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GUEST COLUMN: The late Miss Helen Dean Rhodes, my piano teacher

Our cultural enrichment, when we were growing up, came in the form of piano lessons. My brother, Steve, took piano lessons for many years. His teacher was the late Miss Helen Dean Rhodes, longtime conductor of the Rome Symphony Orchestra. Eight years older than I, through the years I listened to Steve practice the classical music he learned. When he went to play baseball with his friends, I climbed onto the piano bench and played “by ear” all that classical music I’d heard.

IN THE FALL OF 1964, I had my first piano lesson from Miss Rhodes, whom we called Miss Helen. When Mama called her to schedule the lesson, Miss Helen said, “Does Pam play the piano at all?” And Mama said, “Yes. She plays by ear what Steve practices.” Miss Helen’s response was, “Well, please keep her away from the piano for 2 weeks before her lesson. When I start teaching her how to read music, as soon as she recognizes the song she is learning, she will start playing by ear and not read music.” And so it was. I did not play the piano for two weeks before my first lesson. For the first year, Mama sat in on my lesson every week. A second grade teacher, she brought with her papers to grade while she listened to my lesson.

MISS HELEN’S ECCENTRIC SISTER lived with her. Her name was Fannie Wood Rhodes, whom everyone called Miss Beechie. She steadfastly believed that God had taken away her sense of smell. You will soon learn the significance of that.

Miss Helen told me one day that ever since she could remember their mother instructed Miss Beechie to “take care of your little sister.” And so it was. Miss Beechie took care of the house, the grocery shopping, and cooking their meals.

MISS HELEN AND MISS BEECHIE HAD TWO DOZEN CATS which they kept inside the house at all times. They had all those cats because Miss Beechie would feed the neighborhood cats, much to the chagrin of the neighbors. There were no litter boxes in the home and consequently the home reeked of cat urine… to which sisters were oblivious. Daddy would not set foot inside that house. He always went to the barber shop at Central Plaza during my lesson and then came back to pick me up. Everybody knew about the sisters’ house and how it was. My brother told me how it was. The first time he told me… I tried to imagine it. I could not. Indeed. The first lesson I went to, Mama and I held our breath until safely ensconced in the music studio where the cats were not allowed.

I knew instinctively, from the first time I ever entered Miss Helen’s house, not to let on about that odor. Mama and Daddy never had a conversation with me in which they admonished me to say nothing about those cats. I sensed that if I had mentioned anything at all about the odor in the home, those words could not have been taken back and likely would have hurt Miss Helen’s feelings.

MISS HELEN’S MUSIC STUDIO was where all the music lessons were held. An eclectic disarray of clutter, there was sheet music strewn about the room, much of it on the floor. Violins and violas in their cases were piled about the room. In one corner of the studio stood a large glass case filled with music memorabilia from Miss Helen’s days at Julliard in New York City. Dusty ceramic figurines lined the mantle, above which hung an enormous gold-framed mirror. Beneath the mantle was a gas heater which appeared to have been a bricked-in fireplace. Along one wall were double doors, which remained closed at all times. At one time those doors probably opened onto the dining room. However, now shoved against those doors were stacks upon stacks of New York Times newspapers, yellow and brittle with age. The walls were papered with faded blue floral paper which was peeling from the wall. The floors, partially covered by a threadbare Persian rug, were dark and dingy. An upright piano was the focal point of the room, Although it was impeccably tuned, the keys were aged and opaque. Oftentimes I have wondered what happened to that piano when the sisters died and thought I’d like to have it. Certainly Miss Helen’s music studio had an atmosphere uniquely its own and I was perpetually fascinated by it.

This is part 1 of a 2 part series… which might ultimately be a 3 part series… about Miss Helen Dean Rhodes, Miss Fannie Wood Rhodes, their house, and their role in the local music community. Please watch for next week’s article when I continue their story.

Native Roman, Pam Walker is a paralegal in Calhoun. You can email her at pamtwalker@gmail.com.