Whenever I see a piano or hear just the right note perfectly resonate from it and fill the room with melody, I think of you. But I guess it’s not just the piano that makes me think of you, but music in general. And every kind, too. Whenever I hear the perfect song, or the perfect lyrics, or the perfect harmony, my mind automatically goes back to that day when you taught me how to play one song on that piano that sat in your living room all throughout the years of my childhood.
I used to love sitting on the bench, even just pretending to play. Most of the time somebody older or bigger would have to help me up on the stool, but I didn’t mind the help. I remember banging down on the keys, and you’d come over off the couch and show me how I was supposed to play them, holding my fingers and gently pushing them down against the black and white notes. I was enamored. Mesmerized. In awe. I think that was when I not only fell in love with piano, but with music. When one of my older cousins showed me how to put a few notes together to actually make somewhat of a good sound was when I got the itch to learn to play.
“Teach me how to play,” I’d say.
“Only if you’re serious,” you’d respond.
The piano was out of tune. That was always your excuse, and a good one, looking back on it now. But I wonder if it ever had something to do with Poppop. I know you used to accompany him when he would practice or perform. The picture that hung on your fridge for so many years of you and Poppop, my mom and my aunts standing beside the piano told the story, so you never had to. I understand that it was probably hard, that you packed all the sheet music away because you missed him and the way the piano notes used to slide off your fingers like water, without you even having to think. You just played from the heart. I’ve heard how good you were. That was always the legend. And you know how things go in our family—if they’re important enough to be legend, than they’re probably true.
“Think of Me” was the first song I learned how to play. I used to get so frustrated when I’d hit the wrong note, and even more so that I could never read the music off the sheet. It takes time to learn how to read music, you’d say. I was impatient. I wanted to read because I wanted to play, and I wanted it right then and there. Good things take time, you would tell me. So I waited. I waited a little too long, I would say. I regret it now…not being serious about playing until it was too late. But I remember the day you taught me how to play my first full song.
I was 21, and you weren’t feeling well. We were sitting at the dining room table putting a puzzle of Cinderella together. You loved the colors in the picture—the blue of her dress, the yellow of her hair, the white of the glow emanating from behind the princess in the picture. My mom came out of the kitchen to give you some crackers. She was really excited about them. I remember we spent the day before driving around Cherry Hill looking for the new Asian market just so we could snag a box of these sugarcoated crackers. They were your favorite and about the only thing you would eat by that time.
You had that apron on with the theatre masks on it. I loved that apron. It reminded me of how you always took us to see shows in the theatre in New York as kids. You always treated because you wanted to teach us how important music was in life—that it could get you through anything. Looking back on it now, you spoiled all of your grandkids. You spoiled all of us, all in different ways. And my way was shows, for sure. Starlight Express was always one of my favorites, and the Lion King, and of course Les Miserables.
It broke my heart the first time you bought me a ticket to a show and you told me you wouldn’t be accompanying me. It was Peter Pan, and you knew I loved it because I used to make you watch the film version of the play over and over again when I’d come over your house to spend time with you. You never minded though, and I know it’s because you just wanted to see me happy. But it was after your fall in the city, and you were nervous about making those long trips again after it. I want you to know that I thought of you the whole entire duration of the show, especially when Peter flies. I didn’t know back then how much I’d love Wicked when I’d see it, and that how every time I hear “Defying Gravity,” it would remind me of you and how you can finally fly now.
But my all-time favorite was, is and always will be the Phantom. That was one of the first shows we saw together, twice on Broadway, as well as the Philadelphia version and the movie version. Ironically enough, when you were sitting there eating your crackers, and my mom came in from the living room to tell us she stumbled upon your old sheet music, the Phantom of the Opera music was on top. “Music of the Night” it would be—my favorite song in the whole show, and my favorite part in it too, when the Phantom finally gets a chance to confess his love to Christine. You weren’t up for it at first.
“You’re not serious,” you said.
“I promise I am,” I fired back.
I begged until you finally agreed. I knew you were tired, and I should feel bad about making you put down your crackers to be wheeled over to sit beside me in your wheelchair by the piano, but I don’t. It was one of the best memories I have with you, and I’ll always remember it. And the day is still crystal clear to me even now—the sounds, the smells, the feeling.
We laughed the whole time. We did a lot of laughing that day, mainly because of Mag. It’d used to crack me up listening to the two of you bicker. Like two sisters or something, you two were. We all knew that when you gave attitude, we never gave it back. But Mag did. She didn’t care about hurting your feelings, and I think that’s why you loved her so much. And why she loved you, too.
Mag and Mom sat on the couch, while I moved in by the wall to sit on the stool to make room for your wheelchair. I fooled around with the notes at first, and you got angry. I wasn’t taking it seriously, you said. There was no nonsense after that. We got down to business.
Here came the sheet music dilemma again. It’s easier if you remember the scale in a pattern, you tried to tell me. I didn’t want to listen. I can only play from memory, I said back to you, and you told me that was a dumb excuse. I begged you to just show me the notes on the piano and let me watch your hands while you played, but you refused. I had to learn the proper way to do it, or else I’d soon forget it, and the effect wouldn’t be lasting.
We sat for an hour while I learned the scales. My Italian temper came out a few times, but you’d just hush me and put my fingers back on the right keys. You never raised your voice so much above a whisper. You never grew frustrated with me when I’d hit the same wrong note twenty times in a row. Instead, you laughed.
Do you remember what happened the second hour into the session? I learned how to play the first full part of the song. From the sheet music. I stopped looking at my hands when they glided from key to key, pressing down on note to note. I read the music, and I played from my heart, and I remember you being so proud of me. It made me feel good. My mom came over to take a picture of us on her phone, even though she was listening from the couch the whole time. You told her to go away—we weren’t finished until I learned the second half of the song.
We laughed hardly when Mag tried to reward you with a cracker for being such a good teacher. You told her to “stick it where the sun don’t shine.” Jokingly, of course, but still funny as ever.
You had to take a nap after we were finished. We wore you out for the rest of the afternoon, but you didn’t mind. Neither did we. We sat and finished the puzzle, wanting it to be done by the time you woke up so you could sit and look at the colors again. You liked bright, flashing colors. And you liked the sugar on the crackers. And you liked the music.
I’m looking at the picture of us from that day right now. It makes me smile, and when I miss you, I go to it and look at the huge smile on your face. I’m glad we had a good time that day. I’m glad I got to make you laugh a little while. And I’m glad I finally got the honor of your teaching.