Everyone in my family has some sort of musical talent. And I mean everyone. Both my dad and my step father play the guitar and sing. My mother can still play the flute and sings. My step mom is the church choir director and plays sax. My middle sister Sarah has a beautiful voice and has won state singing competitions. And my oldest sister Lis always got the lead in her high school plays: Oklahoma, Prelude to a Kiss, and some play where they were on a boat. And then there’s me. Sure I can hum and sing along to a song, but only if my slightly nasal voice is masked by a group or I am in the privacy of my home. But no one ever heard me sing and thought, I should try to develop that.
I’m sure many people can relate to parents cajoling you in to one form of creative musical expression or another. Mine was piano. I wasn’t asked if I wanted to learn the piano, my parents informed me they had signed me up for the lesson slot following my sister Sarah. Sarah could already play pieces that required both hands at the same time. Though I hadn’t asked for it, there I would sit in the back room at Carolyn’s hippie house. Her lesson room was carpeted in old beige shag. Plants and Tibetan tapestries covered every square inch that wasn’t used by the upright piano or Carolyn’s chair, where she would watch and correct.
“No, no, no,” she would say. “You have to have more of a delicate arch, your fingers should want to move on their own. Your body wants to play the piano.”
Instead of the dainty arches Carolyn wanted, my fingers more closely resembled hands that had gone into rigor mortis. But despite my body’s protest against the piano, every Wednesday afternoon I thumped out Row Row Row Your Boat while her cat judged at me.
After my half hour of brain-searing torture was over, I would hand her a check one of my parents had written and wait out on the concrete stoop. She welcomed me to wait in her house, but I felt thirty minutes was enough. Plus I ran the risk of breaking things.
Once I had waited inside—my parents were always late—and I was inspecting all of her books and ornamental figurines. She had been in the restroom when I accidentally dropped a glass Buddha statue and it chipped. Horrified I set it back where I had found it, put the broken chip in my pocket and stood stick-straight by the glass door until my father rolled up in his blue Dodge. From then on I decided it was better if I just waited outside.
Carolyn instructed me to practice everyday but it was hard to find time. Between school and not wanting to practice the piano, I really couldn’t fit it in. The one time I did choose to practice outside of my weekly lessons it was 7am on a Sunday morning. This was around Christmas time and I was wearing a matching teal sweat suit with a polar bear on the front and pink and grey striped gloves. My mother and step-father liked to keep the house Arctic cold.
Given I didn’t often rehearse, my repertoire was limited and somewhat plunky. Our piano sat in the living room off the hallway that led to my sisters’ and my bedrooms. Keeping with the season, I decided to try to play some of the Christmas hymns out of our Hymnal.
I must have been giving it all of I had because my oldest sister, who had ten years on me, stormed out of her room in her nightgown. Her hair was all over the place and she had made her hands into fists that were held in close to her hips, her arms locked.
“What are you doing at this ungodly hour?” she wailed at me, her face red with rage.
I thought better of reminding her that it was Sunday, and therefore all hours were Godly. I shrugged and continued hammering away at my rendition of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.
“Stop playing right now, Rebekah.” She used my full name to try to get under my skin.
I wouldn’t so she took one of her fists and punched me across the face. I was stunned. She hadn’t really hurt me. I mean I was only seven, how much force could she really have used?
“I’m sleeping. Why are you trying to ruin my life?” She stomped down the hallway, not missing the two by four metal air grate that graced the floor in our hallway and screamed one final time.
After she slammed her door, I started to cry. Me and the door, victims before 8am.
My mother’s feet barely grazed the sky-blue shag carpeting on the stairs as she descended down on me.
“What is going on down here? Are you making all that noise?” she said.
“Lis punched me.” I said.
“What? Why on Earth would she punch you?” she said.
“Because I’m playing the piano at an ungodly hour even though it is Sunday.” Of all people I thought my mother, a Methodist minister, would understand.
“Rebekah, 7am is too early to play the piano on any day. Go to your room and apologize to your sister when she gets up.”
I couldn’t believe it. The one day I had gone out of my way to practice the piano, no one gave a shit about it and I was being sent to my room.
“Well, I’m never going back to piano if my hard work is going to be met with violence,” I said.
“Rebekah, you don’t want to quit do you?” She said quit with such malice I didn’t argue. I guess I didn’t want to be a quitter.
Lis must have felt guilty for punching a seven-year-old across the face. For the next year, she bribed me into going to my piano lessons with clear Pepsi, Cheetos Puffs, and an on-time pick up. The arrangement satisfied me for a while. But eventually after months of Carolyn’s cat and I scowling at each other, I realized I couldn’t play one more stinking note of sheet music.
I decided to bring this up with my mother on the way to school one day. My mother was driving and nodding along to a story on NPR about recycling and composting. Lightly running my fingers over the peeling window tint, I kept my gaze safe from hers.
“Mom, you know how I hate piano?” I started.
I felt her eyes on me. “Hate? Hate is a very strong word. Are you sure you hate piano? Don’t you think it would be better to reserve such a strong word for things that merit hate? Like Nazis?” she said.
I dropped the subject, because what could I counter with when Nazis were brought up? But she didn’t make me go the following week. Or the week after that. Or the week after that.