When I was four or five, my parents acquired a piano out of sheer misfortune. Someone owed them some money, and instead of paying, gave them an old, untunable piano that had sat in a church somewhere for the past half-century. It had misshapen legs that didn’t touch the ground, and the ivory on the keys was cracked, and sometimes you had to pry the keys back up when you pressed them too hard.
I loved that piano. I love it still. I grew up playing it: ragtime, Mozart, Brahms, finger exercises that I hated. I took lessons for about ten years from a local woman who taught music at the small public grammar school in town. I can still see her house in my mind. She hadn’t cleaned the place in a decade, easily. Dust as thick as your little finger on every surface. Sheet music piled to the ceiling on the bookshelves, the chairs, the floor. The same Christmas decorations that were up when I started taking lessons were still there when I stopped taking lessons. And the smell was a smell of old grease that permeated every piece of clothing I wore there.
When she played piano, none of that mattered. When she put her hands on the keys, the world was beautiful. And then it would be my turn.
“Count it: One-ee-and-ah-two-ee-and-ah-three!”
By the time I got to high school, lessons had faded from weekly to a couple times a month. But when my tiny church lost its pianist, I began playing hymns every week there. At first the concept was terrifying. I didn’t even like letting my own mother hear me play, let alone a room full of strangers. Strangely, I got to the point where I actually enjoyed performing.
And then the church hired a new music pastor, who switched the whole service to contemporary music. With college just beginning, I couldn’t devote the time to learning to play with a band, and he didn’t seem very willing to teach me.
The piano gave way to horseback riding and college newspaper business. The beautiful electronic Yamaha my parents had bought me sat in my room, ignored for the most part, though occasionally I would dig out the old hymnal and play through it longingly. When I started grad school, I took the keyboard with me, determined to renew my skills. Anyone who has been through grad school will find that last sentence incredibly amusing.
Finally, I wound up in Chicago, 2,000 miles away from my keys. For about eight months, I had no instruments at all. Then I brought my guitar out, just before I started dating my boyfriend. When he visited my apartment for the first time, he asked if I played. I laughed at him. He started teaching me, and I still practice with regularity. I expected the guitar to satiate the music hole in my spirit. Instead, it, combined with watching him play the piano so beautifully, made me long for a keyboard again. Drew kept trying to convince me to play his, but I turned him down again and again. It had been so very long.
Finally, one night, I promised him that the next time I visited his house, I would try to play if he provided me with sheet music. He held me to it in early December, providing me with lead sheets for Christmas music. I hemmed and hawed and picked the First Noel, a carol I’ve always loved.
I fumbled my way haltingly through the first few measures until my brain ground to a stop, humiliated. I sat at his beautiful piano, holding my head, hardly breathing, just trying not to cry. He sat down on the bench next to me and put his arm around me, and the dam burst and I excused myself to the bathroom, where I cried until my eyes were completely bloodshot. All those years I never thought I was any good, I never realized how good I actually was. I never appreciated the skill I had, or the talent that had been developed in me by others. I let it wither away and die. Out of the other room, I heard him playing, waiting for me, and cried more.
Finally he came looking for me, worried. I did my best to avoid eye contact and act like I was fine. I did a terrible job.
We ended up on the sofa, where he put his arm around me and tried to tell me all I needed was a little practice by myself where no one could hear me and I wouldn’t feel embarrassed.
“It will come back like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “You just need some time alone with a keyboard.”
“Where, Drew?” I asked impatiently. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my keyboard to Chicago for almost a year. It’s not going to happen any time soon.”
His answer was, “Someday soon you’ll have a piano to play.” I blew it off as him being his ever-optimistic self.
The night had left me extremely sad, even the next day. I remembered someone telling me that the Harold Washington Library in the South Loop had pianos in practice rooms. On a whim, I looked it up. Fifteen minutes on a bus one way from work. On a lunch break, that would leave me 20 minutes, give or take waiting for the bus, to play. It was something.
So I went. I went and I failed to let the librarian know I was playing in the practice room and made her very angry. But I played the First Noel. I played it again and again and again until I just couldn’t help but laugh with delight and disbelief that I was actually making a melody, as amateurish and simplistic as it was. I went back again the next day to play. And the next week.
The week after was busy, and I let it slide. I told no one, resolved that I would make it a habit before I mentioned it. Since I leave for California this Wednesday, I intended to get back to it in January.
Also because of my impending departure, Drew and I decided to exchange Christmas presents beforehand.
I got him socks.
He got me a keyboard.
He got me a genuine, honest-to-goodness, 88-key digital piano. I opened the sustain pedal first, and simply said, “You did not do what I think you did.”
He did. I was speechless. I still am, really. The keyboard is sitting in my window, and I have no words to describe how blown away I am by such a thoughtful gift. Perhaps that is because the proper gratitude can only be wordlessly expressed through music itself.