An Essay by Shawna Ervin
I KNELT ON the wood floor in the living room of the small Denver house as if praying, a white rag in my hand, yellow furniture polish slowly bleeding into the white. I was preparing to sell my grandmother’s piano. It was the only heirloom I had tying me to my mom and her family, and I was giving it away. I needed the space, I told my husband and kids. I needed the piano to belong to someone else.
My daughter and son, ages four and six, romped through the living room as I carefully polished the piano my mom had passed on to me when I got married eleven years before. The kids tossed questions out as they played. Did I know where the yellow Jeep was? The Elsa dress? Could I fix a snack? Could I open a granola bar?
“Ask Daddy,” I said, showing the kids the rag and nodding toward the piano.
Somber as if preparing a loved one for burial, I held the cloth against the lower panel (sometimes called the belly), and slowly applied the polish in a wide swath. As I rubbed, the slightly faded wood took on a golden hue, the piano’s beauty redeemed for someone else.
* * *
As a little girl, I often stood with my parents and younger brother around that same piano in our large ranch house in a suburb of Denver, my family its own makeshift church. My mom, not quite five feet tall, took her place at the instrument, her back stiff and fingers curved precisely over the keys, my dad’s lanky, nearly six-foot body towering over us, his arm lifted, ready.
“And a-three and a-four.” His arm dropped sternly like it did in church, his role as music minister extending beyond the church doors. My mom’s eyes followed the music in a hymnal, her fingers naturally finding their places. I stood at her side, next to my dad’s legs, and mumbled along to songs I didn’t understand. Music was magical for my parents, a language they both understood effortlessly, a place where they could find glimpses of the person they’d married before their relationship snagged on my dad’s temper. The music smoothed over my fear from the sounds I heard regularly at night—my dad’s shouts and stomping his boots in rage, my mom’s body thumping into walls, her whimpers. At the piano, my parents fell gracefully into their parts, my dad’s tenor voice rising, my mom supporting and lifting with each phrase she played. Arguments over money, desperation, and blame melted away while they played. I longed to stay in the music, to believe in the parents music allowed them to be, to believe they could love each other and me forever.
“That’s too low. Try it in D,” my dad. My mom flipped to the first page and played a few bars. My dad hummed. “Yes. That’s much better.”
She transposed the music in her head, flats becoming sharps, the music seamless. My mom’s lips moved along with my dad’s. I mimicked the stretch and curl of her mouth and imagined when I’d be old enough to learn my own part. I would be talented too, the daughter of two parents who were often praised for their musical talents. I would belong to them, with them. They would be proud of me.
* * *
The piano had been a wedding gift for my mom from my maternal grandmother. As a child, my mom faithfully attended lessons and mastered the piano on an elegant piano that her mother promised would be an heirloom. My mom had stayed with her mother after my mom’s older sister went to boarding school and became a nun, and after my mom’s parents divorced. She accepted her role as caretaker and companion. But then my mom fell in love with the man who would be my dad. She was going to leave too. When my mom announced her engagement, my grandmother flew into a fury and sold the elegant piano. In its place, she gave my mom a starter piano. The starter piano’s wood was mediocre, had two pedals instead of the standard three for pianists of my mom’s caliber, and no cover to protect the keys from dust. It was an insult and a broken promise.
* * *
As I stood over the piano ready to polish the top, my son rushed past me. He wore a Batman costume, the back stuck together with Velcro. My daughter came after him dressed as Elsa.
“Trick or treat!” she said with a giggle, her rs sounding like ws. “Can we go outside?”
“Can we play in the leaves?” My son pushed past his sister to get close to me.
“Watch the polish,” I said more harshly than I meant to. “Go ahead.”
They clomped out the front door, my husband behind them laughing and calling for them to slow down on the steps. I lifted a doily off the top of the piano where I had over-watered an African violet when I was a child. The doily, crocheted by my grandmother, had covered my mistake for as long as I could remember. It had once been white and crisp, but was now yellow and brown, the edges pulled inward, a stain of its own.
Outside, my kids tossed leaves at each other and took turns running and leaping into a small pile they had made. Their laughter carried past the large picture window to where I polished. I ached to be a little girl again, to feel joy in music and to believe that the parents I saw around the piano were real, and the bruises I watched fade at the edges of my mom’s collars were anomalies. I wanted to hope again in the kind of childhood I believed was possible when I was little, a childhood where I wouldn’t fall asleep memorizing plans in case I woke to find my mom’s body, where my dinner wasn’t often splattered against the wall and I went to bed hungry, where hearing my dad’s footsteps was something I looked forward to.
