It’s a Saturday morning in Portland. The sky is full of low clouds and they send down a fine mist of cool rain. Being outside is like being under the spritzer in the vegetable section of the grocery store. It’s the kind of mist that stings the skin, but we don’t care. We’re floating in the hot-tub.
My almost three-year-old daughter, Jo, has decided to forgo her Barbie one-piece and is in the buff. Spencer, who is seven, is at the control panel. He adjusts the aeration knobs, double checks the light switch and starts the pump for the jets.
“It’s a hundred and two,” Spencer says. “Just right.”
The jets churn the water into foam and we’re all grinning at each other. I start to hum a little song and Jo stands up, her round baby belly pushing forward enough to make her belly button pop out.
“What’s that?” she says.
“It’s that song,” I say.
“That one I’m playing on the piano.”
“You know,” Spencer says. “The one she keeps making mistakes on.”
Jo nods in this big way, like it’s all so clear, and sinks down into the water again.
“Oh, that song,” she says.
Spencer’s observation stings more than the misting we’re getting from the sky. I want to say, you get in there and play that piece without making mistakes, you little cretin, but he’s right; I do make a lot of mistakes on that song, heck, on all songs I attempt. More amazing than any error I make on the piano is the realization that he’s been paying attention.
In the divide of time just after my mother died and before my father died, we had a piano. It was an upright that came with the woman my father was dating and later married. It was more for show than function, though. After being around her and her kids for a while, I saw that no one actually played the thing. I remember cautiously making my way to the keyboard, wondering if anyone was going to tell me to leave the piano alone. When no one did, I started to play a couple of notes with my index finger. After a while, I’d hum songs like “The Entertainer” and “Sunrise, Sunset” to myself. Through countless hours of trial and error, I figured out which keys matched the tune. Somewhere in the midst of this exploration, I began to long for real lessons.
Then my dad died. Just 18 months after the death of my mother and less than a year into his new marriage, he had a heart attack. Any idea of lessons was replaced by a storm of change where my stepmother sold the piano, along with most everything else she owned, and joined a cult in L.A. She left me in a commune to fend for myself and took off to live somewhere else in the city with her own kids. By the time I was ten, I didn’t have parents or a home, much less a piano. In the years that followed, I was rescued from the commune by an aunt and uncle, sent to my grandparents, and then sent to live with another aunt and uncle. By the time I was 18, I had moved 27 times and been in a dozen different schools. That kind of transient, often impoverished, life wasn’t conducive to the study of music.
Things didn’t change when I was in my twenties, either. I was married, then divorced, and worked as a television reporter in three states.
Finally, in my thirties, I settled down in Oregon, got married for a second time, and had my kids. I was blessed to write and publish a book that made enough money to indulge in something as luxurious as a piano. I bought a pretty baby grand piano from a friend. Three thousand bucks later, it was in the living room, and two hundred dollars after that, it was tuned and ready for my hands.
I found a teacher, too. Her name was Annette and for the first few lessons, I’d hear a piece of music and begin to cry. Annette would pat my knee with an indulgent smile and say sweet things like, you can teach anyone to play the piano but you can’t teach a student to feel music, good for you.
She was right, I did feel it, in the very core of my being. To my heart, nothing was more sublime than beautiful music. When Annette guided me to play the notes with my own hands, I was in love. Playing those notes was so incredibly intimate and tender. I couldn’t say what was so intimate about it, I was just overwhelmed by this intense sense of vulnerability. It was so tender to play, I could hardly play in front of my own teacher. More often than not, my hands got all sweaty, my body shook from the core, and I’d even ask her to stand in another room while I played.
Over the holiday season, I was mastering a version of “Norwegian Bells,” which required me to make the piano sound like hundreds of bells ringing. I was having the best time, commanding the keys under sure fingers while pumping my sustain pedal like an organist, when Jo started screaming.
“IT’S JUST NOISE!!!”
She stood in the middle of the living room, hands pressed to her ears until I stopped.
I was so embarrassed. Was I really bad when I thought I was good? If Jo couldn’t take with my playing, what about the neighbors? Were they covering their ears too, hoping I would stop?
It took a while to recover from Jo’s critique, but I’d since gotten a little confidence back. Now there was Spencer, offering his thoughts on my playing, and I saw myself being embarrassed and even defensive. Exactly what was so important about a seven-year-old child’s opinion of my playing, anyway? That’s when it hit me that I was seven years old when my own mother died. I was the age that Spencer is now when my childhood came to fast and bitter end. The person playing the piano today is that little girl, very much alive, who has been hiding away in wait for this moment of calm. She’s timid and insecure. A big part of her doesn’t really believe that she deserves to play the piano at all. As the woman holding onto the spirit of that child, I’m hardly helping her heal herself by expecting perfection after just a year of study.
We’d been in the hot-tub long enough, evidenced by how our fingers were wrinkled like raisins. Spencer jumped out first, running through the cold mist and into the house.
“Please dry yourself off at the door,” I said, only he slammed the door on my words.
“Carry me up, Mommy,” Jo commanded.
I lifted her slick, naked body against my side.
In the house, Spencer left behind a big puddle of water and tracked a mess of wet footprints through the kitchen.
Any other time, I’d be “the mother,” and call him back to clean up after himself but I didn’t feel much like a mother at that moment. I didn’t care about doing the right thing as a mother or teaching him some lesson about being tidy.
I started humming my song again, hearing the notes lift and fall in my head. I dried off Jo and let her run after her brother, screaming at the top of her lungs,
“Spencer, I’m going to get you.”
I wrapped myself in a towel and padded my own puddles through the kitchen, the dining room and the living room. I sat down at my piano, put my fingers on the keys and played the song again and again, trying to get it right, while my kids chased each other through the house, naked and happy.