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Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons

Diane Wakoski


The relief of putting your fingers on the keyboard,

as if you were walking on the beach

and found a diamond

as big as a shoe;


as if

you had just built a wooden table

and the smell of sawdust was in the air,

your hands dry and woody;


as if

you had eluded

the man in the dark hat who had been following you

all week;


the relief

of putting your fingers on the keyboard,

playing the chords of

Beethoven,

Bach,

Chopin

         in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to,

         when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters

         and clean shining Republican middle-class hair

         walked into carpeted houses

         and left me alone

         with bare floors and a few books


I want to thank my mother

for working every day

in a drab office

in garages and water companies

cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40

to lose weight, her heavy body

writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers

alone, with no man to look at her face,

her body, her prematurely white hair

in love

         I want to thank

my mother for working and always paying for

my piano lessons

before she paid the Bank of America loan

or bought the groceries

or had our old rattling Ford repaired.


I was a quiet child,

afraid of walking into a store alone,

afraid of the water,

the sun,

the dirty weeds in back yards,

afraid of my mother’s bad breath,

and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home,

knowing he would leave again;

afraid of not having any money,

afraid of my clumsy body,

that I knew

         no one would ever love


But I played my way

on the old upright piano

obtained for $10,

played my way through fear,

through ugliness,

through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,

and a desire to love

a loveless world.


I played my way through an ugly face

and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights,

mornings even, empty

as a rusty coffee can,

played my way through the rustles of spring

and wanted everything around me to shimmer like the narrow tide

on a flat beach at sunset in Southern California,

I played my way through

an empty father’s hat in my mother’s closet

and a bed she slept on only one side of,

never wrinkling an inch of

the other side,

waiting,

waiting,


I played my way through honors in school,

the only place I could

talk

         the classroom,

         or at my piano lessons, Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary always

         singing the most for my talents,

         as if I had thrown some part of my body away upon entering

         her house

         and was now searching every ivory case

         of the keyboard, slipping my fingers over black

         ridges and around smooth rocks,

         wondering where I had lost my bloody organs,

         or my mouth which sometimes opened

         like a California poppy,

         wide and with contrasts

         beautiful in sweeping fields,

         entirely closed morning and night,


I played my way from age to age,

but they all seemed ageless

or perhaps always

old and lonely,

wanting only one thing, surrounded by the dusty bitter-smelling

leaves of orange trees,

wanting only to be touched by a man who loved me,

who would be there every night

to put his large strong hand over my shoulder,

whose hips I would wake up against in the morning,

whose mustaches might brush a face asleep,

dreaming of pianos that made the sound of Mozart

and Schubert without demanding

that life suck everything

out of you each day,

without demanding the emptiness

of a timid little life.


I want to thank my mother

for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning

when I practiced my lessons

and for making sure I had a piano

to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.

I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,

perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to

pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,

will get lost,

slide away,

into the terribly empty cavern of me

if I ever open it all the way up again.

Love is a man

with a mustache

gently holding me every night,

always being there when I need to touch him;

he could not know the painfully loud

music from the past that

his loving stops from pounding, banging,

battering through my brain,

which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I

am alone;

he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,

liking the sound of my lesson this week,

telling me,

confirming what my teacher says,

that I have a gift for the piano

few of her other pupils had.

When I touch the man

I love,

I want to thank my mother for giving me

piano lessons

all those years,

keeping the memory of Beethoven,

a deaf tortured man,

in mind;

            of the beauty that can come

from even an ugly

past.


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