By Charlene Schiff
The annual spring cleaning was in full swing. The windows were open; the carpets were airing on lines outside. People were coming and going, each one busy with a specific chore. The mattresses were being turned over, feather beds aired and stored for next winter, closets emptied and cleaned and the contents replaced or discarded. Mama and her helpers had decided that two rooms were in need of a fresh coat of paint. All of these activities were exciting, and I would have enjoyed staying home to watch, but it was a school day and too late for me to fake a tummy ache.
It was an ordinary day at school. Nothing exceptional took place. I did not have any lunch as I had lost the money that Mama gave me, and so I was quite hungry upon returning home. Mama scolded me for being so careless and went to the kitchen to prepare something more substantial than the milk and cookies we always had upon returning from school.
I was looking around the house—most of the furnishings had been moved from their permanent places. The piano, which had taken up most of one wall in the salon, was moved so that it blocked the entrance to the next room. In front of the piano, on the floor, covered with newspapers, rested a container with paint. It was so tempting, I impulsively reached for the brush and started painting the keyboard. The paint would not stick to the ivory keys, so I smeared several layers to be sure. Mama called from the kitchen to tell me my snack was ready. I went around another door in order to reach the kitchen. Mama noticed the paint on my hands and asked suspiciously, “What were you doing with the paint?” “Oh, nothing, Mama,” I answered. I washed my hands, but the paint would not come off. Mama applied something with a cloth—it had a strong odor, and after scrubbing vigorously, the paint finally came off. Right then and there I realized what I had done was more than just a childish prank.
On the kitchen table there were cookies and milk and an open butter and jam sandwich, but I was not hungry anymore. I worried about the consequences of the impulsive “paint job.” Mama sensed my discomfort. She sat down opposite me at the table and took my hands into hers. “What’s wrong, my sweet child?” she inquired. I was close to tears as I tried to explain. She went with me to the salon, and upon seeing the piano, she uttered the words: “Oh my goodness.”
She did not yell at me. Instead, she tried to explain how difficult it would be to repair the piano. She wanted to know what motivated me to do this mean-spirited deed. I really did not know how to answer—it was an impulsive act. I accepted my culpability, but Mama wanted to know the underlying, deep reason for my action. “I did it to spite Tia,” I said. Tia was beautiful and everything she did was perfect. She was a musical child prodigy and always received accolades when performing. I could never compete with her accomplishments.
When Tia came home and saw what I had done, she was furious. She told me I always insisted how grown up I was. Well, it turned out I was still a baby. “Naughty, naughty,” she added condescendingly. Her words hurt me terribly. I adored my sister and admired her and wanted so desperately to be like her. Obviously, I could never measure up. Calling me a baby when I thought I was so grown up was like a slap in the face. What I had done was stupid and thoughtless. Certainly I deserved her rebuke, but it was difficult to admit that Tia was right.
Papa took me into his study and tried to explain that one must never destroy any kind of property. Jealousy was an ugly trait, and I was talented in different ways than Tia. I had to be punished for this, but he took under consideration the fact that I realized shortly after how serious my transgression was. I had a lot of growing up to do, and I was punished severely—the most important treat, a trip to Lvov with Papa, was taken away. It took a long time and a lot of money to repair the piano. Papa had to bring a specialist from Lvov who spent days at our house working at undoing the damage a foolish little girl had done on a whim. The paint had not stuck to the keyboard, but it had clogged up the works inside.
Papa and Mama never yelled at me. They treated me with dignity but meted out the punishment as expected and deserved. Tia was more verbal and angry, and rightly so. She had to go to her teacher’s to practice. She could not play at home and my parents were denied the pleasure her music provided.
I learned a hard lesson. It was a painful experience for the entire family. More than sixty years later, my heart still beats faster at the sight of a piano. Remorse and guilt have never left me. My parents and sister perished in the Holocaust. There is no one left to hear me say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
©2011, Charlene Schiff. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.