragically many years ago.
Suddenly, I’m pulled onto those music room risers, back through time. Mrs Harden stands in front of me at the front of the class. I’m a tiny little thing, skinny with wild curly hair. There is music playing. My mind reaches for the words to the silly song… “Got to stand very still. Don’t move now and maybe you never will. But now there’s an itch…” We are moving around the room shaking, wiggling, joyous and then we freeze when the song cues us to. Then it all starts up again and we’re moving a giggling mass led by our most precious, vivacious teacher, Mrs Harden.
Then my memory skips ahead a few years. I’m ten. I stand shoulder to shoulder in the soprano section of Mrs Harden’s competitive choir. The stage lights are hot on our faces, but I’m barely aware of the judges or the audience. My eyes are fixed on Mrs Harden’s face. Her eyes hold ours they say, “Keep still. Try not to fidget. Stay with me here.” Then she smiles her big beautiful, switched-on-Christmas-tree-fully-lit-up smile. She lifts her hand to her mouth and motions smoothly for us to smile. We do. Our excitement lights up our faces. Her hands come to their conducting start position. We wait with bated breath as the piano starts to play the introduction to our song. We inhale in unison with Mrs Harden as her right-hand lifts and then we’re singing, following the pace of her leading hand. The music lifts out of us, circles around us.
Then my memory moves ahead to grade eight and I’m back on those risers only I’m taller now with crooked teeth and pretty awkward. We are singing our hearts out under Mrs Harden’s watchful eye and her sharp ear tuned into every ‘ahhh’ and ‘t’ sound we make. Then she asks us one by one on my side of the risers to try singing the main part in our upcoming musical. One by one I can see it in her eyes that she’s chosen the major roles as the other girls finish the different pieces she’s asked them to sing. Then it’s me. I’m singing. She and I are connected as I watch carefully as her hand moves in rhythm to the music. She has my voice on her fingertips and cues it up and down the notes, in and out in volume. I sing for her like I always sing for her. Like we all sing for her like our hearts are on fire. Like our bodies are lit up. Like we might combust into streams of sound and light and sparkles at any second.
As I come to the end of the refrain she is smiling broadly and I know she’s pleased. I will indeed be playing the Wicked Witch of the West. I could cry, I’m so happy. She’s seen me. She’s heard me.
All these memories have flashed through my mind in seconds. Then I’m back in Rosemary’s studio still bent overlooking into the snapshot pinned to her picture board. I’m ugly-crying. I can’t help it.
I turn around and look with fresh eyes at the music studio. I notice Rosemary has moved the stand-up piano. The piano my oldest son, Kaylem used to play during his lessons in this very studio. He was seven or maybe eight and now he’s twenty-one. I can picture the two of them sitting on the bench. Kaylem is playing. Rosemary is listening. Then she’s showing him something new. She’s teaching him in the way she’s uncovered he learns best, appealing to his keen ear. Years into lessons Rosemary has taught him so much through fun and challenge. She’s pivoted when his attention waned. The blues scale, the Harry Potter theme song, singing when he lost interest in piano. All that time I sat on the couch watching, listening to the two of them make music together. I’m witness to Kaylem’s first plunks, to playing a sweet original piece he’s composed himself, to singing like an angel in a packed Knox church with Rosemary accompanying him on the piano. I cried then like I’m crying now.
I move over to the couch and put my boots on in preparation to leave through the tour’s exit of the Harden house. The tour leader in Rosemary’s music studio is exchanging pleasantries with my mom when mid-sentence she catches sight of me in tears, trying to zip up my boots. She stops talking and asks me if I’m okay. Now my mom and her friend are staring at me, confused. I start to explain. The snapshot, the piano, the cookies Rosemary used to feed Kaylem when he embarrassingly said he was hungry mid-piano lesson… I stop explaining. I laugh. Really, I’m fine, I tell them. It’s fine.
We exit and as we walk down Derby Street headed to Vert Fourchette for lunch, I hang back. Thinking as I walk slowly. Explain what? What was I trying to explain back there? What is it I couldn’t find words to adequately explain?
The gift of a teacher who… sees you. Hears you. Is present with you. Pulls the voice right out of you. Challenges you to rise up. A teacher that knows the magic balm of laughter, movement and a smile directed right at you.
A teacher that gives you… a lifetime love of music. Teaches you how to be generous and shows you that a smile and your voice can fill a perfect stranger’s (especially the elderly’s) hearts with joy. And then there is the joy of watching the same gifted teacher pull the same beauty out of your son? Teaching him as she taught me.
How do you explain a gift like that? How do you wrap words around such a deep feeling of gratitude? Such a profound love of how someone showed up in your life?
You can’t. You can only ever hope to offer a glimpse, a snapshot into what such a teacher has meant to you. And simply say, thank you.
Rosemary, thank you. Thank you. Thank you on behalf of my son and myself. I love and appreciate you more than I can ever express.
Stephanie Lemieux Rainey
PS: Does someone in your life fill you with gratitude? Please write to them, send them a video message or hug them. I’ve wanted to write to thank Rosemary for years. Don’t wait as long as I have! In fact, if Rosemary has meant as much to you as she’s meant to me, I dare you to write her yourself!