Wednesday, May 9, 2012

At The Piano

I sit with the memory of her gold and green living room with its mangled smell of cat litter and sweet honey lozenges. She sat against the wall, tucked beside the piano bench, in a wooden chair with its own worn cushion. She always leaned over the keys, wrote the date, with her long, shaking but careful fingers, in the corner of the page.  The date became a beginning, a pull-switch, and it would send my own hands, too small, too slender, the reach between pinky and thumb too short, to the smooth ivory in anticipation of learning a new song.

She wore glasses that magnified the ocean of her eyes.  Her hair was a soft, rolling hill of red.  I'm a little witchy, she'd tease, titter at the edge of a giggle, the quiet, mischievous glow of a small child about to do wrong.  She said this, each and every year, of her Halloween birthday, and I would follow with the same story I always did, that I was supposed to have been born that day but came early.  So, there was no connection, not really, only that we could have shared that but didn't.

Her husband came and went in shadow through their small home, shuffled past the open door, tinkered in the pantry. I'd hear the clank of porcelain against the metal sink basin, the quick, flinch of television static, then the kind of purposeful, certain quiet that comes with having to be quiet. Because the living room was hers.  And my fingers perched over the sturdy upright piano for those forty-five minutes each week meant that it was ours. The crumpled green grass of rug beneath the pedal.  The tink of silver chain that lit up the sheet music.  Heavy, thick, drapes hurdling to the floor.

Once a year, there would be a recital in summer. We'd fill that one room entirely, folding chairs tangled up in one another. Children in crumpled pants and dresses with lopsided hems. Our parents pressed up against the front door or the coat rack or the wall-papered seams of the space.  And we'd play in order. From youngest to oldest.  My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean to Debussy and Chopin. The same songs, each year that we progressed, until I was seventeen and college bound, playing a song I'd heard played ten years earlier by a teenager I never knew when I still wore patent leather shoes and my green-stained knees were covered in itchy tights.

It was only at the recital that we saw the rest of her home.  That we'd spill from that familiar room into the sun-soaked kitchen with its checkered curtains and round Formica table.  The screen door to the backyard would swing open and we'd scatter.  The oldest students with arms crossed, leaning against the shingles of the house.  The youngest hiding behind their parents chatter or running in the open grass.

She'd serve us lemonade and store-bought cookies, then present us with plastic statues, miniature busts of the great composers.  Some years I'd receive a statue I already owned and I'd line it up anyway, twin Bachs, on top of my piano at home, until that last year, when I did not receive a bust at all but, instead, a gold pin I've since lost. One gold note meant to hold all the notes I had ever learned.


  1. This is absolutely beautiful! Makes me think of my own piano teacher. The images in here are so spot-on and lovely!

  2. Very lovely. I think you must now get a piano for your NY apartment :) Next to the tomato plants...

  3. Beautiful! Beautiful! I love that she described herself as "a little witchy!" I think I'm going to have to use that as I get older--or maybe now. :)

  4. HOLY CRAP. I TOOK THESE PIANO LESSONS! Except my teacher was too old to have red hair. But yes, in her home. Plastic covered furniture and other people milling about trying to be quiet. Bach busts. I was so proud of my busts I'd tell everyone about them, until my dad burst out laughing and said I should call them "statues." I don't think I got that until I was 12 or so.

  5. Will be back to read your post ... but, in the meantime I award you 'The Beautiful Blogger Award' for your unique and refreshing blog which I never tire of reading. You may accept or reject this award. Look on my blog post to see what you have to do.

  6. Wow, amazing. I LOVE this. I never took lessons but you have put me there, in her house. So good.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Brilliantly descriptive piece with a perfect ending. Great work Melissa!

  8. Wow...this is incredible. You are such a beautiful writer! Great things in store for you.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  9. This is so like my experience (until I quit). Now I want to hear you play . . . Hacky Sack Club anyone? :) I may just have to beg about this one. Please? Please? With sugar on top? And sprinkles . . . and a few nuts (but only if you like them) . . .

  10. Oh Melissa, you paint so beautifully with your words. I can see it all clearly. Probably because I went through a very similar experience. I love the lining up of twin Bach's on the piano, such fun and clever imagery.
    Catherine Denton

  11. This poignant remembrance certainly took me back to my piano teacher’s house...even though it’s been almost 40 years since I was there! But her gift was a lasting one to me in many ways. I’m still a pianist, AND I met my husband in that basement when we were 13 and playing piano duets together.

    I have a Bach bust, too :) I was a “Bach specialist” back in the day...