For my mother and her mother
A week after Donald Trump was elected, our new piano was delivered. My mother found a baby grand for sale that had been sitting silent for thirty years in a wealthy family’s living room. The owner was less interested in recouping the piano’s cost and more interested in its going to a good home, so my mother bought it for the proverbial song and now it lives in our living room. This is one thing about my mother — she is always bringing beauty into my life, even when I have altogether forgotten about the possibility of beauty, even when I am questioning the validity and purpose of the entire construct of beauty.
I don’t know that I will ever be equal to the gift of this piano. I am in awe of it. I am humbled by it, but humbled is not even enough of a word. I am devastated by its beauty. It sits under our living room window, its lacquered surface reflecting the many-colored trees in the park across the street and the broken stained glass panes that have been watching over our house since it was built in 1922. Both the house and the piano will outlive me and I imagine them whispering voiceless wisdoms about the arc of history to each other in the early morning.
Aside from a few sporadic hours stolen from family holidays at my parents’ house, I hadn’t played the piano in over fifteen years. Sitting down at the new piano for the first time, my fingers found their way through the Fifth Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, stumbling at all the usual spots — a G suddenly sharped, a big leap of the left hand landing one note short. As a child, I was never much for practicing — or any pursuit requiring discipline or daily routine — so several attempts to make progress with a formal piano teacher fizzled out and my engagement with the piano occurred on my own terms in a process that can only be described as repetitive meandering. I would sit down at the piano on a weekend day and open one after another of my mother’s books of music — Mozart Piano Sonatas, Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, Bach, Bach, and more Bach — and sightread as many pieces as I could at whatever tempo I could manage. For obvious reasons, I came to specialize in the slow movements, and mastered several pieces through sheer repetition. I passed hours and hours and days this way, pulled from one juicy cadence to the other, vibrating with the tension of dissonance leading to release, missing lots of notes, dreaming in some vague way of fulfilling on the expectation — mine? my parents’? — that I would follow in their footsteps and become a musician but also knowing that it would be otherwise.
Music was the only way my parents could ever have come into contact, let alone gotten married and stayed married for 40 years and counting. My mother was born in a refugee camp in Cyprus, having being carried across Europe in her mother’s womb. My grandparents met when my grandfather, a partisan fighter, liberated my grandmother from a train carrying her from one concentration camp to another. They named my mother Aliza after my grandfather’s first first-born child, Freidl, who had been killed by the Nazis, the word for happiness translated from Yiddish to Hebrew in the spirit of the new possibility of life that awaited them in a land that should never have been promised. They had almost nothing in their eventual home in Israel but my grandmother found a way to buy a piano and lessons.
Across the earth in Iowa, my father’s mother, a devout member of the Reorganized Church of Latter Saints did an unusual thing, a thing her church friends were not doing. She paid for mail order classical music records. Later, she started driving her children all over the state for music lessons. Three of her four children became classical musicians. There was no precedent for it.
Their love was a mirlo blanco, a white blackbird, an impossible dream, the impossible dream of their mothers come to fruition in ways their mothers would never have predicted or chosen. They met when they were both studying music in London. In pictures from the time, my mother’s tight curls are huge and free, her lips full and red, her shirts tight across her chest. My father’s eyes are hidden deep beneath thick glasses, his hair long, his face almost always serious. I wonder what their courtship was like — it still feels sometimes like they lack a shared language, but then I remember Bach. After the year in London, my father returned to American and my mother came with him. They were wed in a courthouse in Buffalo right before my mother’s visa was to expire, using a ring borrowed from the judge. When I was born, their parents eventually came around.
My very first memories are of my parents playing music together, the elegant carriage of my mother’s arms and head silhouetted against the light from my clandestine vantage point in the darkness at the top of the stairs, her body swaying away from and toward the piano, crescendo and decrescendo. I loved when their eyes met and they moved their bodies together to synchronize the end of a phrase. I loved to hear the sounds of their breathing, the catch of an inhale before an entrance, an exhale before a big chord. Nothing is as comforting to a child as the evidence of her parents’ love, the glue holding the universe together.
Classical music is odd glue for a Jew — at its heart, an expression of German and Austrian culture — and I often wonder if this crossed my grandmother’s mind at the time, as she kept my mother at the piano for hours each day practicing the notes that Bach wrote for the glory of his Lutheran God in a city where several hundred years later, in 1945, only 15 Jews remained. And yet, for many reasons of culture and history and economics, Jews have been over-represented among the ranks of classical musicians since the 19th century and the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven was held dear among the community of Jewish survivors that came to Israel from Europe. And I suppose that is the fate of persecuted minorities and refugees everywhere — to share a culture with your oppressor. Every treasured thing recalls, in some way, a feared thing. What is yours is also not yours.
It has been a time of deja vu. As I have returned to my natal deities — Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven — Germans and Austrians all — the swastika has also returned. It does not feel accidental. I was lulled into a sense of American-ness, living as I do in a multi-everything urban community, alive with the promise of interactions that transcend category. Now, since the election, I feel more Jewish than ever, more white than ever, more gay then ever, more female than ever, more vulnerable than ever. History persists. Home isn’t. The only threads that connect me to this world are some melodies that were carried, tattered, across Europe, the embrace of beloved bodies whose fate I cannot control, hope for the abiding love that has been promised by every form of human wisdom, yet to be fulfilled.