The baby grand piano had two small picture frames nestled in its lip and an almost weary, toothy smile that stretched open into our living room-- its presence, in retrospect, somewhat grandiose for the modestly-sized room that otherwise only contained seating and a TV that, as a far as I was concerned, only ran TGIF.
I played piano for years, never well.
Our teacher, Mrs. Reisig, had one long, wiry hair that leapt either out of her chin or eyebrow-- which I can't remember-- but I do recall obsessively watching it and imagining ways in which I could create an element of surprise and extract it from her face without her noticing. My sister and I were incredulous about that hair; at what age did you stop noticing parts of your face?
I remember thinking she was very, very old, a perspective developed out of having actually no perspective or life experience at all, at maybe just 10 years old, but I'm sure I'd be horrified to learn now that she was likely in her late 30s or something, an age in dangerous proximity to my own, which reminds me I should start to check for rogue hairs on my face.
She only charged $6 for a lesson. The price, even in the mid 90s, was outrageously low; she did it, I remember my mom saying, because she loved it. What there was to love about a stubby-fingered child stabbing out Für Elise without an iota finesse, I cannot imagine, except to joyfully recognize that there is a place and skill and passion for each person and I am simply glad I do not have to inhabit them all.
At home, I would practice diligently, as I did all things. I did them so they were done, so I could check the box, but I feel quite sure I never loved it, and, if anyone was truly listening, they heard that in the music, because music does not lie about love. But it seemed the right thing to do, maybe simply because it's what I was doing.
My mom, I think, loved the piano, even though she was maybe no better at it than me. She had a series of songs she knew by heart, which she'd play regularly, usually one in immediate succession to the other as if they were one long song. I sometimes think of that now when I put my daughter to bed at night, singing her a collection of lullabies, one right after the next. Just as the spaces between words are only imagined, perceived by the listener dependent on their understanding of the language, the transition between songs is only perceptible if one knows the songs as individuals. An 18 month old surely does not; she must think I drone on in one endless song each night-- a medley of quiet hymns that will end up embedded as a musical lump in the deepest parts of her brain. I hope the hidden memory is a good one.
I could not summon a single song my mother played now, but if I heard them, my body would know in the way that sounds, like smells, can send you whirling back to an exact moment in a long forgotten time. The moment, most often, was one particularly quick, almost frantic song-- or at least that was how she played it-- that incited me and my brother and sister to run in circles around the ottoman in that front room, chasing each other gleefully.
Some years later, the grand piano transformed into an upright. With so many bodies in one house, we needed the space, but the pictures on the piano stayed. They were two small frames, not more than 2 inches tall each, made of brushed gold with felt-covered backing, a vestige of a time when things were made to last instead of thinly masquerading as the item they purported to be before they joined the piles of trash that are so much of the rest of our lives. The pictures were of a boy and a girl, and I remember thinking, specifically, for maybe too long, that the girl was a woman. I now know she was only 7, but something about her seemed composed, graceful in a way that I was certainly not, and likely never will be. She had a perfectly-formed brown bowl cut and wore a navy blue dress with a sharply-pressed white collar. She smiled, but demurely, her lips closed. All the physical traits are actually irrelevant, though they paint a picture. What matters is that her eyes looked self-possessed. They looked present, in the way surely only a woman could be.
I don't remember when I learned she was my sister. It seems like I always knew, and yet I didn't. It was never a secret-- there was never some big reveal of information-- and, yet it was also not something we sat down and talked about explicitly. So for however long, until I put the pieces together, she was a woman sitting on the ledge of this piano and that piano, which I played regularly, but not very well. And in that way, she was a part of my everyday without even really noticing, a fixture, an undercurrent, in my daily experience, just as she is now, every time I say my daughter’s name.