There was a piano in the foyer of the funeral home. It was a baby grand, illuminated by a square of sunlight from a nearby lace-curtained window. Its ebonized mahogany lid was propped open, the ivory keys exposed. Its little padded piano bench was pulled out and turned invitingly. It seemed to me it had been placed specifically for me, that it was patiently waiting for me to sit down and begin.
Taking my place on the bench, back straight, wrists arched, fingers resting lightly above middle C, I took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled. The notes of Die Moldau began to flow. As they grew and twined together, my emotions swelled. The tears I’d held back began to flow as Smetana’s symphonic poem streamed from my fingertips. I could feel the eyes of the other mourners turning towards me, their approval or disapproval prickling along the back of my neck. I didn’t care. When I played, nothing mattered but the music and the swirl of memories in my head.
My paternal grandmother did not like children. She tolerated us mostly, I think, because her husband loved us so much. She and Grandpa lived nearby so we saw them often. He greeted us with fierce bear hugs and spare change from his pocket. She smiled at us weakly and patted our heads. He pulled us onto his lap and cuddled us and asked us about school. She sat beside him, avoiding sticky little hands and pretending not to hear us when we tried to speak to her. Grandma suffered from MS. She found walking difficult, was sometimes incontinent, and often slurred her speech. We were all a little afraid of her, I think, and perhaps a little repulsed. She had once been the church organist and a fairly accomplished pianist, though, and this is why my parents asked her to teach me.
I was five when I started my lessons with her. I had no real inclination to play, but my mother wanted me to learn. My grandmother couldn’t play anymore herself, but she condescended to sit with me for half an hour once a week and instruct me on the basics. I think she thought this would keep her safe from my siblings. Now, instead of having to fend off four little nuisances she only had to deal with one. We sat alone in the living room, me on the piano bench and my grandmother in a chair beside me. For half an hour every Sunday she taught me to read the notes, to find the keys, how to place my hands. She taught me music theory, gave me exercises to stretch my fingers, assigned me scales and arpeggios to learn.
From the beginning, these lessons were torture for us both. My grandmother had a ruler that she used to guide me through new pieces, slapping it down hard on the page if my attention wandered. I was often distracted by the sound of my brothers laughing as they visited with my grandfather. I did not like to practice, and had to repeat the same lesson for several weeks. Grandma used a sharpened pencil to jab at my wrists if I let them fall, or to jab into my side if I slouched. She sighed and snorted and rolled her eyes at me and called me a nincompoop. I glared and sulked and made excuses and sometimes refused to play at all.
“I can teach her nothing. She does not wish to play,” my grandmother declared.
“She’s mean to me,” I complained. “She pokes me with a pencil!” But my parents insisted. For three years we tortured each other.
The very last lesson with Grandma came without warning. While my grandfather was passing out dimes to my brothers and sister, I found myself stuck at the piano again. I was grumpily butchering the Moonlight Sonata and must have dropped my wrists.
“Up!” Grandma intoned, jabbing her pencil tip into my wrist. I don’t think she intended to strike as hard as she did, but the lead dug deep into the tender flesh and drew blood. Three years worth of resentment broke free in that moment, and I kicked her hard in the shin. She sucked in her breath, squinted her eyes and pinched my arm hard.
“Ouch!” I cried and kicked her again, and that’s when she slapped my face—the first time I had ever been hit in that way. We glared at each other, furious and full of hate.
It was my grandmother who spoke first. “Enough of this. You do not wish to learn and I do not want to teach you. You do not appreciate this talent. This is your last lesson. Someday you will wish you had learned more.”
With that she pulled herself to her feet and shuffled away. She did not report my bad behavior, and I did not report hers. I don’t know what she told my parents, but the next week there was no lesson, nor the next week or ever again. I was free and very happy. I did not touch the piano for the next two years.
One day a friend of mine from school came to visit and noticed the piano. He asked if I played and I said sure, I’d taken lessons for three years. I played a simple, sloppy tune and then asked if he could play. I watched him sit, his back straight, his wrists high, his fingers curled, just as my grandmother had tried to teach me to sit. He played Chopin’s Nocturne beautifully and then Schubert’s Seranade without a flaw while I burned with embarrassment and jealousy. I saw then what I could have had, and I wanted it very badly. My grandmother had been right.
It took another year of begging to get my parents to ask my grandmother to teach me again. She refused several times before my grandfather bullied her into it, and I don’t blame her one bit. I had refused a precious gift she had offered to me, had practically bitten her hand, and now I was asking her to extend it once more? She found, however, a much more amenable student waiting for her. While I did not enjoy practicing, I found great satisfaction in learning a new piece. My grandmother still sighed and snorted and called me names, but she no longer jabbed my wrists. We began to see in each other appreciable qualities and a mutual respect bloomed. As I improved, I could see her pride, and this meant a lot to me.
My grandmother taught me piano lessons until my grandfather passed away. She moved away then, to live with my aunt, and I, a teenager then, gave up lessons once more. I never stopped playing, though. I am not a great pianist. I have accompanied choirs and played the organ in church, just like my grandmother did, but mostly I play for my own enjoyment. I have shared my grandmother’s gift with my siblings and with my children, both of whom play now as well or better than I.