It begins in 1957 with a pale wood spinet in a Brooklyn apartment. I am three, hauling myself onto the creaky piano bench. I've watched mother play, and on an almost cellular level, I understand what I must do. Kneeling, I pick out, with one finger, all the familiar melodies —a Brahms waltz, a Chopin prelude, a tango by Albéniz.
By 1960, the spinet has morphed into a massive rosewood upright with chipped ivory keys. I practice Bach minuets, Clementi sonatinas. My ancient teacher inhabits a cramped studio apartment dominated by a Steinway baby grand. She frequently mentions her teacher, Joseffy, who studied with Moscheles, who knew Beethoven, as if six-year-old me understands this lineage. I look up into her hairy nostrils, then play feverishly to obliterate the view.
"No! Play like this!" She demonstrates with gnarled, arthritic hands. "And count!"
By 1964, the piano is a Steinway B, seven feet of ebony offset by turquoise wall-to-wall carpeting and white silk drapes. When my parents entertain in their trophy house, I'm summoned into the cigarette and alcohol fumes to perform. Guests smile and hear a page of the "Moonlight" sonata before resuming conversation. I stop on page two, and leave the room, mission accomplished. The piano and I have both made our statements.
I love this piano, and accept its magnificence as a norm — the aerodynamic shape, the sleek ivory and ebony keys, the lustrous, resonant voice. There's always been a piano. The dainty spinet became the monolithic upright became the elegant Steinway grand. Mine not to reason why; mine just to play.
Until it was taken away. That would be 1969. At fourteen, I'm a capable pianist. Acceptance by Manhattan's High School of Performing Arts offers salvation from the bullying I've suffered at the hands of junior high school thugs. Now, free from torment, I adore that lively, creative sanctuary on West 46th Street, filled with artistic kids just like me.
A month into my first semester, mother, now divorced, announces she's selling the house. One day I return from school and the Steinway B is gone, leaving three circular depressions in the turquoise carpet, ghostly reminders of its tapered legs. "It was too big for the new apartment," mother shouts over my sobs. "We'll find something smaller." What "new apartment"? What's "something smaller"? My head and heart are exploding.
I morosely practice at school during lunch. Because mother works during the week, finding a piano is my mission. After school I go, alone, to the Manhattan showrooms — Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Steinway. At Steinway on Fifty-Seventh Street, I meet an M, five feet seven inches of curvy auburn mahogany, golden of tone. Mother accompanies me on a Saturday and writes the check. (I inherited the original bill of sale: $4,277.80.)
At home, I'm the only musician. My sister prefers riding lessons to music lessons, and mother stopped playing years before. She had always, however, managed the silent, serial acquisition and disposal of our instruments. Our instruments? Whose piano was it — the player's, or the payer's? To control me during my tempestuous teens, she often vowed to "get rid" of the piano, cancel my lessons, remove me from "that artsy school." These threats, though unrealized, exacted a toll. Outwardly I obeyed, but inwardly plotted escape.
I moved, piano-less, to Boston in 1975. Initially, I bore the separation well; my life was about graduate school in a new city. Slowly, though, absence created longing. I missed my piano's physical and soulful presence. I missed making music. Then, with typical abruptness, mother moved again — another downsizing — and shipped the piano to me. At last she'd fulfilled her promise to get rid of it, which is, I suppose, one way to conceptualize a gift. The M and I have now been together for more than a half-century, its fidelity unmatched by anyone I know.
I've atoned for my piano's sad neglect, for it came to me bleached by sunlight, desiccated by radiators, scratched by cats, gouged by movers. An inheritance paid for the refinishing of its case and replacement of eroded parts, for the optimizing of its action, for its tunings. It now inhabits a high-ceilinged room with fine acoustics. Daily we play together — Bach, Schumann, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart:
Wide awake, I can make my most fantastic dreams come true.
My romance doesn't need a thing but you.
Even so, I still mourn my childhood Steinway B. It was a dear companion during a painful adolescence, when I sorely needed friendship’s consolations. I wonder where it is, and if it's loved. A fruitless line of inquiry, I know, but this loss, like so much else in life, remains hauntingly unresolved.
From guest contributor Selma Moss-Ward