by Annette J. Wick
After a visit to my mother’s, I stood in my black and white tiled shower. Notes of symphonic music swam around me and grated on my nerves while I swayed and hummed to a different tune, one made famous by Nat King Cole: “I want the frim fram sauce with the Ausen fay with chafafa on the side.”
My niece emulated Pink, my son obsessed over the Chainsmokers and my daughter, Cheryl, stalked The Mountain Goats. Our younger friends, Nic and Em, liked Neutral Milk Hotel. My husband also had his favorites, the latest was music from a Cincinnati Symphony pianist, Jeffrey Kahane, which he cranked up while I showered, leaving me immersed in the sounds of an Olympic skating competition.
But for me, I chose the music of my mother.
My route to the standard melodies of the 40’s and 50’s wasn’t straight. It was more like learning the steps to the chromatic scales.
I belonged to a generation whose fingers were forced to march through the rigors of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms at the mercy of piano teachers who rapped knuckles with wooden rulers or lived alone in homes where broccoli burned on the stove.
And I did so at the beck and call of the John W. Schaum piano books, beginning with the Pre-A Green Book. After much luck and practice, or if my teacher, Mrs. Scutt, had her way, I was invited to master the piano using the lessons presented in A – The Red Book.
I was a quick learner, mostly because I wanted to advance fast enough to be through with old John and my lessons. I quickly played my way through the beginner books and soon was assigned the blue book. Each week, I received a check or check-plus on my level of skill in mastering the masters and moved on to C – The Purple Book and D –The Orange Book.
I also bored easily.
One day, my sister Laura acquired a new piano book, As Time Goes By, from the Driscoll Music Store. The book was a combination of Broadway and jazz favorites from the 1950’s and 60’s. I seethed with jealously. Had my mother taken Laura to buy the book? My sister was assigned more contemporary songs to conquer. She was left-handed and I would not deny she was artistically talented. Still, what my older sister possessed, I wanted for myself, especially if bought by my mother.
I picked up the book with an image of a pink rose centered on its black background cover, flipped it open, and plunked out the tunes to “A Time for Us,” “The Impossible Dream,” “Moon River,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Jean,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “Misty.” I memorized the words that accompanied the melodies because the lyrics were there to learn and I loved words. I was a reader first, a piano player second.
Laura gave up the piano but I continued. My mother often said, “Play my music,” as she snuck into the room or tossed her dust rag on the floor and joined me at the piano bench to sing along. She would pop out a few notes or sing the whole song if I could play it through. And sometimes, she waved my father’s old tee shirt turned rag around as if she were working a crowd.
Nervous about playing the piano around my mother or anyone else, I fumbled over notes all the time and apologized. “Sorry, Mom. Let’s start over,” I would say. It was a maxim we shared, one that captured our relationship succinctly then and now.
In our home on Lincoln Street, my mother rearranged the furniture constantly. Without consulting the rest of us, she had the piano wheeled from the sea-foam green carpeted, sunlit living room to the high-traffic family room carpeted in golden shag where the television was proudly on display in the corner. She assumed her children might play the piano more frequently with it in our daily view.
But I played less.
There was always a volume debate between the kids watching television and the one playing piano. Besides, I had relished in the lonesome feel of the airy green living room, alone, with an audience only in my head. With the piano located in the family room, my mother’s more frequent joining in would remind me of my own mismatched voice. I couldn’t touch the nuance of the lyrics or reach the depths of tone as she did when singing from a place somewhere near her heart. Still, I knew all the words.
I grew up and moved on to other pastimes: Cheerleading, volleyball, boys. After junior high, my skills lapsed. The piano book lay crushed beneath the Schaum collections and flute and trumpet sheet music in the bottom of the piano bench, untouched for years.
During my first marriage, I acquired a piano of my own from Devin’s Aunt Lynne. I asked my mother for permission to keep the piano book of standards and my fingers soon danced again over the love theme from Romeo and Juliet.
The piano was forced into storage when I moved to Oregon. When I moved back to Ohio, I brought the piano out and installed it in the living room where the bright sunlight of the early morning streamed into another green room, that one a warm khaki. The setting enticed me to play from that same classic book and offered me comfort after my husband died in the room next to the piano.
Twenty years later, I found myself at my mother’s care home during the most recent music event where a group called Wild Honey had been contracted to play. Several times, the bass player watched me sing along while he plucked away at his strings. I retreated into myself. I could read his mind: What kind of 50-year-old knows the lyrics to the songs “Our Love is Here to Stay” and “April in Paris” by heart and whispers them into her mother’s good ear? Why is she here learning the lyrics of “The Frim-Fram Sauce”? What kind of musical life does she have?
My older sister set the tone for the musical tastes in our home with the J. Geils Band. My mother with her Sinatra. And I caught on to Bruce Springsteen because of my best friends, twins born on my birthday, who knew all the words to “Thunder Road.” The music I loved was given to me and it was tied to my memories of basement parties, a concert at Blossom Music Center as a high schooler and now, those memories of my mother.
I left my mother’s care home that day with a little earworm or two wiggling around in my head. Like a spy, my mother somehow planted the notes of the music I came to love when she nudged me to move over on the bench and her cleaning took a back seat to crooning. Maybe she knew she would need that music later.
The piano book didn’t survive another move, but the words did. They were the seeds of my mother’s life that I carried now, along with “the frim fram sauce with the Aussen fay with chafafa on the side.”