February 2nd, 2008 at Hilda’s – Great Barrington, Massachusetts
„Hellooooouuuu?“, Hilda sings into the telephone on the counter by her kitchen. Life is too short to be bored. The old phone from 1946 hardly ever stops ringing – either it’s one of Hilda’s children, someone asking about piano lessons or just to hear the 81-year-olds wonderfully squeaky voice.
A little leap in time – the 40s were Hilda’s Golden Decade. She was a wunderkind of the piano, who began to play at the age of six and was offered instruction by great pianist Artur Schnabel by the time she was twelve. At age fifteen she was chosen by Sergej Koussevitzky to represent the Berkshire Center of Music , now known asTanglewood, home of the Boston Symphony. She was sixteen when she was awarded a critics award for her original composition, the „Tom Sawyer Suite“. Paul Bowles reviewed a concert she played at age seventeen playing in the Town Hall in New York (Herald Tribune).
She might have become world-famous, had it not been for Mr. Shapiro, whom she met one day at an after-concert party and fell in love with. The couple moved to the country side, and the following years, what Hilda was the most was: pregnant.
Forteen years in ‚different circumstances‘ was enough. By this time there were twelve kids who ran and jumped around on the family farm. A colorful family, big enough for a soccer team and then some, with their own house band.
But when the youngest child became a teenager, Hilda’s husband suddenly disappeared without a word. For some reason Hilda always knew he was still alive. It wasn’t easy, alone with so many kids in the country, but luckily some of her children were old enough to help, and drive the other family members around the rural Berkshires -Hilda never learned how to drive.
One day Mr. Shapiro re-appeared and filed the divorce. Hilda agreed. Only a couple of years later he died, fatally ill.
Hilda made her living as a piano teacher and accompanying other musicians. I met her during a year abroad when I was sixteen, as old as she was in her Golden Decade fifty years earlier. Together we accompanied musicals and played concerts. I remember that whatever she did she was always at admirably happy ease, the little gray-haired lady with the crazy coloreful outfits, prepared for anything that might happen. If a singer forgot a whole chorus, she would stand up, browse the sheet music with one hand, while her other hand would continue to groove on the piano. „page 147, page 147“, she would wisper, and we would stumble after her.
Today, Hilda still wears her red Converse shoes and a pink jacket, she walks a little less straight and a little more stooped then ten years ago, but she’s still as lively. One of her fingers is deformed from an accident, but that doesn’t keep her from playing the piano hours and hours each day or accompanying the wunderkinder like she once was. Of her twelve children, she lost one, a son died of cancer.
„It took twelve of us to accomplish what you did“, her children tell her, a reference to the twelve grandchildren. The old lady emanantes a livelyness which most 60-year-olds couldn’t keep up with. When she doesn’t play or chats on the phone, she scuffles out and gets a barrow full of wood to heat the stove.
„In spring I will attach this sign to my bike“, she tells me, and proudly presents a sign saying „Mama for Obama“. Well, with a little help of the one-and-only Hilda Banks Shapiro of Great Barrington nothing can go wrong anymore, can it?
Christina R. Lane took this beautiful portrait of Hilda for her series „Unsung Heroes of the Berkshires“.