I had a love affair with a Steinway piano as a teenager that ended in a bad break-up because I wasn’t willing to commit.
Now I'm struggling to convince my kids to practice their musical instruments (saxophone for my son; piano for my daughter). They're horrible at practicing -- and I set no example. But every time I see a piano, a magnetic force draws me to it, and makes me want to play when no one is looking. Or better yet, when no one is listening.
Growing up, I thought all families had a grand piano in their living room, like us. Music resonated throughout my childhood in Christmas Carols or Thanksgiving hymns belted out by crooners around the family piano. Sunday afternoons often ended with my father mastering Mozart or my mother jazzing up Joplin. We were not The von Trapp Family. But, piano music always hung around our house like an old friend.
When my husband and I first met, I noticed a grand piano in his parents’ living room. Home at last, I thought, even though I was miles away from my own.
At meals with my future in-laws in Rome, I panicked at the lightening speed in which they conversed in Italian. I smiled, blushed, and nodded capisco, capisco when it was actually niente, niente that I followed. I slaughtered the subjunctive, pummeled past participles. Italian lunches left me with sweaty palms and indigestion.
Aside from my husband and his encouraging glances, I had another ally near the dining table: his grandfather’s Steinway. No one played it, yet everyone spoke nostalgically about the concerts at which his grandfather had played at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC during the Kennedy era. Sheet music spilled out of his piano bench like laundry stuffed in a hamper. Opening it was like reading a page from his diary. A secret language that only he and I shared.
Forget the Italian: here was the music that made me feel at home.
When my husband’s mother first encouraged me to play this grand piano, I was terrified. I hadn’t had an audience in years.
But, what I wasn’t able to express in my broken Italian, I could convey through music. So relieved was I to no longer have to speak the language I was struggling to pick up, I resorted to one I knew. Music showed up in the form of that old friend, familiarizing foreign territory while tickling my fingertips.
My affinity towards this particular piano added more than music to my life – it connected me to my husband’s grandfather, a man whom I never met. Playing his piano felt like playing along with him in the game of entertaining, albeit in broken tongues.
Every time I played, I felt him there in the living room. He was the Italian who had entertained numerous American households. I was the American playing in his Italian home. We entertained others in a duet together.
Recently, when my husband told me his parents had sold his grandfather’s Steinway, my eyes welled up with tears.
Selling it made practical sense: No one in my husband’s family plays the piano anyway. Everyone’s lifestyle requires moving around, and traveling with a piano only adds burdening costs.
But, I had never fully believed that the Steinway would actually leave the Roman apartment where it had gathered dust for many years. Sentimentally, I had hoped that family heirloom would one day be mine.
Four years ago, shortly after we moved into our then new home in Israel, I opened the door to a deliveryman who told me he had a piano for me in his truck. Wrong address, I mumbled. When he showed me the delivery form, I recognized my husband’s handwriting.
If I couldn’t have his grandfather’s piano, my husband later told me, then I should have my own.
The first time I played my piano, my son asked me why I was crying.
My neighbor in Israel, a beautiful woman who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, gave me piano lessons. In between scales, she told me stories of her aging mother whose wrist still bears an Auschwitz tattoo. We played Chopin in between her lectures on his anti-Semitism. Music keeps her sane, she used to tell me, blocking out the minor, gloomy chords that haunt her past.
My children now sit at my feet drawing or playing lego as I practice my scales, my Chopin, and my Mozart. They help me dust the keys. They belt out Christmas carols as I accompany them. My daughter now places her little hands next to mine and insists we play together.
My duets with the past and the present play on.