Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


My mother often said, "I had only six piano lessons," in a way that made me think she wished she could have had more. Her playing was completely satisfying to me. We could sing along as she played. What more was needed?

Without her stating, "I want my children to have a better chance to learn piano than I did," Sheldon and I found ourselves with a schedule for weekly lessons. I was ten years old. Neither Sheldon or I had shown special interest in music generally or in playing the piano. My feeling was that everyone had a piano whether they played it or not, but several of our cousins were taking lessons from Miss Elvira Luedtke.

I do not know what Miss Luedtke's education was, perhaps she studied at Ripon College. Those who wanted piano lessons went to her "studio" above the Markesan State Bank building. The worn gray stairway signaled the simplicity of the long narrow room where Miss Luedtke presided year after year. There were no colorful decorations to give a cheerful tone to the long wall space. A few plain wooden chairs stood to one side. Miss Luedtke's straight chair set at an angle in front of the one west window where she could face the piano with the light falling over her shoulder. When we arrived for a lesson she screwed the piano stool to the correct height to enable our hands to be properly positioned on the keyboard. Her pupils came from the surrounding communities from every direction for many years. My cousin, Jeanette, remembers that her older sister, Adelaide, took her with the horse and buggy from the country, so that she could take lessons.

Miss Elvira Luedtke was a dignified, no-nonsense woman. She dressed her somewhat tall frame in utilitarian colors and designs. Even the dresses she wore on special occasions did not catch your eye. She pulled her dark hair up and back in a simple bun. Her kind blue eyes counteracted her rugged facial features. It seemed to me her appearance was unchanged through the many years that I went to her for lessons.

The Luedtke family lived on a farm a short distance up the narrow country road from Grandpa Schwandt's farm. The families were well acquainted. The three Luedtke children were musicians. My father and his brothers and sisters admired anyone who knew and enjoyed music. Elsa and Erwin Luedtke played violin. We can imagine that in those less frenzied days they and Elvira had many fine times enjoying their music together.

The charge for our thirty minute sessions was forty-five cents each. If we arrived a few minutes earlier than our appointed time we sat quietly on those straight chairs while Miss Luedtke finished working with the pupil scheduled ahead of us. Rarely did she fall out of her routine. She treated us with businesslike respect. She was very patient but at times she had reason to be annoyed with our failure to focus on the music. I don't remember her ever rapping my fingers with the ever-present pencil she held in her hand. But Sheldon got his share when she could tell that he had not practiced and was wasting her time. The last piece that he played has the fingering marked with a heavy pencil on nearly every note. In one place "think" is written in large letters in heavy blue pencil. Miss Luedtke's half hours were tightly scheduled and she had to keep her eye on the little clock setting on top of the piano. The next pupil would be arriving on time, she hoped.

I marvel at my parents' determination to give us lessons. It was not always easy for my father to find time to take us to town. A farmer's work had to be done every day. To accommodate my father in the rush season, we sometimes went to the Luedtke home in the evening for our lessons. Going into their home was a step back in time. The fine old pieces of furniture made me feel I was in a story-book world. A kerosene lamp cast its glow on our music. It must have been a nice way of life. As long as she lived Elvira made few efforts to change to more modern ways. Eventually she did drive a car to and from Markesan. She faithfully kept her commitments even though the crooked road might be muddy or slippery with snow. No matter what the weather, she had to return home at night because her aging parents were expecting her. Elsa had gone away for her education and settled in California. While still a young man, Erwin died in an icy lake. Elvira dedicated herself to her parents, especially to her mother after Mr. Luedtke died. She continued to live in the country home even after she was left alone. Eventually she bought a house in Markesan near the school building where it was convenient for her pupils to come for lessons. She no longer needed the grim "studio." Miss Luedtke played the pipe organ in the Lutheran Church in Markesan for decades. She was on duty for weddings and funerals. Only extremely bad weather or severe illness kept her away.

My parents patiently endured the sound of our practicing. Even if there were pieces that finally sounded pleasant there were always the stints of going over and over certain phrases until they were more nearly correct. Sheldon seldom went near the piano without my mother sitting beside him to supervise his practice. After five years she let him stop trying. I'm sure it was a relief to both of them. In my high school years, Mother gave me the time immediately after supper to practice, because at that hour Sheldon was out in the barn doing the milking. He hated to hear my practicing. So, even in the years I taught school in Markesan, I seldom helped with the supper dishes. Parents were also long suffering when they had to attend our recitals. My father tried hard to find a way out. Listening to his own children's painful efforts was bad enough. To sit through a dozen or more halting amateur performances was only torment. Recitals were held in the Old Masonic Hall. One I remember in our high school days, saw our group of would be pianists sitting on stage across from the piano. When a classmate, Clifford Kelm began to play his number he found that he had lost his place in the music. "Oh, No!" he exclaimed in clearly audible tones. After a momentary hesitation he began to play again from the beginning while the rest of us smothered our embarrassed giggles. We knew how easy it was to fall into that trap of playing from memory for a few bars.

Miss Luedtke chose the pupils who could play a march at dismissal time at the high school. At the end of the day all students were to be in the assembly room in their alphabetically assigned seats. After the principal made a few announcements the piano player struck up the march. Students moved out in lines through the two doors. What a contrasting picture to assembly or dismissal time in today's high school.

Midway through my high school years Miss Luedtke was accredited by a Sherwood Music School based in Chicago. A salesman came to some of us to sign us up for the course. Although money was scarce my parents decided to give me this "advantage." I became a part of the group that Miss Luedtke called her Sherwood Music class. Trying to finish the course kept me taking lessons when I would not have continued. When I went away to college practicing was not continuous. Later, when I taught school in Markesan, I still tried to practice enough to continue the lessons. The time spent with Miss Luedtke at those sessions was more like a couple of old friends enjoying conversation. I was teaching some of the same third and fourth grade children to whom she was giving lessons. Some of them were children of pupils she taught years before. Her values of living and behavior corresponded to mine. After I married and lived away I wrote her frequently. We had many ideas to exchange. When I sit down at the piano now, and see her pencilings on the music I catch myself forgetting how many years have passed. I find myself "talking" to her even though her death from cancer came a long time ago.

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Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.