Skip to main content

Bare walls, Quiet rooms


My piano is gone, the wall is bare, and the carpet under where it had been is oddly puckered and bleached and dirty. The living room which has been a collection of oddly (but dearly) matched objects scattered around in half-purpose half-despair is now all too aware of its imminent dismantling.

It had to happen. Days after I received my acceptance letter I knew. This means my library, I thought, and my piano. It has a good home now – it’s to be a birthday surprise for the husband of a coworker who has always wanted a piano and has had to make do with a keyboard for too long.

But I have betrayed my old friend, my own family. I feel like I’ve given up my grandmother; like she’s died all over again.

There it is my journal: September 24. 6pm. I bought a piano.

It was a miraculous Goodwill find: “light oak, almost perfectly in tune, pedals that work, and when you uncover the keys, the music stand pops forward…” I stood it at the store like a dog guarding its master’s suitcase. I gnashed my teeth at anyone who touched it. Everyone did touch it because of the surprise that such a lovely piano, with its carved rosettes and the decorative border near the lid, was on sale for so little. It wasn’t perfect. The G two octaves below middle C stuck and one of the upper Es were silent. I didn’t care.


Just under two years we’ve had the piano. We played duets on Christmas morning; I struggled and smeared my way through the Debussy pieces that I like. We tried to recreate Regina Spektor’s newest album and bungled all the words except the nonsense ones. It was a focal part of the living room and visitors couldn’t believe that we actually had one. Of course most of the times I played I felt horribly conscious that you could hear me in the laundry room (which you could) and suspected that our neighbors were bitterly plotting to sabotage us.

Selling it has made me feel both guilty and melancholy. My grandmother was a great organist and pianist. Our whole family is quite musical and I always felt that this made us special as a clan, as though I inherited the magical gene. I began when I was a girl and nearly gave it up, but for my parents’ insistence that I try it a little longer. By the time I remembered this “little longer,” it was too late. I was too used to the hours of practice, the exams and eisteddfords in June and July, keeping my fingers warm under the hot water bottle. I began to cultivate my own ambitions of being a musician, of singing and accompanying myself. I wrote many sincere songs. They are embarrassing but I keep them around like old homely photographs. It’s good to know where you come from.

When I played my grandmother’s piano she would call from the other room “That’s a B-flat!” or “You forgot the raised seventh!” She would stiffly walk over in her flowered housewifely dress to where I sat gritting my teeth at the page and would snap on the little lamp. “Save your eyes,” she’d say. “It’s so dark.” I would smell her old person breath as she leaned over my shoulder and could hear her stomach rumble, the humiliations of aging. I resented her corrections but she was always right.

The other grandchildren played instruments – violin, guitar, drums – but I played her instrument. In the music she left to us after her death, I’ve found piano scores marked up, the exact piano scores I marked: Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 118 No 2, the Raindrop Prelude. She left me her piano. It is more than just a wooden instrument; it’s a prophet’s mantle. She has given me the warm acknowledgment of something we shared. It’s sitting somewhere in Minnesota, waiting for me to make up my mind on where I want to plant my feet.

The piano has become an albatross. I wear it around my neck always wondering if my grandmother knew I loved her, knew that I am now thankful for her corrections, though I’m still a sloppy player and, like everything else I do, plunge myself into it with a lot of passion and little attention to detail.

Now June has flown at us and we are left to contemplate the near future. We must leave next month and everything must be gone. I must shrug off most of my possessions. They must be sold, lent, given or thrown away. Very little can be saved, though K and P will bring some of the household items to their new conjugal apartment.

Things are never just things; at least, they aren’t to me. I am a pack rat because I easily endow objects with emotional connections. To a certain extent I like this about myself. It makes my living space personal. It demonstrates that I am creature of meaning and that I affirm the physical, dimensional world. But now, confronting the things I must leave behind, I wonder if it isn’t a very bad thing. Monastics and contemplatives are able to divest themselves of all their worldly goods; why can’t I?

This piano’s departure is a symbol of something so much larger. By saying goodbye to this piano, I am practicing saying goodbye to the life I lead here, to the possessions that anchor me here. (I feel hasty saying this, as I have the sneaking suspicion that something can always go wrong, I will be prevented from going to Oxford and all of this will have to be retracted.)

So it’s gone now. Like Terry said, it’s not like there aren’t any more pianos in the world. But today it’s good to feel sad; it is right for me to mourn my grandmother and the passing of this way of life. It is the beginning of the process.

Comments

Jacob said…
Hi, this is Jacob, the piano's new owner. I love it. I was completely overjoyed when I saw it in our apartment. When I sat down at it, I realized how much I had missed owning one. It is a beautiful instrument. I will play it often and take good care of it. Thank you!

Popular posts from this blog

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. D…
There’s a sudden late surge of warmth in the rough winds today and it’s the perfect day to read one of John Clare’s best sonnets:

November

Sybil of months & worshipper of winds
I love thee rude & boisterous as thou art
& scraps of joy my wandering ever finds
Mid thy uproarious madness – when the start
Of sudden tempests stir the forrest leaves
Into hoarse fury till the shower set free
Still the hugh swells & ebb the mighty heaves
That swing the forrest like a troubled sea
I love the wizard noise & rave in turn
Half vacant thoughts & self imagined rhymes
Then hide me from the shower a short sojourn
Neath ivied oak & mutter to the winds
Wishing their melody belonged to me
That I might breath a living song to thee
I’ve a short story in the latest edition of The Stinging Fly, which is a brilliant Irish literary journal. If you’d like a copy (or if you like Claire-Louise Bennett or Kevin Barry or Danielle McLaughlin or Colin Barrett, who’ve all been published by SF) you can get it here Or, you know, go to Dublin.