Life Through the Windshield


with occasional glances at the rearview mirror

By Kurt Rump

Sometimes a story just strikes a chord. This one did so for me, both literally and figuratively.

The story is an interview with a 97-year-old concert pianist. It aired on CBS Sunday Morning and was charmingly reported by correspondent Mo Rocca.

Her name is Ruth Slenczynska (pronounced “slen-JEN-ska”), and she had recently (as of April 2022) released a new album.

Ponder that for a moment. Releasing a new album at the age of 97. That fact alone is a little bit mind-blowing. I’ll be lucky if I can still muster enough breath to fog a mirror at that age. Yet this woman plays with the talent and grace of someone half her age.

Considered a child prodigy, Ruth began practicing piano at age 3 and performed her first concert at age 4. The CBS Sunday Morning piece included a video clip of Ruth playing a Beethoven composition when she was only 5… and playing it well.

Prodigy indeed.

While being interviewed, she proudly grasped the necklace she was wearing and held it out, showing Mo the miniature Fabergé egg that hung from it. The keepsake had been a gift from Sergei Rachmaninoff, given to her when she filled in for him at a concert. She was 9.

What a talent! She must have led a charmed life, right?

Not entirely.

While she was clearly gifted, Ruth didn’t consider herself talented. She reflected, “If I were talented, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard.”

As described by Rocca, from the age of 3, her Polish immigrant father forced her to practice for nine hours a day. While practicing, Ruth recalled hearing the voices of her sisters and neighborhood kids calling to each other during playtime outdoors. She wanted to be one of those children, but she was never allowed.

When Ruth was 15, she rebelled and stopped playing concerts. She later ran away from home. At some point, to make ends meet, she started teaching. But she didn’t find her way back to the concert stage until her late 20s.

From there, her career blossomed. She traveled the world, made TV appearances, played for presidents and other dignitaries, even performed a duet with President Harry Truman. Along the way, she met and married the man of her dreams, a love which endured right up to his death, 34 years later.

Her eyes sparkled and she smiled fondly as she described what her husband and marriage meant to her, “That’s when I became a real person. I’d marry him again – all over again.”

What a story. Ruth Slenczynska. 97 years young and still going strong. So many memories. So much accomplishment. So many life lessons. So much wisdom to share. Mo Rocca covered a lot of ground in his six-minute Sunday Morning segment, but there is so much more to Ruth’s story. I wonder how much was edited out, only to land on the cutting room floor?

It’s exactly the kind of stuff you want to capture and preserve for the next generation.

But Ruth and her husband didn’t have any children.

So, now what? What would you do? Put yourself in Ruth’s shoes. You have a story that, on its own merit, is worthy of airing on a major network’s news magazine. But you know that what aired only scratched the surface – hit the highlights. There are so many more layers to peel back. So much more to discuss and share with those who hold you close.

And there’s your answer. You connect with those who hold you close. If it’s not the family you’re born into, then it’s the family you choose. You might want to check out the blog post we wrote about that.

In Ruth’s case, her legacy lives through her students. They’re the ones who hold her close… who know her best… who stand to benefit most from her life experiences.

One of her students was interviewed as part of the CBS Sunday Morning segment. When asked what Ruth taught her about teaching, she said, “It’s important to impart upon young students – and students of all ages – the sense of being a part of the past. They’re larger than themselves.”

“[Ruth] believes that you don’t look back. You gain from the past, but you’re always looking forward. And I think that was her secret to success in so many ways.”

I was struck by those statements. There’s a conflict here, and I think we all struggle with it to some degree.

On the one hand, you want to instill a sense of being part of the past. Recognize and acknowledge that life is bigger than you. A lot has happened to make you and the life you live possible.

On the other hand, she says you don’t look back. You gain from the past, but you’re always looking forward.

How can you gain from the past if you don’t spend at least a little time looking back?

Here’s my take on it. We look back insomuch that we learn from it, but not so much as to dwell in it. If we dwell in it, we can get mired in it such that it might prevent us from moving forward. But if we learn from it, we can treat what we learned as “gain” and apply it going forward.

It’s akin to the way we use the rearview mirror when driving. You glance back now and again because there might be something back there that will inform you, but mostly you look forward to the road ahead. If you spend too much time staring into the rearview mirror, you might lose sight of where you’re going, and you might not like where you end up.

What can you learn from your family’s past? What have you gained from their experiences? From your own experiences? How can you connect with those who hold you close and share those stories and learning with them, so everyone can gain as they look forward?

We know a way.

 

 

 

P.S. If you’d like to watch the CBS Sunday Morning segment that inspired this post, you can find it here: CBS Sunday Morning

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