I pushed my body back and forth against the stain as hard as I could, my arms and back becoming sore. I wanted to erase the evidence of my childhood mistake, the painful loss of being able to hope in love. The polish soaked into the pale wood, a stark contrast to the piano’s rich red finish. I could not fix the stain. The damage had been done.
* * *
At nine I took piano lessons, my invitation to sit at the bench rather than observing, coming after what felt like forever. I was giddy, finally able to become the pianist I knew was locked inside my small hands. Each time I clambered onto the bench that was too large, swung my legs, and tried to force my small hands into awkward positions, I imagined that soon my mom would sit beside me, tell me I was doing a wonderful job, that my dad would ask me to accompany him in church. It would be my turn. I wouldn’t be limited to sitting quietly in the front row anymore. I’d have a part, a real part.
Time wore on. I practiced, faithfully, but my fingers and mind resisted. I found myself starting out the window daydreaming of climbing trees, riding my bike, floating sticks in an irrigation ditch. From the kitchen my mom called out my mistakes. “That should be a flat. Try again.” What held promise soon became a chore. “Nope not right that time either. Go slower. Practice just that part. Just those two notes. Do you want me to show you?”
Both my frustration and failures increased. My mom’s voice became angrier as she corrected me, her constant disappointment clear. “You had that down yesterday! That should be easy, like breathing.” Incentives became orders with consequences attached. I had tantrums when forced to practice and lost privileges to my bike, TV, time with family and friends. Finally, there were no more piano lessons. I had failed. I could not force musical talent on myself, could not be the daughter they had hoped for and believed in. My mom would be the only piano player in the house; I would remain an observer.
At seventeen, I tried taking lessons again, this time in secret. With less than a year before leaving Colorado for college, I sat at the piano, my fingers hovering over the keys still labeled with masking tape. I tried to remember what I had learned eight years before, what it felt like when I still believed I could master the piano. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge; Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Bananas. I imagined playing in front of an audience and seeing the faces of strangers watching, wanting me to do well. I flipped to the first page of Terms of Endearment and began slowly, carefully.
I had abruptly lost my dad and his large extended family the year before. Around the time I quit piano and after years of fearing my dad would kill my mom, one day I stepped between my parents. I told my mom to go, just go now, please just go, and waited until I heard the soft click of the lock on my parents’ bedroom door. Over the next seven years as my mom and younger brother hid and I fought, I found the harmony between my dad’s rage and mine, singing so I wouldn’t cry when my body thumped into the wall, singing until I couldn’t take it anymore and I sang that I would tell, and saw fear in his eyes. I called a former camp counselor, who called the police, which set into motion my dad’s arrest, a trial, probation, and eventually my parents’ divorce. Our family song was over, my part over too. To my dad and his large extended family, I had committed the unforgivable sin—talking about family secrets. I had betrayed them. The only solution was to disown me.
Overnight, I went from being part of a family large enough that we drew names for Christmas to having only a mom, a younger brother, and an aunt several states away whom I rarely heard from. Not needing to hide anymore, my mom emerged from her shell a stranger to me. To play the piano – that piano – felt like my last chance of rightfully belonging to my mom, of having any family at all. I hoped by playing the piano I would prove myself worthy of being her daughter. Perhaps I could redeem not only the disappointment I caused when I was nine, but the dreary piano, too.
I planned to practice in secret until shortly before I would leave for college, then play a concert for my mom. I imagined her listening, being moved and rushing to me in love, telling me how proud she was.
As my fingers danced on the worn keys, I longed for the hope I felt watching my parents rehearse when I was a little girl. After my dad’s arrest, I wanted to define myself in opposition who he was and how I resembled him. I enjoyed singing, but feared if I fell into even one or two of his footsteps I would inherit his hatred and rage, too. If I could force myself into my mom’s ancestry via the piano I would free myself from the threat my dad’s DNA held for my future, and allow me to choose where I belonged and to whom.
The music filled me and the living room, echoing off the brick walls. I held a pedal down. The sounds blended into each other; I could no longer discern which came first or last. They leapt over and around each other, building and surrounding: a welcome cacophony. At the end of the song, I paused. I felt strong and smart, someone worth respect. I turned back to the beginning, wanting to lose myself inside the music again, to feel what I imagined my mom felt when she played, what it might feel like to share something she enjoyed with her.
I played and played, my fingers learning their places, the phrases becoming less intentional and more fluid, my desire to become a pianist in my own right growing. The music vibrated in my hands and my back, slid into my stomach, and beat with a rhythm I could sense without counting, the slight variations in tempo lifting me toward understanding myself, the family I had lost, and the family I still had. Music pulled me deep into the sound, offered me a place where I could disappear and I wouldn’t be found until I wanted to be. I held the pedal down again, enjoying the way the music embraced me.
