It came. It came at long last. It came on an ordinary day. I was in a flurry of anticipation, mind fixed by only half on the day’s tasks as the clock snail-crept to seven p.m. It felt like getting ready for a date: such was the afternoon marked by periodic pleasurable spurts of anxiety. What should I wear? How should I do my hair? Queries flickered across the bottom of my brain-screen like ticker tape, only—they didn’t have to do with a man, and they really weren’t about hair and dresses, not really. My piano was arriving that night. My. My piano. Mine. Mine. (I experimented with the sound of the possessives in my head, unfamiliar in this context.) More than thirty years of waiting and one master’s degree in piano performance, and I was finally getting my own piano.
Nervousness, twitching, furtive clock-watching. What would it think of me? I restlessly scanned potential First Pieces, hearing and rejecting a whole stack of repertoire in my inner ear. (“Too fast. I’m too off my game for that.” “Too bombastic. I don’t want to scare it.” “Too easy. I want to hear polyphony. It probably does too.”) The instrument must have heard, felt many other First Pieces—it dated from the late 1940s, presumably after Baldwin had been permitted to resume making pianos following a wartime government ban on that endeavor. Maybe someone had inaugurated her ownership of it by plunking out “Some Enchanted Evening” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 megahit South Pacific? Then the next person, singing off-key as he clumsily found the chords of some 1970s Barbara Streisand schmaltz? And then I imagined a music major had walked into a dingy practice room and dashed off Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz #3, a bit more timeless but a lot more intimidating than just about anything else the little upright had ever experienced. In the end I settled on the only music that made sense, the only music that had ever made real sense to me at all. Bach. The Little Black Dress of the keyboard canon: always appropriate, never gaudy, equally capable of motion towards the simple or the ornate. The Italian Concerto; some movements of a Partita. Only this music seemed able to sustain the weight of the moment.
A few months later we knew each other better. The instrument has taken root, looking as if it grew here. I know now that the C an octave above middle C is noticeably weaker than the surrounding notes, and I take care to voice it louder when I play. I know the pedals creak a little bit, and I mostly block out the sound that used to bug me. I look at our wedding photo on top of the piano and wonder how many other framed photographs its handsome dark walnut top has carefully borne up into the air. And I try to puzzle out—as everyone does during autumn, if she is honest—why it should be that we are here, and they are not, and this dead thing, this dead wood, has outlived the once-living and probably will again. I sit down to practice (Bach again, still), and am joined by our small daughter, not yet a year old but tall enough and nosy enough to stand on tiptoe and mash bass notes with tiny fingers. She shrieks in delight, and now a third melody suddenly enters the first movement of the Partita in C minor. Polyphony becomes cacophony. Layers of time and meaning accumulate as my mind’s eye all at once images an old photograph of me on my mother’s lap, plucking at piano keys with 6-month-old fingers, and sees just as clearly my own daughter’s child pecking away at this very Baldwin. I do not come from a family that ever had much to hand down, but I think I am about to break the trend.
I am not sure who had the piano before, but feel that it imparts the same stinging blend of comfort and sadness harbored by my Edwardian engagement ring: this old thing has made others happy, and they have gone hence, and are no more seen, but this inanimate, unbreathing object remains, echoing departed voices. For me it has been a christening; for the piano it has been a rebirth. And for the piano it has been a christening; and for me it has been a rebirth.