My decision to take a leave of absence from the concert stage was met with universal acclamation. (People tend to praise a successful person for doing what would seem ordinary for others.)
“Isn’t she wonderful to sacrifice so much for her children?”
The best aspect of my five-year sabbatical was my temporary liberation from nanny dependence. Working mothers rely on nannies to save the day. To be able to work you’ve got to first afford them, then trust them. You can’t focus on your work if you’re worried that they’ll set the house on fire, or sneak a lover into the back room. They’ve got to be competent and smart—affectionate but still mindful of who the mother is.
I had one who couldn’t keep it straight. While I was away on tour for 10 days, she luxuriated in my living room, slept in my bed, and tried on my dresses. When I got back, she resented not being mistress of the house anymore and promptly resigned. Another nanny from Wisconsin tried to convert all the doormen to Buddhism. An Austrian nanny who pined for an old boyfriend went to visit him and never came back, and still another was so mean I sent her away after a week. They came and went before, after and during my concert tours, often leaving me to scramble for a reliable babysitter.
Strangely enough, the nanny who compelled me to become a full-time mom was one of the best—a British super-nanny with degrees named Coleen. She did her job meticulously, and taught me a lot about childcare while I was touring, toddler and toys in tow.
To most people concert touring with a child seemed like a mad proposition. But deserting what was for me a combined vocation, passion, and career felt equally insane.
My baby boy fully cooperated, always peaceful and content, hardly ever whining. Between rehearsals, we would play. While we were traveling from one town to the next, I’d read to him. While I practiced, he’d sleep in a bassinet under the piano.
Raising children is a matter of love and of economics: you’ve got to have plenty of the first and enough of the second to get by. The British nanny cost a good chunk of my concert fees. I told myself that I hadn’t gone into classical music to be rich. If I’d had dreams of affluence, I’d have become a pop artist. Maybe a female Liberace.
Everything went smoothly so long as we followed a strict schedule, for Coleen didn’t condone last-minute changes. She was unionized. Her evening off began at six p.m. sharp, no matter the circumstances. She always had a date, one in each town. As soon as we reached a new destination she’d look around with her moon-shaped blue eyes, and attract young men like a moth to the flame.
On that particular tour I had a few concerts with the great orchestra in Chicago, including a Friday matinee. We agreed that Coleen would have that Friday evening off.
As usual, I played the piano concerto in the first half of the program. During intermission the maestro asked if I was going to stay and listen to his performance of the Tchaikowsky symphony—more a command than a question. I said I’d love to, but I had a small child waiting to be fed in the hotel. “British nannies, you know.” The maestro smiled benevolently. He said the concert would end at four p.m., and the trip back to the hotel would take ten minutes. “My assistant will give you a lift.”
Shortly after four we stepped out into a blizzard for the ages. The sky was white, the streets covered with snow. Worst of all, the garage entrance was iced over, leaving no way to go in or out. The conducting assistant apologized and left me stranded: “Sorry, I’ve got to find some other way to get home.“
I stood on the curb, trying to hail a cab. There were many cabs on the street, driving at a crawl with their signs flashing “Off Duty.” I tried to inquire about a bus connection, but nobody stopped to answer my questions, each passerby busy solving his own transportation problem. Phone calls got frozen at zero. Four o’clock became five. What was I going to do? I hoped Coleen would feed my son if I was late.
I walked straight into a lane of oncoming cars, and raised my arms. “Kill me or stop.”
A taxicab stopped. “What’s your problem? Are you crazy?”
I didn’t think he’d understand the rigidity of unionized British nannies, so I said I had a sick child at the hotel. I had to get back. I’d pay him double. I opened the door and pushed my way in. “Take me to the hotel or I’ll report you.”
At five past six I sprinted from the elevator down the corridor to my hotel room. Coleen was standing at the door, arm in arm with a cute young man. Behind her I could see my son, his day clothes on.
“You’re late,” she said. “You should have called.”
I asked if she’d fed the child, and she said she hadn’t. That was my job. “And hurry up, he’s very hungry.”
The following morning I called my agent and cancelled my career. All of it.
“For how long?”
“For as long as I need to.”
I enjoyed my new life as a stay-at-home mom. I drove my kids to ice skating and birthday parties. Shopped in every mall. Took college courses in literature and philosophy. Had coffee klatches with other moms and went with the kids to the zoo a hundred times. Then I missed the piano and returned to the stage. Gloria, our Midwestern nanny with a heart of gold, said she’d welcome the opportunity to see the world, and “Don’t worry about a thing,” she said. “I’ll never leave you in the lurch.”
We traveled together, and the children became my co-conspirators and critics. They’d sit in a box stage left, and as I played, I could see their little heads through the space between the keyboard and the piano lid. During rehearsals they’d build castles of Leggos strewn across the concert hall floors. They did their homework while I practiced and waited until the end of a musical phrase to ask questions.
When they grew older and couldn’t miss school we made a deal: I’d go on a short tour when I had to, but I’d always come back on the day I had promised. My return dates were marked in red on the calendar, each day of my absence crossed through at night. I kept my word religiously, even when offered a lucrative additional engagement that would prolong my trip by as little as one day. Children are like lovers. If you betray them once, they’ll never trust you again.
I installed a telex contraption in my study, a device which my son used for daily reports about his sister: she refused to eat her eggs, she failed to brush her teeth. His messages got me into serious trouble on a tour to Argentina during the Falklands War, when hotel security couldn’t decipher them and was convinced that I was a spy.
Not everybody appreciated my priorities. Promoters frowned upon my list of “unavailable” dates—birthdays, school shows, sports events, parent-teacher conferences. One German agent fired me because I declined a tour scheduled during a pre-planned trip to Disneyland with the children. I got blacklisted from a popular talk show because I refused to stay for a follow-up appearance.
It wasn’t an ideal situation but it was the best I could do. I was a working single mother. I thought I was setting a good example. I hoped I was setting a good example.
One time my daughter couldn’t bear my absence. She called to say that I had to come back at once regardless of my commitments. There was a crisis and only I could make it right.
“What’s the matter, honey?”
She said she was preparing for a history exam and couldn’t remember anything.
I was in Europe at the time, rehearsing for a live television show, with three more days to go on the road. I couldn’t possibly cancel.
An hour after talking to my daughter I called back and told her I had a serious problem. I couldn’t remember a note of my concert program.
“But Mom, you know your music.”
“I can’t remember anything.”
“That’s silly, Mom. You knew it yesterday and you’ll know it tonight.”
“So how come you forgot your history?”
“I think I remember it now, Mom.”
They grew up and left for college and beyond, while I began to tire of traveling and changed course. Life is a series of absurdities. You raise your kids during your years of relentless personal ambition. You reduce your workload when you have all the time in the world to devote to your profession. You’re expected to go into retirement just as you’ve accumulated the experience and maturity needed to do your job better than ever.
And if you’re a woman, you find that no matter how much you’ve achieved in your life, there’s always somebody who believes you can only be a nurse.
Israela Margalit is a renowned concert pianist, an award–winning recording artist, playwright, TV writer, and recently a published author of short fiction. Her son Ilann Maazel is a civil rights lawyer, a recorded pianist and a MUT International Competition first prize winner for his musical Believe Me. Her daughter Fiona Maazel is an award-winning novelist (National Book Award 5-under 35, Bard Fiction Award.) Her third novel A Little More Human will be published by Graywolf in April.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.