My mother was the first pianist I ever heard. All through childhood I was spellbound by her gift, her virtuosity. Now I welcome her to my house, show her the grand piano, and lift the lid to its full height and glory. I ask her to join me on the black bench. At ninety my mother is striking, her blue eyes like summer, her quick smile beguiling. Smartly dressed in black slacks, cream turtleneck, and powder-blue blazer, her white hair is her glory, like high clouds in summer or the dazzling white of sunlit snow. Sitting together, I tell her my secret: I’ve learned to play. But as I open the hymnal to “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” my mother sees my hands hesitate. To give me time, she touches the author’s name in the book and tells me a story. The hymn was written in London in the 1700s. She says back then London was like Babylon, and Robert Robinson was a lost soul, a hooligan who had no need of God and toughed it out on the streets. That’s where the line “Jesus sought me when a stranger” comes from, my mother says, and the way she levels her eyes makes me think she is talking about my own wayward youth. I take a breath, lift my hands, and notes flower forth, harmony and melody in accord. On the seventh measure I stumble and lose my way. I’m new at this, I remind myself, still learning, a novice. My mother instructs me. “Feel the music,” she says. “Feel the music and let it flow through your body.” Emily Dickinson advised to keep the soul’s door ajar. Perhaps that is what I’m doing, sitting here with my mother, trying so late in life to learn how to play, letting my mother teach me.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.