Miss Helen Boykin belonged to a well-defined category of our region's women–eccentric, unmarried ones with mysterious pasts.

By Jennifer Chappell

Southern mothers cling to the notion that well-bred young ladies should learn to play the piano. Enrolling their daughters for lessons comes as naturally as taking them to family reunions and educating them about china patterns.

When I was growing up, mothers in Montgomery, Alabama, sent their girls to Miss Helen Boykin. An anachronism amid the subdivisions of the seventies, she belonged to a well-defined category of our region's women–eccentric, unmarried ones with mysterious pasts.

We students believed she was at least 90 years old. She dabbed on perfume that had fermented in crystal bottles and wore dresses as thin and wrinkled as her skin. Her regal air and skill at the piano gave her power, though, especially over a 9-year-old with bell bottoms and braces.

Every Tuesday in her foyer, a blend of reverence and fear plagued me as I waited for my lesson. I could hear Miss Boykin admonish Elizabeth Pratt for the same mistakes as last week. Soon, a wrinkled hand would part closed curtains, point Elizabeth out, and usher me inside.

While I played, Miss Boykin sat hunched in a chair, her head nodding to the metronome. Her blue eyes, ready to catch the slightest stumble, studied only my fingers. Mistakes made those eyes snap shut, as if she felt a pain.

To become a master of music, Miss Boykin had ventured outside Southern borders to study at Juilliard and later in Germany. She returned to Alabama to live in a house inherited from an uncle and dutifully took in her recently widowed sister. I felt she had been somewhere or seen something–whether beautiful or horrible I didn't know. It seemed she could convey her secrets to me only at the keyboard.

Loyal to music of the classical style, she handled all other forms with disdain. If I asked for help with a Streisand hit, she directed me to a cheery sonata. And I never questioned her–not even when she mandated piano recitals every third Saturday. The recitals were not optional. When my sister missed one to attend a church retreat, Miss Boykin said, "Child, you need to get your priorities in order."

Though we came in our Sunday best to perform, we also showcased our ability to gossip. Miss Boykin was rumored to have had a fiancé, and while she served punch, we whispered behind her back. The portrait above the fireplace, we believed, was of him–a man with dark eyes, a dark moustache, and a dark green uniform. Had he died on some grim battlefield?

Lessons continued, and I waited for other clues–but she talked only of chords, trills, and 4-4 time. Finally, tired of music's technicalities, I announced I would not return next fall. As I walked from her dim music room into the sunny 70s, I knew she thought I had forsaken music forever.

But at weddings and funerals, I still recognize obscure selections, and when I play my mother's piano, I flip past Streisand to pick up Mozart. I may have gone to her parlor to study theory and manners, but she taught me things as intangible as music itself. And when I play those old pieces, I listen for her secrets still.