“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes - ah, that is where the art resides.” ― A. Schnabel
As a child, I wept incessantly,
with such inexplicable, single-minded focus
that my mother despaired
of ever comforting me.
“It was as if,” she used to say,
“the whole world hurt you - as if
your spirit was trying to scream its way
out of your body.”
And so we rocked and walked and swayed
and hummed and strolled through the garden
to let me feel the hot Santa Ana winds
tickle my toes and the dappled sunlight
playing through the leaves of the eucalyptus tree
kiss my face.
Colic, the pediatricians said,
which did nothing to console my mother
or myself, but led to unconventional,
some might say heroic measures,
to ease my pain.
Vacuum cleaners, wind chimes, a teddy bear
with a ticking-clock heart,
and at last - at long last - Ebony.
Solid, black, and massive,
with legs as thick as elephant thighs,
and a body built for resonance,
Ebony occupied a place of honor in our home,
squatting sleek and curved in the corner
of our living room - waiting.
She waited through my birth,
through my mother’s reluctance
to disturb my sleep,
through my father’s disdain for anything
he couldn’t do better than his wife.
But the day came when my mother,
desperate for some comfort of her own,
laid me gently on my blanket
beneath Ebony’s cavernous underbelly,
spread her fingers across the yellowed, ivory keys,
Eye witness reports vary.
One swears it was Pachabell that dried my tears.
Another that Pathetique stunned me into silence.
A third was too busy taking photos of my first
real smile to remember
what my mother played.
The fact remains
I was not just silenced
by the voice
that would define my childhood.
Ebony was not a piano,
not an instrument to be played.
Though lessons were involved -
fingering, scales, sight-reading, chord progressions -
nothing my fingers did could evoke the sounds
my body craved - the deep, cool resonances
that buffered me from the war zone
that was my family’s home.
Huddled in the shadows,
wrapped in the smells of old wood and lacquer,
I listened to the soundboard breathe,
the brush of air across the strings
tying me to her heart and knew
I was unreachable, untouchable, and inviolate
swaddled in grace.
An entire ocean (some 5,000+ miles) lay between us
when I heard the news.
The movers let the straps slip
dropping Ebony down a flight of stairs,
splitting her soundboard open
in a single, irreparable crash.
What to do?
What to say?
There are rituals for people, pets, and places
lost to death.
But none for pianos.
I did not, could not speak of this.
The silence lasted for decades,
lodged like tiny ice chips around my voice box,
Today, as bombs rained down on Kyiv
I watched the Ukrainian pianist Irina Maniukina
ignore the wreckage of her home-
sweep the dust and debris from the keys
of her beloved piano
and play a final, defiant tribute to all that is good
and right, and light in the world -
giving voice to her grief, my grief,
setting us free.
e. It's easy.
Click the image above to hear Irina play