“It’s just like breathing,” my mom yelled from the kitchen, her voice stretched like a tight string. She had come home through the back door while I was lost in the music.
I took a deep breath, let the pedal go, lifted my fingers off the keys, and sighed. I began again, held the pedal down, closed my eyes as the song wrapped around me, and tried to hold onto the feeling I had a moment before, to make it mine. It was gone.
“That sounds awful.” She swish-thumped down the hallway away from me.
I had failed again.
* * *
I scrubbed at the piano’s plastic keys to remove sticky fingerprints and drops from juice cups over the past several years. I scowled at the nicks, tire tracks from toy cars, bits of a lollipop stuck between two keys, a note that wouldn’t play.
I had impulsively claimed the piano eleven years before. I was newly married and my mom had remarried at the same time and was moving. Her new husband had a better piano.
“I’ll leave it in the house for the new owners, unless you want it. You’ll have to pay to have it moved and tuned.” She moved in a flurry around the empty house where I had grown up, looking for any dust she’d missed. With a swoop of her hand, she dismissed the piano and its history linking me to her. In the instant it took for her to move on to her new husband and his piano, I said I’d take the piano, that I’d be happy to move it.
Maybe I’d play, I thought, if the piano was in my house. Maybe if I made it mine, if somehow I could free it and myself from the shame of failure lurking behind every note, I could enjoy music. Maybe I could still redeem the piano and its history of broken promises. Only a few times over those eleven years did I buy music and sit down hoping to be inspired enough to become who I knew I wasn’t. Each time, as I fumbled through notes and fought to make my fingers obey my longings, my failures were all I heard. Eventually I gave up, let the piano gather dust, and when kids entered the picture, I let them eat or play there without ever objecting. It became a race track, a place to hold paper for art, anything but a piano.
As I scrubbed, I fought the urge to destroy the instrument that had embraced me with its music only to abandon me. I wanted to smash the piano to pieces with an axe, feel the wood splinter. I wanted to chop until it was no more than a pile of useless wood, and I could forget the sound of my mom’s playing, the strain of peace the piano offered in an otherwise chaotic upbringing, the false hope I clung to each time my parents gathered at the piano. The piano was a reminder of the affection I had dared to want; the love I couldn’t have. I wanted the piano and its legacy gone. Now.
“Do you know where a screwdriver is?” I yelled to my husband, my voice taut with fury.
“I think so. Why?” He responded with gentle curiosity, coming slowly into the living room.
“I need to take the top off the piano. There are toys in here.” I yelled, not able to withhold my anger. I wanted him to hear my anger at needing to clean a piece of furniture I despised, at having to touch it.
“That figures,” he laughed. He found a screwdriver and brought it to me peacefully. “Want me to do it?” He paused a few steps away.
“No, that’s okay.” I jabbed my hand at him; he pulled the screwdriver back. “This is my deal, not yours. The piano has nothing to do with you.” I told myself that he couldn’t understand my pain, could not share it. No one could. It was my failure I was polishing. Only I could do that. I told myself he would find my desperation to be loved pathetic if he knew how I’d failed, that he would back away from me assuming if I’d failed as a daughter I would also fail as a mother and wife.
“I’d like to help.” He calmly stepped past me to the lid and huddled over the small piano like it was a small child he wanted to protect.
“What are you doing?” I was furious. I wanted to push him and his kindness away. I did not deserve his help.
He said nothing. Slowly, he loosened screws and tucked them into his left hand. I adjusted my weight and humphed in protest.
“Can you hold these?” He reached his hand out, let the screws drop gently into my hand, his hand resting briefly on mine. My hand jerked, a familiar reaction. I forced it back under his hand, wished he would step away from the piano, see into my longings and defenses, and wrap around me like the music had and hold on. I did not know how to say what I wanted, that it was okay to verbalize longings.
I crossed one arm over my chest and watched him, careful to keep my expression surly. He worked quickly and dropped the rest of the screws gently into my hand. He lifted the top off and bent deep inside the instrument to retrieve several cars, trucks, and a pacifier.
I peered into the piano. Strings crossed over each other; white hammers and felt pads were tightly packed together. I followed strings from peg to peg with my eyes, losing them deep in the belly. Emotions were reduced to equations; the beauty of music, the hope and peace I felt as a child as nothing more than angles and mechanics. The piano was merely a fixture in a room, a piece of furniture that took up too much space. My destiny to be like either of my parents did not depend on a collection of wood and metal. I could choose my own instrument.
