Late this afternoon, I stopped by The Arbors, an assisted living facility here in town. Pearl’s piano teacher was sitting shiva for her mom, who passed away. Today would have been her 93rd birthday.
Walking into that building for the first time in nearly 15 years brought back a kind of visceral memory: The heavy scent of air freshener; the living room with the leftover holiday decorations; the long corridor lined with numbered apartments. My Grammy, Celia — my mom’s mom, and my Grandpa Max — my dad’s father, both lived out their final years there.
Sitting in the bright, nicely furnished apartment for half hour or so was poignant; Pearl’s teacher’s friends came in one or two at a time, with food and flowers. We looked at some photos and heard a story or two recounting her mom’s exuberant spirit — stories I’ve already passed along to Mani, stories that will now live with me even though I never met the woman.
After I said my goodbyes, I made my way back to the lobby. But the piano in the sitting room was whispering to me, so I asked the woman at the reception desk if it would be ok for me to sit and play a song or two. “I don’t see why not,” she replied.
I didn’t even take off my coat before pulling out the bench, lifting the lid, and exposing the 88 keys I’d known my whole life. It felt like a reunion. It was a reunion.
I stuttered through George Winston’s “Thanksgiving,” a piece I learned by ear in high school and used to play with great feeling. The piano was woefully out of tune, but this did not stop me.
Next came the angst-ridden crush song I wrote for Jamie Ferguson when I was 16 (hint: “I just can’t tell if you notice me”). And then I stopped trying to remember anything by heart and did what I used to do for hours on end: I improvised. And found myself in tears.
When I looked up, a woman with keys around her neck was standing at the end of the baby grand. “That was beautiful,” she said. Tears were spilling down my cheeks and I could hardly catch my breath.
“This is — this was — my piano,” I managed to tell her. We introduced ourselves; her name was Tiffany.
I played this piano from the time I began begging to take lessons like my big sisters. I played Suzuki and Bartok and later Bach and Beethoven on this piano. I practiced this piano every day from age five until I quit taking lessons, sometime in high school. I was stubborn when it came to working on the hard parts. But I never stopped playing.
This piano was where I went for comfort, for solace, for expression, for fun, for a good cry.
Then I moved out and moved on.
Eventually, I got a piano of my own, an upright my then-husband surprised me with for our third anniversary, not a week before Aviva was born. This was the piano both of my kids learned to play on. And though my technical abilities faded with time, my love of improvising never left me.
By 2003, both of my remaining grandparents had passed away. And my parents decided to donate the baby grand to The Arbors, where it would bring joy to many elderly residents for years to come — right up until this day.
One house and three apartments later, the sad day came when the movers broke the news: They couldn’t get the piano around the turn at the top of the stairs. I cried. We moved it to my parents’ living room, to the same nook where the baby grand used to live. Now, we have an electric keyboard the kids play; I’ve tried to sit there, but it’s just not the same.
It’s like that, isn’t it? The locks to memory ride with us like quiet passengers, until something turns and clicks and suddenly we are awash in emotion we didn’t see behind the door we’d forgotten was there.
I have to admit, for a hot minute part of me — something childlike and irrational — wanted to say, “I want it back! It’s mine!”
Instead, I walked away, and asked Tiffany if I might come again to play some more. “I live right up the street,” I told her.
“Anytime,” she said with a kind smile. “Anytime at all.”