The Piano

The Piano

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

The Piano

Three summers ago, I flew to my parents’ home in New Jersey to help them prepare to move to a new house. My mother had suffered a series of small strokes, and although the physical damage was slight, she was having trouble going up and down the stairs. So my parents bought a comfortable ranch house in a nearby suburb.

My parents had lived in the old house for forty years. This was the house I had grown up in, the only home I could remember. My mother had redecorated more than once since I’d left. There were new drapes and carpeting in the living room, different furniture in the den. But the basic pieces, the big, solid ones, were still there.

That first night at dinner, we sat at the same dining-room table that we had gathered around for countless family meals and celebrations. And later, when we had finished eating, I played Bach on the grand piano that no one ever played, but which had taken up nearly half of the living room for as long as I could remember. My mother sat on the sofa and smiled as she listened to me play the familiar melody, the one she had heard me practice endlessly, and that she always asked me to play whenever I was there. She’d always been completely tone-deaf—as a child in school music classes, she was told that she should be the “listener”—but she always hummed along when I played this piece.

I woke up early the next morning and got right to work. I decided to start in the attic, since my mother couldn’t get up the steps any more. Besides I was already feeling nostalgic about this old house, the house that held our family history in its dusty cupboards and dark closets. The attic, I knew, would have been the least disturbed over the years. If I were to find any of the old, familiar things from my childhood, that’s where they would be.

All day long, I sorted through piles of crumbling papers and filled numerous trash bags with stuff that could only be described as “junk”—pieces of broken toys, old magazines that had become decayed and moldy, remnants of mildewed carpeting. But I also found some treasures— several boxes of family photographs.

I carried the boxes downstairs and piled them on the dining room table. After dinner, my parents and I began to sort through the pictures. Many of them were familiar, but others were of people and places that I didn’t recognize. I asked my parents about them, but my mother had trouble remembering. The strokes had damaged her memory and her ability to call up the words she needed to express herself, so she was often silent. Every so often, when I came across a particularly intriguing photograph, my mother would start to speak, but before she had gotten very far into the sentence, she would stop with a sigh. It was as if she could only grasp the memory for a few moments, and by the time she was able to find the words to describe it, it had already begun to slip away. Sometimes her eyes filled with tears, and she turned away. I thought that she must have been frustrated, lonely, sad, grieving for the person she had once been. I know I was.

The movers came the next morning. My brothers and I helped my father load some of the more fragile items into the cars, and then they followed the moving truck in a small, slow caravan to the new house. I stayed behind to take one last look around. I hadn’t even seen the new house yet, and I wanted to make sure I fixed the old one in my memory while I still had the chance. But the house was empty now. All of the things that had made it a home had been taken to the new place. All I could do now was follow them.

By late afternoon, when the movers were almost finished, I walked around the new house, exploring its spaces, its as yet unfilled closets and empty cupboards. Gradually, as the things from the old house were settled in their new places, the house began to take on a character of its own, one that reminded me of the old one, but with its own personality. The final piece to be brought in was the piano. After the movers left, I sat down and began to play Bach. As I started to play, I realized that because of the bumping and jostling during the move to the new house, the piano would need tuning. But there would be time for that.

We gathered around the dining-room table for dinner that night, my brothers and my parents and I, just the way we used to when we were growing up in the old house. Everyone talked at once, just the way we always had, except for my mother. Now she just listened to the voices of her family. At first it was awkward and odd, the rest of us having to carefully negotiate the gaps my mother had always filled in. But gradually we had found a rhythm, a new way of including my mother in the conversation without her having to speak.

It didn’t take long for my parents to settle in to the new house. By the time I visited them again at Thanksgiving, the closets were organized, the books were arranged neatly on the shelves, the pictures had been hung on the walls. There were still a number of cartons in the basement that hadn’t yet been emptied, but my parents didn’t seem to be in a hurry to finish unpacking these last boxes.

They hadn’t had the piano tuned, either. When I sat down to play, I had to try to ignore the notes that were slightly off-key, and concentrate on the melody, the way I remembered it. It sounded a little different, but still, the music was beautiful.

It’s been three years since my parents moved. My mother seems less anxious, less sad these days. When her words fail her, her eyes no longer fill with tears. Instead, she shrugs her shoulders. “Oh, well,” she says smiling wryly. And I’ve learned not to be so anxious about her speaking. Sometimes, when I call her on the phone, I just talk about my children or my job. Sometimes, when I am there visiting, we just sit on the couch without saying anything, and she holds my hands. And sometimes she just sits on the bench next to me while I play the piano. It still hasn’t been tuned, but my mother hums along anyway. I don’t know if she remembers that she is tone-deaf, or if she even realizes that she is humming off-key. But even played on this slightly flawed piano, the rhythms are familiar, the melody still soothing.

Maybe my parents will have the piano tuned one day. Or maybe they won’t get around to it. It doesn’t really matter. We’ve all become accustomed to this new way. The music sounds slightly different, but it’s still perfectly beautiful.

Phyllis Nutkis

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