The Idea of North - Chapter 1: Four Pianos

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We had four pianos. The black Kawai upright on the wall next to the stairs in the entry way was Mary’s. Directly across the floor from the bathroom door stood Eliza's brown Yamaha. With only a foot or so of space left between them while they both played, they needed to rest each bench upside down on top of the pianos when they finished. Otherwise you couldn’t enter the house without tripping.

Mother’s instrument was the fifteen foot dull white Steinway grand beneath the chandelier in the center of the living room. I never understood why she put it in that particular spot. It blocked the path from the kitchen to the dining room making it extremely difficult to carry out hot food or the large pitchers of honey tea that she loved so much at mealtime. Though it rested there our entire lives, we never really did get used to the obstacle. Spills happened from time to time and Mother made sure we knew damn well that nothing should ever fall on that fucking Steinway.

On the landing at the top of the stairs was my beat up, unfinished and warped Sears-Roebuck console. Its keys clicked and pedals stuck. The lid was removed long before I was born, so many years worth of dust had accumulated on its strings. The cracked ivory on G below middle C exposed wood beneath with a pronounced semi-transparent glob of glue still left behind. Constant use left a pronounced finger indentation with a faded crimson stain from scratches and cuts to my finger brought on by the jagged edge of the break.

Somehow all four pianos were in tune with each other. I have no memories of seeing a tuner ever come over to maintain the instruments. For that matter I don’t remember seeing anyone ever come over to the house at all.

Mary played Bach while Eliza stumbled her way through Beethoven. If Mother played anything other than Chopin, I really couldn’t tell you what it was. The battle of staccatos and sustained tones while all three played at the same time was a deluge on the ears that should have made Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg puff their chests with atonalistic pride.

I was left to my own devices on the second floor. There were no score pages or lesson plans to learn from. Mother said that I must use my ears. In order to prove my worth I had to “Open yourself and just listen…” She would say and point her round knuckled finger up at me. Then the three ladies would begin.

“Play the Bach.” Her whisper would pierce the silence after the final chords had all but faded away. Her closed eyes were lost in some form of twisted prayer rapture with her head hanging down so the tips of her hair gently brushed the keys of the Steinway. I would then begin my attempt to play the first Goldberg Variation with Mary’s exact phrasing. Not the easiest thing to do for an eight-year-old boy.

Sweating through muscle aching fingers, I’d come as close as I could. When I finally stumbled to a close, the words, “Now the Beethoven” would climb up the stairs to greet me. It was usually the Moonlight Sonata, but sometimes Eliza would play the Appassionata or even the Pathetique. Mother would never allow me to play her beloved Chopin. Apparently I didn’t posses the grace and subtlety to reach his exalted heights of bliss.

We knew better than to rise from our pianos until Mother had set us free. Sometimes she stayed that way for hours, hands folded in her lap with her back hooked over. The orange shag carpet beneath my piano bench revealed dark circles from my small bladder losing the struggle to hold on to its contents.

Finally her head would slowly raise and give a slight nod. Lids silently lowered over keys and benches placed up high to provide walking space. Then the three of us walked to our bedrooms, shut the doors and lay down atop our crisply made beds waiting for Mother’s “critiques”.

I stared at the ceiling for a while. Watching as the knots in the old wood swirled around turning into airplanes and dragons. The man pictured in the framed black and white photograph on my dresser was not my father. Instead, a portrait of the famous Canadian pianist Glenn Gould gazed into a mysterious distance somewhere over the keyboard. His hair caught in fantastic mid-air swirls while nimble fingers blurred. Mother thought it might serve as my inspiration toward greatness.

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⏰ Last updated: Apr 23, 2014 ⏰

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