Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Piano

The black upright piano was a feature in my childhood home for as long as I could remember. It stood against the wall and had a bench seat that opened to store music. It's ivory keys had become somewhat yellowed with age, but each time the cover was lifted from them, there was a sense of something special beneath.

I remember banging on the keys as a child, trying unsuccessfully to create the music that I knew could come from the instrument. And then, when I was 10, I began piano lessons. I was excited to learn—finally I would be able to make beautiful sounds. My ambition to play did not last long, however, due to boredom with practicing for half an hour every day (no matter how well I could play the song or no matter how frustrated I got when I just wasn't getting it), combined with jealousy over my younger sister's ability to pick out tunes by ear when I could not do that and I could not understand the notes for the left hand very well. This led me to quit my lessons after only two years.

But as I look back on the piano, I have new thoughts about it, thoughts unrelated to music or lessons. The piano had belonged to my grandmother, and possibly, her mother, but, as we will see, the details are unclear. What got me started thinking about the piano and my grandmother is a candle I have that's scent is called “Grandma's Kitchen”. It is a mixture of Cinnamon Bun, Sugar Cookie, and Carrot Cake. The candle's name and scent is meant to evoke happy memories of baking with Grandma in the kitchen. What then, is a person to do when Grandma wasn't a baker? My grandmother was not a baker. Not only do we have a photos of a lopsided cake that she made, we've also all heard the story about her leaving a spoon in another cake she made.

Despite the fact that my grandma wasn't a baker, there are other things that bring to mind memories of her. Fudge stripe cookies. Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni. A card game called “Strawberry Shortcake Turnover” that I more aptly renamed “Strawberry Shortcake Turnover Beat Grandma”. I remember playing with my older cousin and then sitting down to the lunch of Beefaroni that she gave to us. I remember eating Fudge Stripe cookies and peering at Grandma through the hole in the center. I remember the black Hancock chair she'd received as a retirement gift. I remember her black hair and that she wore glasses.

And I remember lying on a towel by the woodstove in order to dry off after coming in from playing in the snow when the visiting nurse was there to care for her. Grandma had breast cancer. She died the day after I turned six years old.

There are other things I know about her that I do not have memories of. I know she smoked, but I am not sure I remember her smoking. And I know that she played the piano, and at church, the organ. Perhaps there is a vague, foggy memory of being in church and knowing she was in the balcony playing, but I am not certain of it.

These are six years of memories that I have, and they are few. It gives me only pieces of who she was and I realize I did not really know her. I have mementos of her: a bracelet with her initials on it, her engagement ring, a china plate. And today, if I eat Fudge Stripe Cookies or Beefaroni, I think of her.

I recently learned that she was raised by her father and grandmother because her mother left when my grandma was only about eight years old. My great-grandmother apparently had a dream of becoming a professional pianist and left the small town in northwestern Connecticut in order to follow that dream.

I wonder how Grandma felt about her mother leaving. What kind of fear, hurt, and anger did she have? When other parents would not let their children play with her because her parents were divorced, did she cry? Did she have a favorite stuffed animal to hug? Did her father and grandmother dry her tears?

Why did she choose to play the piano? What did she feel towards the instrument that helped to lure her mother from her life? Did it ever make her angry? Or was the piano her connection to her mother, as much as the jewelry and china plate are mine to her? When she sat at the bench and raised the cover to reveal the ivory keys, did she remember happier times when she would listen to her mother practicing?

I didn't inherit Grandma's inability to bake. I didn't inherit her musical talent. The piano itself is long gone. The first time I visited her grave in years was only a few months ago. I don't even think about her that often. But when I do, whether it is through stores at a family gathering, looking at old photographs, or simply because she comes to mind, I am thankful for those six years I did know her. Was she thankful for the eight years she had her mother?

Years later, in moving it out to the garage, the piano would topple on the uneven pavement and be destroyed. The piano was only an object, much like jewelry and china plates. Those objects will not last forever; they will be lost or broken, given away or sold. What is important is the memories that they evoke. Those memories can never be given away, sold, or broken, but can be the connecting piece between the past and the future.