When I was a little girl, eight or nine years old, it was decided that I should have piano lessons. My uncle–a high school math teacher (and later, the high school Principal, a sometimes formidable presence)–agreed to teach me. I began riding the bus home with my cousins on Wednesday afternoons. I remember being scared the first time, feeling an attack of shyness that made me want to run to Bus #2, driven by our neighbor, Mr. Rasmussen. But I was curious, too. I got on the unfamiliar bus and spent the afternoon–and subsequent Wednesday afternoons–watching TV stations that didn’t come in on our farm, and playing marbles. Later, I helped my Aunt Evelyn in the kitchen and ate dinner with the family.
After work, that first lesson, Uncle Billy came home and sat down on the piano bench to introduce me to the routine. I remember him from later lessons, sitting in his armchair, his arm waving like a metronome, counting out the beats for me. I never really caught on, I’m sorry to say.
But I absorbed lessons other than the obvious. One thing that was really different about that household, that made it different from my own, was the importance of music. Both a piano and an organ sat in the living room. My uncle, eventually tired of my struggling attempts, would sit down on the piano bench and show me how the music should sound. And then, losing himself in the music, he would begin playing something dark and difficult. He would lean close to my ear and narrate what the music illustrated. And it did. Storms unfurled outside the living room windows, wind and rain and thunder.
My uncle died yesterday, aged ninety. A good, long life. Still living at home. Married to my aunt Evelyn for at least 65 years.
I’m glad it rained today. I listened to a CD of piano music. I thought about how writing every day is like piano practice. You practice writing, even when it feels a little simple, a little like playing scales (Every Good Boy Does Fine). You practice to keep your hand in, to limber up, to get ready, to get proficient. You practice because that’s what you do.
I thought about all of those things, and I thought about my uncle, one of the great lights of my childhood.
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