A Piano Brings Hope
Reclaiming a Love that Never Died
As a child, I felt a cautious relief from walking on eggshells when my mother played the grand piano in our living room. Playing the piano seemed to make her happy and shifted her focus away from me. She especially enjoyed playing “Begin the Beguine.” She also loved playing Christmas carols, often insisting that we join her at the piano and sing together.
My older sister, who played the piano with similar ease and skill, took lessons with a music professor who was an accomplished pianist. My sister often practiced in the evening when I was in bed. On cold winter nights, I climbed into bed with my teeth chattering and the cold air trapped between my nightgown-clad body and the cold sheets. Slowly the layers of blankets and a quilt warmed me. The sweet music of my sister playing “Claire De Lune” wafted through the air, helping to soothe my demoralized being.
One day when I was six years old, I danced around in my white tights and red corduroy jumper as my older sister played the piano, yearning to make my fingers tap those black and white keys. I asked my mother if I could take lessons. She said, “Well, you’ll never play the piano like your sister does!” I didn’t mind; I still wanted to learn. I asked again daily for a week. Finally, she told me she had scheduled piano lessons for me. I was anxious but also thrilled.
On the day of my first lesson, my mother drove me to the home of my piano teacher, introduced me, and left. The old woman, who was polite and kind to my mother, morphed into this terrifying witch toward me. “Sit down!” Her brittle words crackled around me as terror consumed my body. I complied with her order. Sitting on the piano bench, I barely took a breath.
She grabbed my left hand, turned it over. Smack! A ruler stung my palm. “Curved fingers over those keys!” She grabbed my right hand. Thwack. Bowing their heads, my trembling fingertips timidly pressed on the keys.
White and black blurred as hot tears bubbled out of my eyes. My body imprisoned my terrified, wailing self, but the saltwater streamed down my cheeks. The piano teacher bellowed, “Stop crying and play these notes!” This torture continued until my mother returned.
I pulled on my coat when my mother arrived. My red, swollen hands clutched the piano book I was told to take home with me to practice. My fear moved to my belly. In the backseat of the car, the cold vinyl seeped through my tights into my thighs and bottom. My mother’s words swirled around me. “Your piano teacher is such a wonderful lady! You should be so grateful getting to learn piano from her. You know you’ll need to practice every day….” I squeezed my eyes shut to dam the leaks. I knew I had to remain silent about my experience with the mean piano teacher. My mother wouldn’t have believed me and would have accused me of being ungrateful; her reality ruled.
Somehow my burning desire to learn to play this instrument percolated to the surface the next afternoon. I sat at the piano and began to practice. My mother appeared out of nowhere at my left shoulder. “Sit up straight! Curve your fingers! Don’t push so hard on the keys! You’re banging on the keys! That is not playing! That sounds awful! You will never play like your sister! Didn’t I tell you that? Now practice!” Tears streamed down my face. I didn’t feel my fingers on the keys, but I heard strings pinging as she continued to holler and finally walked to the kitchen.
From the moment I returned from school each day until she heard me playing the piano, my mother tracked my resistance like a trained dog sniffing for drugs. No matter where she was, her scolding, nagging words filled the house until the tiny gauze-wrapped hammers struck the cords of steel deep in the belly of the piano. My body dragged itself into the living room for days of this ritual.
After several weeks of this torture from my mother and piano teacher, I walked into the foyer of our home after school and was met by my mother. “It’s time to practice piano, Laurie!” Feeling like I was moving through mud, I made my way to the piano bench and sat dead still. Her chiding turned to rage as she stormed into the room. “WE ARE PAYING ALL THIS MONEY FOR YOU TO LEARN HOW TO PLAY. SHAME ON YOU FOR NOT PRACTICING ENOUGH, YOU UNGRATEFUL, SELFISH, SHITHEAD OF A CHILD!”
Weeks of hurt and fear erupted out of me as anger. I jumped up from the bench and glared at her hate-filled face. ”I don’t want to take piano lessons. I won’t go anymore, ever!” She yelled louder. “You are a failure, a worthless piece of crap, a disgrace to our family!” I ran from the room, not feeling my legs.
That night, I buried myself under the covers and quilt of my bed, ready for sleep. My dad came to my bedside and pulled the covers back from my head. Clutching the bedding at my neck, I kept the rest of my body warm while the cold air shocked my head. I knew what he wanted; we had done this drill many times. “You need to apologize to your mother, Laurie. You made her cry. We’re really disappointed in you.” My anger whispers in my head: When did she cry? I never saw her cry. If she did it would come out as either steam or an icicle!
