Roberta, My Piano And Other Things That Break My Heart
Again. Again. Again. I could feel the irritation rising like bread in an oven.
My fingers had been reduced to little nubs from rehearsing Bach’s, Goldberg Variations but that didn’t matter because I had to play it again. My mind wandered for a minute to think about my horribly exhausting day, the snowy hell of winter was starting, all movies were sequels and I hated playing christmas music. My fingers slip a bit and I miss the F sharp, for a second I panic and wonder if she noticed. I shoot her a quick look and see her eyebrow raised in disapproval, of course she caught that. When I was little I was obsessed with piano music.
I wanted to perform in front of thousands of people and wow them with my awesome piano skills that I didn’t have. When I was 10 I would flaunt to our house guests when I learned chopsticks by myself, but no matter how much I practiced I always felt as if I couldn’t understand. I felt as if life was being unfair to me because it didn’t matter how much I begged for a piano teacher, the truth was, my parents couldn’t afford it. My piano became a place full of angry frustrated tears and broken dreams. Then one day I met Roberta.
Roberta was a retired piano teacher of 60 years old. My heart beat faster and I bounced my leg impatiently, she was so close I could almost smell her. I had heard so many stories of her from her old students. Most of them grew up and became musicians or went to fancy colleges to study music. That’s what I wanted and I knew that she, this piano legend, could get me there. Just by looking at her you could see her sophistication.
Her white blonde hair was kept up in a beautifully intricate bun. Not a single hair out of place. Her dress was a stylish vintage sort and her make up consisted of a bold red on her thin lips and dark browns on her bright blue eyes. The essence of beauty, she gave the idea of “aging well” a new meaning. Her laugh was a strong and satisfying to listen to and her voice had an almost tangible, smooth quality to it.
My thoughts jumbled together and crossed each other and came to a resolve:She has to love me. *** On the ring that Abraham Lincoln gave Mary Todd the words “Love is eternal” were engraved on it. When Lincoln, a victim of an assassin’s bullet, passed away a man in the room said “He belongs to the times.” Mary responded, “No, he belongs to me. Our love is eternal.” *** I remembered once that an old psychology teacher had to me that you only need 15 seconds of confidence.
When I met Roberta I decided to take this to heart and before I knew it my legs had brought me to her and left my brain behind. I stood in front of her and her husband holding an old tattered hymn book probably looking as scared as I felt. When they noticed that I wasn’t leaving they stopped their conversation and turned their attention to me. I took a deep breath and word vomited. To this day I can’t remember what I said to her but she laughed so hard it must have been the best joke I’ve ever told.
When she stopped laughing she looked at me and said, “Charming. I like it. How does Thursday sound?” Three months later she is sitting in my living room telling me how impossibly distracted I am today. I had missed the same 3 notes in the same piece every time I played it. I scrunched my nose and mimicked her while she chided me with the same speech.
Roberta took a deep breath and said “Again.” She stood behind me holding a tiny demon called a metronome. She moved it’s small dial to 80 and pushed it’s start button so it’s could start it’s incessant wailing. When I finally finished the piece without missing any notes Roberta sat down in the plush chair next to me, letting out an exhausted breath. I still smile at thought of that chair. Instead of teaching me piano on our first lesson Roberta took me to a furniture store to buy a special piano chair.
We scanned the aisles of the antique furniture store for hours on end, my nose almost got used to the musky smell. When she finally found it, it was exactly what I had anticipated. Roberta’s choice was a Fauteuil Chair with a square backing, the pale pink fabric was dusty and some of the stuffing was peaking out of corners of the seat. On the cedar arms and legs there were intricate engravings of delicate flowers. The chair itself said “Roberta” it was ancient and delicate but sturdy and graceful.
To this day whenever I play my piano I still look over to that chair asking for advice. The smooth backing of the chair seems stern and from time to time frowns at me. Sometimes if I listen closely enough I can almost hear her rich laughter with that steady melody that I cherished. It was in the moments that Roberta lectured me that looked her strongest. I almost enjoyed the life lessons I got at every piano lesson.
When she talked about piano her eyes lit up with a passionate fire, her voice was that of a strong warrior and her laugh was the most genuine. I smiled at her and waited patiently but she didn’t talk. For the first time I noticed she was wearing dirty overalls and a puke pink shirt that made her look washed out. Her white blonde hair was more frizzy and unkempt and her eyes were the saddest gray abyss I had ever seen. I leaned over and placed my hand over hers and asked, “Was my playing that bad?” *** When Prince Albert passed at an unexpected time, 40 years before that of his wife, Queen Victoria’s mourning was almost as long as her reign over Britain.
For the rest of her life she favored the color black and spent her time in relative seclusion. When on her deathbed Victoria’s last words were, “Farewell best beloved, here at last I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ I shall rise again.” *** It’s December 19th of 2013. Today is the big recital. The day where college professors come to the recital and pick out competitors for this next year’s “Piano Superstars”.
I step out into the porch and instantly feel the cold wind biting at my nose and cheeks. I look at the snowing powder fall with disdain. I let out a breath and watch it dance in front of me. When I finally check my watch it’s only been 2 minutes. I start to tap my ridiculously coquettish heels that my mom picked out for me.
As if a piano player needs these.By the time Roberta shows up in her white Kia my feet are frosted in their frivolous encasings and my fingers frozen into permanent knots in my scarf. As I enter the car the warmth of her smile melts away my anxiety and frustrations. As I close the door behind me I notice that her makeup is only half done and her hair still a short mess of straight white. Very unlike her.
