When I was growing up, I took piano lessons from Miss Virginia Baird. She lived in a brown-boarded two-story house on the corner of Main and 9th Streets, and she had at least thirty cats that lived in that great big house with her.
Miss Virginia loved most to talk about what was happening in school with the other kids, but she also managed to teach me how to read music and play the piano. From age eight until fifteen, I went to her every week, and she filled countless black and white composition books with her careful, flowing script. I played “Moonlight Sonata,” “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and “Tarantella,” and graduated up to harder pieces by Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Year after year, I pushed on those black and white keys under Miss Virginia’s watchful eye. Slowly, I developed a basic understanding and love of music.
I remember thinking that Miss Virginia must be lonely. Her only friends seemed to be her sister who lived around the corner, her students, and her cats. She got dressed up every evening to walk the block and a half over to Miss Belle’s house for supper. I saw her at dusk many a night in her “Sunday best” dress, a black shawl draped over her stooping shoulders, and lace-up old lady shoes on her feet.
One day when I was around ten, Miss Virginia asked who was the cutest boy in my class.
I shrugged. “Philip Sewell is pretty cute,” I said. “And Allen Sanderson.”
She leaned so close that I could see the fine blonde hair on her rouged cheeks. “Do you know who the handsomest boy was in three counties when I was growing up?”
I shrugged. “No, ma’am.”
Miss Virginia’s eyes lit up behind her glasses. “Why, Len, it was your very own daddy.”
I heard how pleased her voice was. I smiled.
Miss Virginia leaned closer and said in a loud whisper, “Did you know that he and I used to date when we were young?”
I looked over at her and marveled. My Daddy and Miss Virginia?
Later, at home, I sat down at the kitchen table while Daddy was making himself a ham sandwich and decided to get the story straight. “Do you like Miss Virginia?” I asked.
Daddy spread Miracle Whip on two pieces of white bread and glanced over at me. “Of course I like Miss Virginia.”
I leaned back, my bare feet touching the cool linoleum of the kitchen floor. “Did you know her when you were younger?”
Daddy cut a thick piece of ham and put it on his bread. “Sure I did. We’ve both lived here all of our lives.”
I reached over and took a little sliver of ham off the plate that had fallen from his knife. “Was Miss Virginia nice when she was younger?”
He glanced at me. “Well, if you’re asking me if she had all those cats like she does now … no, she didn’t. Those cats came after her mother died.”
I got up and went over to the refrigerator to get milk. “Her mother?” I asked as I got down two glasses and brought them back over to the table.
“I’m thinking you’ve decided you want a sandwich, too,” Daddy reached over and got out two more slices of Wonder bread.
I nodded. “What about her mother?”
Daddy reopened the jar of salad dressing. “Well, her mother got sick when she was pretty young. Miss Virginia decided to take care of her instead of getting married and having a family of her own.”
I watched as he cut another piece of ham. “Miss Virginia says that you two used to date.”
A pained expression came across his face. “Oh, my goodness, that was a hundred years ago.”
I looked at him carefully. He wasn’t denying that it happened. “You actually dated Miss Virginia?”
Daddy looked very serious. “I went out with her one time, for heaven’s sake.”
I sat and contemplated my father and Miss Virginia together. Did this mean that Miss Virginia could actually have been my mother instead of Mama? “She says you were really handsome.”
Daddy smiled in a bashful sort of way. “Well, I did have my pick of the ladies…”
That went back to my basic question. “Then why would you EVER date Miss Virginia?”
My father looked at me and sat down. “Len, you can’t ever judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
My mind instantly went to Miss Virginia’s black lace-up old lady shoes.
“Miss Virginia made a lot of sacrifices in her life to help her family. Her mother needed her and she was there for her until the day she died. Unfortunately, by then it was too late for Virginia to find a husband and have children of her own.”
“Do you wish you had married her?”
Daddy reached over and ruffled my hair. “And miss your mother? I don’t think so.”
I felt relieved. “Well, I think she still sort of likes you,” I said. “I could tell by her voice.”
My father smiled. “Well, she might be lonely, you know, living in that big house with just all those cats.”
I got up and went over to the stove. “Well, you ought to know that Miss Virginia talks like you were her boyfriend.”
He chuckled. “I swear it was only one date. And she was pretty back then.”
The next time I went to Miss Virginia’s house, I tried to imagine how she might have looked when she was sixteen years old, all dressed up, and going out on a date.
The minute I sat down she asked, “Did you ask your daddy about when we were young?”
I thought about what Daddy had said about her being lonely. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And what did he say?” Her eyes were big behind her bifocal glasses.
I glanced down at her shoes, then looked back up at her. “Daddy said you were very, very pretty.”
Miss Virginia’s eyes lit up and she giggled. “Oh, that George Leatherwood,” she crooned. “He’ll be a rogue to the day he dies…”
And I’ll remember that happy look on Miss Virginia’s face for the rest of my life.