Then guilt and remorse flooded my body along with hurt and confusion; my brain disconnected. I trudged down the carpeted stairway and stood outside the open door of my parents’ bedroom. My feet felt bound to the wood floor. “I’m sorry, Mommy.” I stared into the black opening like wounded prey at the mouth of a vicious bear’s cave. Stillness. I didn’t even hear her breathing.
After this, the piano lessons with the mean old lady ended. The icy silence from my mom deepened as she fully withdrew from me. I became invisible to her, completely shunned. The piano in the living room glared at me as guilt, shame, and terror entombed my shattered desire.
My body and mind seemed to freeze this experience among many layers of traumas in my soul. As the years passed, my desire to the play the piano bubbled back to the surface. When I was 10, I nervously talked to my dad about my interest, promising him I would practice. I began lessons with a man whose home was within walking distance from my school and home. About two months into this weekly ritual, I found myself racked with guilt on the day of my lesson: I hadn’t been practicing. Instead of walking from school to my piano lesson, as I normally did, I hid behind my parents’ garage.
My parents’ blue Chevy station wagon remained parked in their detached garage, which didn’t have doors. The car had a clock I occasionally sneaked into the garage and checked as I planned my next move. As soon as it would be my usual time for returning from my lesson to my parents’ home, I reasoned, I would walk back in the house as though I had gone to the lesson. I had not planned for what actually happened: Within a half hour or so of hiding, I heard my parents talking about me. They said something about calling the police and creating a search party to find me. They drove away in the station wagon, leaving me without a clock. I no longer had any idea what time it was or what I should do.
Some part of me didn’t believe they really had called the police. Why, after all, would my mother want to find me? My mother loathed me. Most days it seemed she wanted me to die or disappear, and she did everything in her power to terrorize me.
Crouching down, I drew in the dirt. I heard my stomach growl. As the air turned colder on this late autumn evening and darkness descended, I finally decided it was safe to leave my hiding spot. As I walked down the long driveway, I saw a group of people and a police officer. Now I was terrified, but I could not run anywhere.
People approached me, and I heard cries of “We found her! She’s here!” I vaguely remember my parents hugging me. Mostly I remember the police officer questioning me, and being a terrified 10-year-old, I concocted a complete lie. At this point, to admit I didn’t want to go to a piano lesson seemed ridiculous. I made up a story about being chased by a male college student and said that I felt so scared that I hid behind my parents’ garage until I thought he had disappeared. It seemed like something that could have happened, and in those days, my mind easily created dangerous people attempting to hurt me. The police officer took lots of notes and mentioned several times how many people cared about me. I barely took in this information because it didn’t match my reality.
Finally inside my parents’ home, I began to eat the dinner they had kept warm on the stove. My mother shared that my piano teacher had called earlier in the day to cancel my piano lesson, which felt like some great cosmic joke. If I had walked into my house after school and shared that I hadn’t practiced and didn’t want to go to my lesson, I would have learned this news and been so relieved. I wouldn’t have caused this hullabaloo by “running away.” I had a couple more lessons with this man, but then he took a break from teaching piano.
About two years later, I took lessons with a female college student named Margie. I walked to Sanborn Hall after school once a week and worked with her in a small practice room. Buoyed by her kindness and patience, I grew confident in my skills as I learned to read music and play classical pieces. I found that I could transfer my skill set to Christmas carols and popular music, which thrilled me.
My beloved Grandma Hope (my dad’s mom), who in my childhood was one of a handful of unconditionally loving adults, enjoyed the sound of piano music immensely. Because I knew her favorite Christmas song was “O Holy Night,” I learned and memorized this piece, and then played it for her each time she and my grandfather visited our home during the holidays. Delighted by this simple gift of a song, she hugged and kissed me with tears in her eyes. She had been the person to teach me the feeling of a genuine hug and kiss in my childhood. My love of playing for my grandma and her heartfelt appreciation created a new story for me that I could hold onto. I finally had a loving, powerful, and positive association with playing the piano, in addition to my abiding bond with Grandma Hope.
My grandma’s love for me never wavered. One time when I woke up with a stiff neck that had my head “frozen” in a seemingly haughty position, facing right, the members of my family laughed and made cruel jokes. Unaffected by the pain I reported, they thought I looked funny and “stuck-up.” Any movement to center my head created electric waves of excruciating pain. To escape their taunting, I hid in the closet of the bedroom I shared with my sister. A bit later, I heard my grandparents arrive. Soon after, Grandma Hope found me and brought me food as I cried and poured out my pain to her. She spoon-fed me and listened deeply to my hurt over my family’s jokes. She also believed me when I told her about the shooting pain I had in my neck. She gently coaxed me out of the closet, and we went downstairs to be with the rest of my family. She stayed by my side most of the afternoon, and when she left my side, she must have convinced my parents to get me to a doctor. Later that day, I saw a doctor who prescribed a pain medication and a muscle relaxer, which finally gave me some relief from the physical pain. I will forever remember Grandma Hope’s compassion and care when my family would not hear me.
