When Autumn Leaves…


“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

Henry David Thoreau


When Autumn leaves begin to fall… I remember

when I was a little girl.  I loved to sit at the piano and figure out how to play songs I had heard on television or the radio.  Those who were schooled in music admonished my parents,  “Hurry and get Donna in piano lessons before she picks up bad habits and has to unlearn what she’s taught herself.  Playing by ear is good and show’s she has talent but she needs to learn how to play correctly!”

My parents heeded their advice and by the fourth grade, at a great expense and financial sacrifice to them, I began piano lessons with Mrs. Susie Pender.  I’ll never forget my first lesson.  I stood out on the sidewalk in front of her house; my heart about to beat out of my chest and my knobby knees shaking mightily.  I felt the hope of my parent’s expectations sitting heavily on my shoulders and I could still hear my father’s voice in my head, “Donna, you are going to have to take music for five years.  We have to give your talent time to grow and you’ll need lots of time to practice.  There will be NO giving up!  You can quit lessons the day after you’ve taken them for five years, but you HAVE to give it at least that long!  You owe it to yourself and your talent!  AND, I know you will have made it when you can ‘tickle the ivories’ by playing every note in ‘Autumn Leaves.’ Now that’s ….that’s a beautiful song and you’re going to learn to play it. I look forward to the day!”

I stared up at the steps, which in this small girl’s eyes looked monumental and began my ascent.  Walking across the mile-wide porch, I gathered every ounce of boldness I had and knocked on the door. I had conjured up what I thought Mrs. Pender would look like.  She would be small, petite and blonde, like Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie.”  She would have a beautiful smile and with the blink of her eyes and a nod of the head she would perform her genie magic and I would be able to play “Autumn Leaves” without having to practice a note.

Mrs. Pender opened her front door.  I looked up at her and my hopes vanished.  She was an ancient, matronly woman dressed in an old fashioned black dress with black, low heeled lace up shoes.  Her silvery-white hair was swept up into a bun on top of her head.  She didn’t look like a ‘Susie.’  Those who were named Susie were young and fun.   “Hello,” her voice crackled.  “You must be Donna!  Come in.”


I took a picture of Mrs. Pender’s house during the summer.  Now it looks totally adorable and inviting, painted a lovely pink, and I’m sure the current owners are wonderful people!    But forty-seven years ago (Did I just write that?  That’s how old people talk!) as I stood before it,  I was a very frightened little girl!  


I didn’t want to go in.  What if she really was the “mean, evil” lady in the neighborhood that invited poor little children like me into her parlor, carved out their hearts with a pen knife and buried what was left of their little bodies in the back yard, sometime after the sun went down?  I saw the whole scenario play out in my head but I swallowed my fears and timidly walked in behind her.

We walked through her darkened, cool parlor on a narrow, clear, plastic floor runner.  I guessed she didn’t want kids like me messing up her clean floor and rugs. Glancing around the room, I noticed it was furnished in old, Victorian furniture, the upholstery, faded a bit but still in good shape.  Even I could tell she rarely used the room and sat on her furniture. I guessed this would not be the room I took the lessons in.  I followed her deeper into the house.

My nerves were sweating as she led me into the next room.  Hoping to see a piano,  I was relieved when I saw its deep mahogany shine gleaming at me from under the piano lamp.  I relaxed a little when I realized if Mrs. Pender did chop me up into little pieces it would be after the piano lesson.

I took lessons for five entire years from Mrs. Susie Pender,  just like my Daddy said I would.  During that time, I was always a bit intimidated by her old house and her no-nonsense appearance and approach to music.  I did learn to play a version of “Autumn Leaves” but always stumbled through the version my Dad wanted me to learn.

I know that I didn’t practice nearly enough as a piano student and that I didn’t have that “drive” that separates the good students from the best ones.  I quit the lessons in the ninth grade after completing my five years.

Looking back, I wish I had been more musically ambitious.  Instead, I learned enough to read music, suffer through advanced piano and pick up the guitar and learn enough to get me through the very basics of that instrument. Dad, why didn’t you MAKE me practice more?  I suppose you could have beat me with a stick and threatened to cut off my fingers if I didn’t practice more,  but that would have made you the mean, evil man on the street in our neighborhood.  Plus, I couldn’t have played the piano without my fingers.   I suppose I was just too lazy to take advantage of my wonderful opportunity to be a concert pianist.

Dad, I’m sorry about “Autumn Leaves.”   Every Fall since the fourth grade,  when I see leaves swirling around, I think of you and your hopes for me. Sorry I didn’t deliver.   Yep, I still feel a little  guilty about that one!


       Dad, I figured out a way “Autumn Leaves” could still tickle the ivories!

Here’s your song!  I hope you enjoy it as much as my Dad does.   It’s still one of his favorites! Just close your eyes and pretend it’s me playing!



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