I sit with the memory of her gold and green living room with its mangled smell of cat litter and sweet honey lozenges. She sat against the wall, tucked beside the piano bench, in a wooden chair with its own worn cushion. She always leaned over the keys, wrote the date, with her long, shaking but careful fingers, in the corner of the page. The date became a beginning, a pull-switch, and it would send my own hands, too small, too slender, the reach between pinky and thumb too short, to the smooth ivory in anticipation of learning a new song.
She wore glasses that magnified the ocean of her eyes. Her hair was a soft, rolling hill of red. I’m a little witchy, she’d tease, titter at the edge of a giggle, the quiet, mischievous glow of a small child about to do wrong. She said this, each and every year, of her Halloween birthday, and I would follow with the same story I always did, that I was supposed to have been born that day but came early. So, there was no connection, not really, only that we could have shared that but didn’t.
Her husband came and went in shadow through their small home, shuffled past the open door, tinkered in the pantry. I’d hear the clank of porcelain against the metal sink basin, the quick, flinch of television static, then the kind of purposeful, certain quiet that comes with having to be quiet. Because the living room was hers. And my fingers perched over the sturdy upright piano for those forty-five minutes each week meant that it was ours. The crumpled green grass of rug beneath the pedal. The tink of silver chain that lit up the sheet music. Heavy, thick, drapes hurdling to the floor.
Once a year, there would be a recital in summer. We’d fill that one room entirely, folding chairs tangled up in one another. Children in crumpled pants and dresses with lopsided hems. Our parents pressed up against the front door or the coat rack or the wall-papered seams of the space. And we’d play in order. From youngest to oldest. My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean to Debussy and Chopin. The same songs, each year that we progressed, until I was seventeen and college bound, playing a song I’d heard played ten years earlier by a teenager I never knew when I still wore patent leather shoes and my green-stained knees were covered in itchy tights.
It was only at the recital that we saw the rest of her home. That we’d spill from that familiar room into the sun-soaked kitchen with its checkered curtains and round Formica table. The screen door to the backyard would swing open and we’d scatter. The oldest students with arms crossed, leaning against the shingles of the house. The youngest hiding behind their parents chatter or running in the open grass.
She’d serve us lemonade and store-bought cookies, then present us with plastic statues, miniature busts of the great composers. Some years I’d receive a statue I already owned and I’d line it up anyway, twin Bachs, on top of my piano at home, until that last year, when I did not receive a bust at all but, instead, a gold pin I’ve since lost. One gold note meant to hold all the notes I had ever learned.