December 5, 2012


This week I've been writing about some of the special ornaments on my family's Christmas tree.  Every year our children's stockings contain a special ornament selected by Santa to represent something significant that happened during the year---an engagement, a wedding, a special role in a play, a trip, getting your driver's license, etc.  This happy little mouse, above, represents the year our youngest son won the state piano competition in South Dakota and got to go to Minneapolis for the regional competition. 

Because I believe having the skill to sit down at the piano and play a hymn, or a Christmas tune, or a piece of music that will calm and soothe your spirit (for me, the Bach Inventions are a great stress reliever) is so important, we made sure all four of our children studied piano.  For a while, my entire part-time teaching check went to Sister Mary Margaret, who both terrified and inspired our children.  She taught them scales, she showed them the power and majesty of music, and she shaped their ability to memorize long series of notes, which helped immensely in later years as three of my children are involved in acting.  She bribed them with warm soda and Woolworth bought-on-clearance trinkets, and occasionally astonished them by sliding off the piano bench, clutching her rosary and praying to God for patience with 'this student who has obviously not practiced this week' !!

At night I sit by my tree for awhile, looking at all the ornaments and all the stories they tell about our wild and crazy adventures as a family.  Funny stories, bittersweet moments, and celebrations of the heart are all nestled among the branches.  It's not a designer tree, and you won't find any pictures of it on Pinterest under "most beautifully decorated tree"--there are no two matching ornaments on the whole tree.  But it's my family tree in every sense of the word, and I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Here's a lovely poem by Billy Collins about piano lessons that I have enjoyed for a number of years--I hope its images make you smile as well. 

Piano Lessons
By Billy Collins
My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.
He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.
He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.
I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladder of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.
I am learning to play
“It Might As Well Be Spring”
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him in to the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.
Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.

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