Her dress is that of resonating elegance, black and complimenting her pearls. I buckle my seatbelt and listen for a moment. Silence. A heavy sigh. I look up at her to see the bottoms of her eyes starting to pool over with liquid.
Her hands rush to her face to cover up the coming flood. She hiccups and from her mouth erupts this wail of pain and suffering. I stay still, frozen, in the last 5 years of knowing Roberta, she has never cried. She once told me that the only place that one should cry at is in the shower. This was her way of tricking her mind into thinking that everything was okay. Everything wasn’t okay.
Roberta’s husband had always been a distant figure to me, he had been sick long before we met. In those first years Roberta was able to find a home nurse but with the cost of medication she was no longer able to afford it. He had been bedridden since his last stroke. Roberta would sit next to him on the bed and read to him from his favorite books. He never said very much for when he did, it would end in a coughing fit, but he never had to. His eyes were a deep blue as if the oceans were trapped there and when he looked at Roberta those oceans roared and were filled with his love for her.
They looked at each other is if all of the good things in the world were right in front of them. Their bony, wrinkled hands held on to each others as if the other person was the only reason they could breathe. *** Rachel Donelson was one of the most controversial first ladies because in that era it was extremely frowned upon to be divorced even when it was a clear-cut divorce. When Rachel Donelson married Andrew Jackson her divorce papers had not been legalized. This was cause for much slander from Andrew Jackson’s political opponents. This aggravated a pre-existing heart condition and Rachel never got too see Jackson become president.
Andrew Jackson, full of grief, clung to Rachel long after she died, hoping that she would revive. *** Ben was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease when he was 74. It all started out with a small cough that he couldn’t seem to shake off and then progressively got worse. Ben’s COPD came in the form of Chronic Bronchitis. Meaning that the lining of the airways in his lungs were constantly irritated and inflamed.
This caused the lining to thicken. When thick mucus forms in the airways, it makes it hard to breathe and hard to talk without constant wheezing and coughing.Ben’s symptoms worsened over time and limited his ability to do routine activities like walking, cooking, or taking care of himself. On his worse days he was to stay in bed but on those days he was fighting harder still. For himself. For Roberta.
*** Author, Brian Moore, once said,”Love, –Why, I’ll tell you what love is: it’s you at 75 and her at 71, each of you listening for the other’s steps in the next room, each afraid that a sudden silence, a sudden cry, could mean a lifetime’s talk is over.” *** We showed up at the competition half an hour late, five minutes before my performance. The entire drive here I watched in silence as Roberta’s bottom lip quivered and her hands shook. I felt as if it was a miracle that we made it when we did. She gave me hug before shooing me behind the large velvety curtain. I held my sheet music in my cold, clammy hands.
I didn’t need it. I could play this piece in my sleep and the hours of practice made sure that the muscles in my fingers would never forget it. When the red curtain was pulled open my eyes quickly scanned the audience to find her, I didn’t see her but I could almost feelher anticipation. I quickly made my way to the gorgeous grand piano in the middle of the stage. This piano was black and glossy the figure of sophistication with her beautiful golden trim.
Her keys were pearly and her strings strung to perfection. I tested the pedals tentatively and placed my hands carefully on the ivory keys. I closed my eyes and for a second thought of my piano at home. George, I call him. George is a caramel colored upright. He is old but sturdy and his keys were used to my fingers almost as often as they were to my tears.
A cough in the audience brought me back to reality and this new friend. I shyly began to press the keys into a melody, this new piano deciding to cooperate. We made beautiful music together we brought the audience to a complete silence, a close, and a reverence. When I turned to the crowd this time she was the first person I saw. On her face flashed a moment of pain and sorrow and quickly a light of happiness covered it. A couple of months after my performance at the big competition it happened.
I always wondered what my first funeral would be like. I expected the black clothes and the black hats but I never expected a beautiful sunny day. How impossibly inconsiderate of mother nature to put such a beautiful climate on such an awful day. My mind quickly flashed back to this morning, on my calendar it said “The first day of spring” . A new beginning. I just wanted this day to be over but the memorial service wasn’t supposed to start for another hour and we weren’t even there yet.
I tapped my foot impatiently as I tried to occupy myself in the increasingly stuffy car. My eyes wandered for a while and finally rested on her hands. Calmly folded, wrinkled with age and spotty. I felt a pang of guilt? Hurt? Pain. Pain is what I felt when I looked at the skinny silver band with the rosey diamond on her boney, unpolished finger.
I didn’t speak to her, there simply was nothing left to say, I had already told her how sorry I was and how unfortunate it was for us to have to be in this situation. *** The day that Jack Benny died a red rose was delivered to Mary, his wife. Every single day after that a perfect blossom was delivered to her doorstep. When Mary went to investigate the mystery she found out that Benny had saved provisions to have a perfect red rose delivered to her every day for the rest of her life. *** Every single thursday after the funeral I waited with George for Roberta.
We would stare out the window for hours. We’d call, email, and text but to no avail. Maybe she just forgot we would say or Maybe she changed the date. After millions of more “maybes” George and I gave up on waiting, a little more each day.If I could see Roberta again I’d tell her that I am sorry. That I’m grateful for the wonderful service that she did to me.
I’d tell her that I am following in her footsteps by teaching5 wonderful students who are the light of my life. I’d tell her that there is no way I can ever repay her for bringing music the joy into my life. I would let her know that George and I still wait for her every thursday.