Essay: “MacKinnon’s Hands,” By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Excerpted from “Greek Unorthodox: The Best of the Close to Home Column (Selected from The Athenian, Greece’s English Language Monthly, between 1982 and 1990).”

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

“One of the signs of maturity is the willingness to look before you leap. One of the signs of ageing—and here I am speaking of spirits, not necessarily bodies—is that terrible cumulative hesitation that keeps you from leaping at all, just on principle.

I’m not as impulsive as I was a decade ago. I’m not even as impulsive as I was last September. And though I recognize that leaping before looking has led me to poke my fingers (up to the elbows) in the occasional fire, led me down blind alleyways into the arms of (Surprise!) the Minotaur, and led me, countless times, down not-so-primrose dead-end paths, this tendency has also led me to everything wondrous in my life to date, to everything, as they say, worth the time of day.

Still, I find I’m well on my way to becoming an old fogey. It was an inevitable development, I suppose, in the later life of the brittle teenager who once carried a sign announcing: ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30.’

These days, you won’t find me buying a see-through shirt or wearing green nail polish, and I wouldn’t be caught dead with a hibiscus flower behind my ear. (Check these gorgeous flowers out: covered with aphids!) I think of some of the stunts I’ve pulled in my life, some of the risks I’ve taken, and shudder. And these are the same risks I once shuddered about in sweet anticipation before taking.

But old-fogeydom sets in, once maturity has lopped off your leaping apparati, and begins to do its work in subtle ways. It keeps you from making eye contact with strangers. It keeps you home reading a book, sometimes for the second time, instead of getting you out to attend the lecture in Mets, the performance in Epidaurus. Old-fogeyness is incremental, but as sure as ‘weary’ follows ‘world’ it will leave you looking more like your aunt in Spartanburg, South Carolina (the one with the pale blue hair who’s a pillar of the church) and less like your aunt in Antigua (God rest her leaping soul), who dyed her curls sweet-potato red and ran off with a circus performer, or ‘Carnie,’ as my grandmother miserably put it.

A decade ago, I’d have known which aunt to emulate. Now, I’m not so sure I’d give the Carnie the time of day. Now, in fact, I’m ashamed to say, it’s taken me a whole year to locate. . .MacKinnon’s hands.

When I moved into my current digs (a place far removed from the Chez Squalor and Evil Aerie of yesteryear, though I still do—inevitably—live next door to two aged and vociferous curs), every evening at about 10 p.m. I heard piano music. I say piano music because, back then, I imagined it was a recording. It would begin, then be silenced, either abruptly or very slowly, as though God were closing His sliding door on the other side of the street. At least the sound seemed to be coming from the other side of the street.

In the beginning, writing or reading somewhere in my vast, rented bowling alley of an apartment, I registered that the pianist was immensely talented and the recording unfamiliar: a sort of beyond- Windham Hill jazz composition with endless arpeggios. Day by day, the piece grew, the ‘sliding door’ was left open for longer intervals, and occasional muffed notes informed me that I was listening to a live work in progress. Somewhere in my neighborhood, vast hands were in the process of structuring a composition which, week by week, grew and altered and metamorphosed.

At first, I would find myself talking to wall or window. ‘No. Don’t change that bit. It was fine the way you had it yesterday.’ Or, ‘Too fast. No one can play that fast. It will still have the impact just a little bit slower—and none of the errors.’ When the pianist stopped for the night, I returned to my work, or drifted off to sleep, in disappointment. When, for three days or a week, there was silence, I wilted.

It could not be a child, I reasoned: The hands were too large. But was it a man or a woman? And what did she or he look like? In the timidity of middle age, I did nothing but listen. On the back balcony, I scanned the quiet façades of the buildings facing me, but could never, even when the pianist was playing, determine the origin of the sound. One day, it seemed to emit from a geranium-festooned window just opposite my bedroom; the next, it seemed lower, to the right.

If friends phoned while my phantom was performing, I would find an excuse to ring off, wondering how the composition had changed overnight, unwilling to miss the evening concert. Once or twice I held the phone up to my window: ‘Hear that? Does that piece sound familiar?’

But I never ventured out into the street. Old fogeys do not canvass the neighborhood, ringing bells at random, enquiring: ‘Excuse me, but are you by chance (all this in imperfect Greek) my daemon-pianist?’ Still, I must have a spark of my old impetuosity left.

The year dried out like a vine, and August set fire to my wooden defenses. Women were sitting on their balconies at dusk wearing little but the time of day. Sliding doors slid back on couples beached on unmade beds. We all peered across at one another: bourgeois but perspiring voyeurs.

One night, when my street was lit up like a Yule log, the music was louder than ever before. I went tearing out onto the verandah in my nightgown just in time to see the side of the Steinway near the window and a completely bald-headed child looking up at me in embarrassment. He was in the process of sliding a great glass door shut. He did this quickly, the sound snuffing behind him. I gestured frantically. ‘No!’ I mouthed in several languages.

I must have looked like a neighbor tormented by vociferous curs: I wasn’t getting through to him.

The old fogey had to drop even more inhibitions. I crossed my hands over my heart and rocked back and forth. The child’s eyes widened. Then, realizing I was making some progress, but not enough, I tore a page from Marcel Marceau’s book. I reached out into thin air and embraced an invisible lover. Mohan’s—for that is his name—face lit up. He threw back the sliding door, bowed slightly (great ham, this kid), and then motioned forward a ravishing woman who emerged from behind the piano.

Niki MacKinnon came out onto her balcony (down and to the right—the sound had played tricks on me as the pianist is in the habit of moving her instrument all over her huge living room) and, decorum be damned, we began bellowing heartily across the space between us.

The next day, I went over to visit, bearing presents. She gave me her hand at the door, and I swear I held onto it and examined it.

‘I’ve got these enormous hands!’ she laughed. (They aren’t, really.)

‘I thought you might,’ I laughed back.

The piece she’s been practicing all this time was inspired by the galloping of horses, but it incorporates elements from the music of Niki’s homes: Crete, Samos, India, and the Americas. It will be recorded when Niki is ready, and Mohan (Niki’s godchild, whose hair, by the way, is growing back in now) and I and many others are looking forward to having the piece on a CD, though I confess I will always prefer it in midair.

Niki and her circle have already given me many unexpected gifts—fragments of Indian folklore, flowers left for me at our local grocer’s, music, Mohan’s drawings—and I shudder to think I was almost too timid to seek them out. Most of her neighbors, says Niki, ask her to keep ‘the noise’ down.

I was—am—fast becoming less willing to open my sliding doors, to do my Red Skelton mime on the balcony, to embrace thin air. But I have discovered two things this summer: MacKinnon’s hands on the

keyboard, and something else. If you put a hibiscus blossom behind your ear, the aphids will stay on the flower. I suppose it tastes infinitely better to an aphid than your ear.”

By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring © Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, 1989.

Author Photo: Dionysis Tsipiras