My grandma passed away while I was in graduate school. Some part of me died with her, and I did not know how to grieve the loss of my favorite family member, a lifeline in the chaos of my childhood. Not once did she back away from her love and belief in me. Not once did she betray me or criticize me. She saw my beauty, my sweetness, my strength, and my courage. I felt her total belief in me every moment I was in her presence.
After I left my childhood home, I didn’t have a piano in my life until about a decade ago. I found a used one for an affordable price, and my then-husband agreed to purchase it. I sobbed each time I sat in front of the ebony and ivory keys, discovering that I had much healing to do. I persisted and mostly played when no one was home. Then weeks went by and I did not play, too overwhelmed by the grief and pain of the past. Occasionally, I returned to this piano to teach myself “I’ve Dreamed of You” by Barbra Streisand. At Christmas, I managed to play “O Holy Night.”
As life with teenagers took over my time and my teenagers’ friends gathered at our home frequently, the piano became a mostly unnoticed piece of furniture. Occasionally someone would play it and I’d remember how much I loved this sound. When my marriage ended and my daughter left for college, I knew I would have to part with this instrument. I sent out word to my network, and a family indicated that they would appreciate this piano. I gave it to them with love.
The day the piano left our home, I truly understood what my feng shui clients might feel when they must part with a belonging that evokes both love and pain. As the piano left, I felt grief and shame for not having played it more often, for not bravely pushing beyond my tortured memories and my grief over my grandmother. Yet I had no time to dwell on it. My deeply mixed feelings about playing the piano were pushed aside as I focused on bringing a legal end to the marriage, helping my children with their transitions, taking care of my new home, and growing my business. But my heart remembered my love for playing the piano, and the positive memories flickered inside.
As I settled into my new home and continued to discern which belongings needed to leave my life and which could stay, I noticed a yearning for a piano. It felt like a slight but clear tug on my heart, and I mentioned it to a few friends. More challenges rolled into my life and I no longer thought about a piano.
It’s late November, and my daughter calls me to share she will be with a friend in London at Christmastime. I’m thrilled for her because I studied in London as a junior in college and fell in love with the city. My son will stay in California this Christmas and continue to build his life there. Although I miss him every day, I’m grateful he’s alive and well. It hits me that I will be alone with my dog on Christmas morning for the first time in my life. I call friends and make plans for the afternoon and evening of Christmas.
As I turn the calendar to December, a quiet yet compelling multisensory memory of my Grandma Hope watching me play the piano captures my attention. I can feel my fingers on the keys and the love we felt for each other. Then I’m pulled back to the present, to the potatoes I’m boiling on the stove and the chicken baking in the oven. These images and sensations persist for a few more days.
Three weeks before Christmas, a text comes from my friend Cathy, who lives in my neighborhood. “Do you still want a piano?” Without hesitation, I reply that I do. She connects me to a mutual neighbor named Steve, with whom I have a brief conversation on the phone confirming that I will be at my home to receive the piano. I know exactly where it can go and I move a shelving unit to the basement to later give to my daughter. After Cathy, Steve, and I exchange another flurry of texts, a white moving truck pulls into my driveway. Like a Christmas miracle, this beautiful piano comes rolling into my home. I tip the movers and thank them. When I shut the door, I fall to my knees, no longer able to contain my ugly cry of gratitude and joy. I stand up, wipe my eyes, and walk over to her and say, “Hello, Hope.” I sit on the wooden bench and play “O Holy Night.”
There are things about my life I cannot alter. My adult children get to decide where they will be for Christmas, and I honor that. I can savor the memories of the holidays we celebrated when they were young and our family was intact, but those remain in the past. And my childhood cannot be changed to one where my parents interacted with me in healthy and kind ways. My Grandma Hope is gone, and I cannot experience her sweet presence.
But there are things I can take charge of. I get to decide how I live my life and respond to my circumstances. I get to plan my Christmas and create options that fill me with joy. And at Christmas or any time I want, I am blessed to sit down at my piano and savor it all—the timely gift from a neighbor, the feel of the keys on my fingertips, the beautiful music, and the memories of the grandma who adored me, heard the music in my heart and on the piano keys, and gave me the strength to go forward. Her unconditional love lives in my choices to be kind and to care.