Jaunay-Clan, France 1961
A hospital, Texas, 1981
Spring Branch, Texas 2016
Sometimes I feel her presence, thirty five years after her death. It is always when I’m at the piano. My mother didn’t always play. I can’t even recall when she started, but stage center are days in France, when I was ten years old, a beginning piano student.
My father’s U.S. Military orders sent us to France. We lived in an old three storey stone home in the French village of Jaunay-Clan near Poitiers, where few Americans were seen, little English spoken. Fully furnished, the home came with an upright piano on the ground floor living room. Sound memories are vivid, the arpeggios, glissandos, ritardandos. My mother worked a piece relentlessly until it flowed flawlessly, without breaks, beginning to end. The stone walls of the house magnified the sound of her playing. Even when exploring the attic, I heard and felt my mother’s touch. One piece of music stands out, the piece she mastered there — Beethoven’s Für Elise.
It was in those days my mother enrolled me in my first piano lessons, taught by a French, black and white-habited nun. I walked from the old stone house to the school for weekly lessons. A thin bamboo stick in hand, Sister tapped keys to mark corrections, occasionally placed a silver star at the top of a piece. But I left it behind after a year, other childhood pastimes more compelling.
Fast forward. My mother lies on a hospital bed, motionless, eyes closed. IV tubes snake across her, drip, drip, dripping the drugs. She hasn’t spoken in days, occasionally opens her eyes, unseeing. Disease and chemotherapy had reduced her to someone I barely recognized — the chalky pallor, scant wisps of hair, skeletal frame. I remember thinking how strange, that somehow her arms escaped the changes of the past months. She still had the same well-defined, slender arms, fingers with the octave-plus reach.
The squeak of rubber-soled shoes marked a nurse’s entry. “Why don’t you take a break?”
“I want to be here if she wakes up.”
The nurse thumbed the dial on the IV line, adjusting flow. “If anything changes, I’ll send someone to get you.”
I made my way to the elevators, rode down to the main floor in silence. Stopped, went into the gift shop. Glanced through the paperbacks, trailed fingers across book spines, moved on to magazines, past newborn gifts, cut flowers in vases, live plants in ceramic dishes. I stopped at a display of small gift items at the back of the store.
The store clerk, a middle aged woman with a spiky red haircut said, “Hey, did you hear Bob Marley died? Cancer they say.”
“Yes, I heard. Can you tell me the price of this item?” I held up a gold-filigreed, footed music box.
Back in her room, the heart monitor beeps – metronome-like. Green lines undulate across the screen. I pull a package from a small shopping bag, unwind tissue paper from a hexagonal music box, edged in gold, a pale green marbleized lid, topped with gold roses. I turn the box over, twist the knob several times and nestle it on my mother’s pillow, inches from her right ear. The familiar two note rocking intro and arpeggio plays, again and again. The music slows, last notes distorted. I pick up the box again, rewind and replace. Over and over, watching, hoping for a reaction. I yearned for last words, before I lost her forever. Wanted to believe the sound of familiar piano notes would connect us when words no longer could.
Long after my mother’s death, I opened a storage box filled with the smell of age, crammed with papers and mementos. Close to the top, frayed around the edges, brown with age, a French-titled Hanon piano exercises book, Le Pianiste Virtuose. Below that, sheet music for Bagatelle #25 in A Minor, Für Elise. I fingered the pages, looked at my mother’s neat penciled entries, placed them on the music rack of the long-silent piano. Reached back in memory, tried to remember translation of notes on a staff to finger placement on keyboard. Decades since my single year of piano lessons in France. Who was I kidding? I struggled to read and pick the first six bars. Yet I imagined somehow being connected again through her music. For me to play treble and bass lines simultaneously, to move smoothly through all the movements of a Beethoven composition was more than a stretch.
It was years. Five plus. But today, every time I stretch my fingers across the black and white keys, look at her penciled entries and play Beethoven, she sits with me again.