Shortly after we arrived in the U.S., my father, who thought I could use some ensemble-playing experience, signed me up for the Birmingham Youth Orchestra. Every Sunday afternoon he would deposit me and my violin in a drab, fluorescent-lit rehearsal space in pre-civil-rights downtown Birmingham and come back to fetch me two hours later.
Those rehearsals were a kind of purgatory for me. Sitting in the back of the first-violin section, I thrashed like a shipwrecked sailor in a sea of sounds and rests and strange notations. \”Watch the conductor,\” my father would say as he drove me. \”Always keep your eye on the conductor, or you\’ll get lost.\”
As far as I could tell, however, the conductor–a man with thick hair, a big nose and round tortoise-shell glasses–just waved his arms in random patterns, stopping frequently to complain about our playing. Instead, I watched, as best I could, the concertmaster, a curly-haired boy who seemed impossibly mature to me–he must have been all of seventeen. When he started to play, I started to play. When he stopped, I tried to stop too.
I should note, while we\’re on the subject of the concertmaster, that he had one pale-blue eye and one eye as dark brown as mine. I used to sneak looks at those eyes during breaks, which I otherwise spent pretending to clean the rosin off my bow. I didn\’t talk to the other players–my English was too rudimentary to understand their chatter, let alone contribute to it.
The only positive aspect of playing in the orchestra, as far as I was concerned, was that for concerts we girls were supposed to wear black skirts, white blouses, and stockings.
Even though I was fourteen and fully equipped to play my part in perpetuating the human race, my mother kept me in short dresses that tied in a bow at the back, and short white socks. But since the orchestra\’s dress code demanded it, she had to get me a pair of stockings–and a garter belt to hold them up.
I was thrilled with the stockings (this was a few years before pantyhose burst on the scene), but less so with the garter belt. For, in order to hold up the hose, the upper rim of the garter belt had to exert pressure on the curve of the lower back, just above the hips. This produced a peculiar agonizing ache that I recognized a decade later, when I was in labor with my first child. (To be continued.)