I moved closer to my husband, my arm brushing against his stomach. “I see red over there. Maybe a fire truck. Pink too, a crayon.” I pointed, leaning into the piano slightly, my arm near his, but not quite touching.
“Sure enough.” He stood up, held up a crayon and toy, and rolled his eyes. He smiled wide, then grew serious. “It’s a good decision to give it away.”
I nodded slightly, unsure how to respond. He held my gaze standing close enough we could have hugged if I had been able to reach out. I looked down, back up. He was still looking at me. I shuffled away, my inability to let him see my failures and fears in my eyes, to keep looking at him, a barrier between us. I nodded in response to reassurance that felt unspoken and pressed on a key that hadn’t worked for years. It played.
He smiled. “It works! Something must have been lost in there a long time.”
* * *
“She’s here,” my kids called.
A young woman shuffled up our front sidewalk, her feet dragging like she had just woken up. She slowly climbed the three stairs, two feet on each step, and rang the doorbell, her body bent over as if apologizing.
My kids sat on the piano bench, their faces drawn long in reluctance to part with something they had always known.
“Hello,” I said, ushering the new owner into our living room. She stopped by the front window and shifted her weight from foot to foot, pulling on her long, stringy hair.
“Do you want to play it?” I smiled and gestured to the bench. My smile felt fake, like I was trying to sell a corpse.
“Oh.” She looked up briefly, then back down. She took a few steps toward the piano, reached out like she expected to be burned, let one finger rest on top. “I don’t play. It’s a gift for my mom. A surprise. She’s always wanted a piano.”
“There’s this water spot here, but it doesn’t affect the way it plays. It will need to be tuned.” I spoke fast.
“It looks good.” She nodded and looked up tentatively. “Why are you selling it?”
My kids watched the woman carefully. They hopped off the bench and came to stand next to me. My son took my daughter’s hand; she rested her head on my leg.
“We need the space.”
“Really? It looks like a nice piano. Your kids don’t want to play it?”
My kids brightened at the woman’s suggestion and looked up at me. I shook my head slightly and patted my son’s head. “Not really. If they do when they are older, we’ll get a digital piano. This one is really heavy.” My daughter glared at me. They knew I was lying. Our family would not have a piano.
* * *
A few days later, movers arrived to take the piano. It was shiny, almost perfect. If it hadn’t been mine, I might have wanted it.
As they backed up to my front door, I ran my hand over the polished wood. It was smooth, as if it had never belonged to me or anyone else. I wondered if I had made the right decision, if letting go of the piano would change anything about how I saw myself.
The two men moved quickly, speaking only what was necessary. Up? Uh-huh. Ready. Okay. As if the move had been choreographed, they lifted the piano out the front door and down a ramp while I held the front door open. The movers slid the piano gracefully inside the truck and dropped a heavy blanket over it. I imagined them wearing suits rather than ratty jeans, standing beside me at a gravesite throwing dirt onto a casket with me, giving practiced nods of reassurance, handing me a tissue or a memento to hold, telling me it was time for them to fill the hole, but that I could stay as long as I needed.
Logistics of my husband’s work schedule and the movers’ schedule meant I was alone. I had told my husband I could handle it, that it would be a relief to see the piano go. I was ready. As the movers jiggled the blanket into place I longed for someone to lean against to remind me I was still real within my loss. I craved the movement of my kids, the smell of play and waking up, the hope they represented of promises kept.
The men pulled a yellow strap around the piano, ratcheted it tight to the side of the truck, walked out, and pulled the door closed.
“Are you going to follow us to the other house?”
I shook my head, adamant. My part in the piano’s history was finished. I moved away from the door into the space where the piano had been. The open area felt too large; I could not begin to fill it. I could not imagine what might fit where the piano had been.
I let my body fall into the couch and felt the ache of trying to replace the love I had lost. Imagining my husband next to me, his arm gently embracing me, I turned my face deep into the leather couch and felt its softness on my cheek. I stretched out my fingers on my lap, stretched them until they hurt knowing my hands were too small to ever master the piano. My knuckles ached; my fingers shook. I rested my hands on my lap, fingers curled naturally into waves.
The truck pulled away. I lifted a hand and waved.
Shawna Ervin is a Pushcart nominee and a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where she graduated from the Book Project. Shawna writes both nonfiction and poetry. Recent publications include Jelly Bucket, Hiram Poetry Review, Apalachee Review, The Delmarva Review, and Superstition Review. Much of her work is available on her website, shawnaervin.com.