It’s been a few years since I bid my client and friend, Carmen, adieu for the last time. But as we approach the start of a new year, I find myself thinking a lot about old Carmen and what she was able to teach me.
In the decade plus that I have plied a salesman’s trade in musical instruments, I have had the opportunity to meet and assist thousands of folks, young and old, in the pursuit of their musical passion. It’s a wonderful occupation, enabling people to express themselves musically. Every one of my clients has their story; and every one of them share that certain ineffable desire to indulge a kind of reverie that only happens with a musical instrument.
Carmen was an eighty-four year old when I first met her, recently widowed. She ticked into the shop with her cane in hand one early summer afternoon and announced herself to me in a voice that can only be described as laryngitic crow-caw:
“Can you help an old soul like me, young man?”
She stood before me, steely-blue eyes narrowed to slits, cooly determined that she was going to get the service she expected.
“I’m here to tell you that I have never played a damned instrument in my life.”
She explained that in all her over sixty years of marriage, she had always wanted a piano, but that her husband, early traumatized by his own negative experiences with the instrument, refused her wishes with a resolution that bordered on cruelty.
“Frank was a lovely man, really. But he never wanted to let me do anything that I really liked. Dancing? Ha! That’s a good one! Only time we ever danced was when he was drunker than a lord at our wedding, and never again! And he never wanted me to have a piano… all because he was never any good at it himself.”
She seemed as much in conversation with her departed husband as with me.
“Well, he’s gone now,” Carmen concluded. “And I’ll be damned if I don’t learn to play a tango on the piano before I’m gone too!”
And with that, I led Carmen into the piano department; and after a short while she settled upon a fine digital instrument that would be perfect to learn on. As we concluded the business, Carmen took me by the arm and I walked her out. “Listen, Jeffrey. I’m buying this thing to learn tango music. But you have to promise me that when I do, you’ll come over with a good bottle of wine and hear me out while I play.”
By the end of the week, I delivered Carmen’s piano to her Westside condo, and I brought along a CD of music by my favourite tango pianist, Arminda Canteros, for Carmen’s inspiration. If Carmen was going to attempt the task of note reading and daily practice, not an easy thing for an octogenarian, and attempt the rhythmic challenge of playing in that most passionate of musical idioms, the tango, she was going to need inspiration.
I slipped the disc into her boom box and we sat down and listened, the new piano idling in the corner. When old Arminda had finished the final flourishes of a tango by Astor Piazzolla, Carmen looked up, tears welling, dabbed her eyes and said, “Jeffrey. You mark my words. I’m going to learn to play that music. And when I do, I’m calling you!”
I left Carmen’s condo that day deeply moved.
Tango is music for the wounded, the oppressed, for those whose lives have been scarred by love and loss. And when one is bitten by its sting, there is no turning back. It arises out of a deep abyss of conflicted emotion that is often difficult to articulate; but for those who are drawn to it, tango is a salve for the soul that is as powerful as any opiate.
As the months passed, I thought often about Carmen; but soon she receded in memory until two years had elapsed and I got the call, the crow’s caw from across the lake. “You’re going to need about forty bucks for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape that you’re bringing over this weekend, Jeffrey… Because you’re coming over to hear a couple tangos!”
Suffice to say that on the day of Carmen’s recital I arrived, true to my word, with a fine bottle of Carmen’s favourite, sat amongst a loose gathering of her friends, and listened, spellbound, as Carmen played one tango after the other. She made the odd mistake; but the tenacity that the gal displayed over two years (such a short time) to stick with her new passion astounded me. She was doing it!
Afterwards, as guests began to leave, she pulled me off to the side and put her hands onto my forearms. They were gnarled and swollen, casualties of an arthritis that afflict us both, but oddly beautiful in their misshapen state. “You see these paws, Jeffrey. I can’t play much anymore; so you’d better sell my piano for me, because I have to move to the Coast. Seems the rest of the family wants me back….”
As the year ends and I reflect upon the highs and the lows, it is Carmen’s example that inspires me. It speaks to me of the passions that lie nascent within each of us. All too often, our passions can be squashed by our routines or our fears. But Carmen’s delightful example of learning something wonderful late in life proves that it truly is never too late to do so.
Happy new year to you all. May you find your passion in the year ahead.
— Jeffrey Loewen is a Kelowna-based writer who plays music by day and politics by night