The nuns were amazingly accommodating of her mother, a Protestant divorcee, who couldn’t get through traffic to pick her up till after four. Normally, girls at the convent school didn’t start piano lessons right away, but they called the music teacher, who ran her through some exercises, pronounced her musical and agreed to take her every day after school for lessons and practise sessions, and the Burser beamed and sorted out the paperwork for Mommy to sign. Providing she was baptized, no of course it didn’t matter what religion, they would take her.
When class was over each day, she took her coat and lunch box up to the music rooms, and practised her scales and pieces. Sister would give her a lesson one day a week, and one of the older girls, Julie or Melucia, would oversee her practise each other day. She sometimes was allowed to practise in one of the bird rooms, where finches sang in cages, but most often she was in a room with one or two pianos, a window and a relatively sound-proof door. The practice rooms ran along a balcony hall above the gymnasium, and oftentimes she could watch the older girls play volleyball or basketball, themselves practising, practising.
At home, there was no piano to play. Sister had given her a cardboard keyboard, which she unfolded on the kitchen table and dutifully practised the fingering of her scales. Mommy smiled up from the other side of the table where she marked other children’s homework. Someday she would be able to play some of the little pieces for Mother, when they had a piano of their own.
When she was eight, a friend of Mommy’s went to Europe, and stored her piano with them. For two glorious years, she played the upright grand, and Sister smiled as she progressed with intonation, feeling the story of the notes as much as the correctness of the fingering. Maureen returned, and Sister encouraged Mom to find a way to purchase a small studio model piano, so that music could continue. Sister went with them on several forays, finally settling on an instrument with a beautiful tone and an installment plan.
She took lessons well into high school, playing for the local Sunday School, and taught several youngsters their own first couple of years of lessons. She left for university and eventually moved toward the guitar as a more portable instrument. The piano stayed at Mom’s house and old exam pieces and favourite sonatas were played on it whenever she came home for the holidays.
She married and had musical children. Mom downsized to an apartment and the piano came once more into her possession. They would smile at each other as they watched another generation of young girl lean in to the keys, finding her own release in playing. One daughter especially found her musical voice through the piano. The other took up the drums.
Her marriage foundered. She soldiered on alone for a while and eventually married another man. Mother died. Her daughters grew up, and each left home. Expenses grew and the house felt too big, so they decided to downsize. She girded her loins and divested herself of two-thirds of her possessions, antiques her grandmother and mother had cherished, books she had loved, furniture she had grown up with or chosen with love. When it came to it, though, she couldn’t sell the piano. It came with them.
She didn’t play it often, mostly when her husband was out of the apartment without her, which was rare. He didn’t play, but said he wished to. She pulled out early books for him to play with, but they were too juvenile to catch his interest. The piano held a small stereo, and the latest photos of the girls, and the bench was often piled with paperwork and books. She would dust it, like she had since she was eleven, pulling the soft cloth down the notes in happily discordant chords.
This marriage, meant to last into their dotage, suddenly ripped apart, a shock to her. He wanted other paths, other people. It made sense for her to be the one to move out first. Like an automaton, she packed what was hers, clothing, some bedding, some towels, cups and glasses. Her books, her records, Mother’s silver, Grandma’s china. She took her great-grandmother’s table and left her grandmother’s for him to use. She left the furniture they’d bought together: the sofabed, the coffee table, half the bookcases, and the big chair. She took her grandfather’s rocking chair that had come over the Carlton Trail, and two end tables she had inherited which they’d kept in their move to the condo. While it was so wrenchingly hard, it was easier because so much of her mother’s furniture had already been given away when they had downsized. He had been using her mother’s desk since the move, so she left that for him. And no matter how she measured the new apartment, there would be no way to take the piano.
He said he would like to try again to learn to play. No word of trying again on the marriage. He spoke as if this was all easy and obvious and meant to be. She continued to move in shock, setting one foot in front of the other, not reacting, aiming for a carapace of civility, hoping to get to the safety of the new apartment before she broke down and cried for a month. Or forever. He continued to smile and babble about amicability and meeting for brunch. It was as if he, who had once been able to finish her sentences, had overnight become a different person, one she couldn’t quite understand, and who wasn’t hearing her sentences at all.
When it came time to stage and sell the condo, he received a variety of offers from his new friends to storage extra furniture. She felt a pang of disloyalty to her mother and grandmother, whose beloved furniture would be jostled by strangers, people who had no understanding of the sacrifice and care that had gone into their purchase and sustenance. She wrote and asked that he might consider giving his step-daughter the piano, a suggestion he rebuffed curtly, saying he had understood the furniture and belongings she had left were his portion of their shared goods and he wasn’t about to pay to move and tune a piano just to give it to someone else.
A day or two later, he had had time to reconsider his outburst. He wrote that of course their daughter could eventually have the piano if she moved back to town. Was there anything else she wanted back? She met him to receive the homely footstool her grandmother had cobbled together from an orange crate, to save it from any stranger’s sneers.
She determined to reorganize her thoughts to get beyond any sense of loss. While she had been brought up to respect possessions and history and the sacrifices and care that went into them, she had also learned that things were just things. She vowed to reframe her story to find a way to remove the ugliness and mitigate the pain.
When she was young, she practised on a cardboard keyboard, and then a borrowed upright grand, and then her wonderful mother had budgeted to buy her a piano, which had sustained the melodies of two generations.
And then, tragically, it was engulfed in flames.
Best known for the Randy Craig Mysteries, the first detective series set in Edmonton, Alberta, Janice MacDonald has also produced non-fiction, short fiction, drama and music, and two rather spectacular children. She is also the author of the award-winning children’s book, The Ghouls’ Night Out. Janice spent almost two decades teaching literature, communications and creative writing at the University of Alberta and Grant MacEwan University, and now keeps the Government of Alberta safe from dangling modifiers. At the moment, she is also honoured to represent AB/NWT/NU on The Writers Union of Canada on National Council. For more information than you could possibly require, head to www.janicemacdonald.ca.