My mother was a renowned performance pianist by age twelve. She read sheet music like one would breathe air. It was a gift – an innate ability. She’d fill in for people, being handed complicated music moments before an event, only to beautifully and eloquently nail it.
When she was 18 she lost half of the index finger of her dominant right hand while working in a plastic bottle factory. The on-call surgeon was drunk and didn’t attach it completely, having to fully remove the deadened hook not long after. My dad says she never complained and she didn’t miss a beat. She played with her nine and a half fingers with the same grandeur and love as before. She had to jut that digit slightly closer to the piano and no one could tell by the sound alone.
When we were kids she taught piano at home in the evenings and I remember curling up with my blanket and sleeping on the floor next to the piano during her classes. I’d wake up and a different student would be there. I would look at my mom and find a warm smile, only to fall back to sleep and awake to another student and smile.
She played all genres: complex and emotional classicals, fun and trending pop and rock songs from the 50s through the 90s, anything by Billy Joel or Elton John, church hymns, Christmas tunes, you name it.
She did her best to try and teach us four kids, and we, as kids who did not want to learn anything from their mom, did not learn. I struggled with the sheet music she could breathe in, and poked around the keys until I heard what I thought was right. I memorized four songs around the late 80s – one of those being a popular radio song my mom and I adored, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by our Stevie Wonder, which was quite a brilliant move on her part – and that has been the extent of my musical abilities.
My mom LOVED music, all music. She played it, loudly, in the car. She rocked out while cleaning houses, delivering newspapers, taking her kids around town, hauling rolls of carpet for my parents’ flooring company, going to the corner gas station for her daily soda pop, taking long road trips with us kids to visit her parents in Vegas. Just like how she didn’t have a favorite color, she didn’t have a favorite kind of music. She’d snap her fingers and bob her leg to anything. This – this love of listening and enjoying and becoming music – she did pass on to her four children. The only downside to this love of music I have found is the gut-wrenching pain I feel when I hear almost any music, any song, because they all remind me of her.
She didn’t play the piano as much as we got older and eventually it would only be around the holidays when she would bust out her favorite tunes. She’d look merrily around the room, oblivious to what her hands were doing, while we’d all sit around savoring, but too self conscious to sing along.
I had no idea how much I loved her piano playing until it had become something I will never – can never – enjoy again. Just one more thing I took for granted. Didn’t appreciate as I should have. Didn’t ask her to do more often. I know she loved playing the piano and somehow, sadly, that passion dwindled over her life. We didn’t encourage it. We didn’t stand at the piano with tears streaming down our faces asking for more, like we wish we could now.
I want – I need – to turn those regrets into actual changes in my life. Encourage passions in all of my people while we can do something about it, or the guilt will consume me.
She died suddenly of heart failure due to undiagnosed diabetes at the age of 60. It’s been 642 days. Anytime I hear a piano singing from its soul now I break. The only remedy is to crank them, loudly, in the car.