It was a house filled with music. Recorders, flutes, bells, keyboards. To this day, the absence of silence is what most defines my home. But the most cherished instrument of all was the real-deal finely tuned old country piano. With an oak wood finish and aged ivory keys, it sat in our living room for decades. In a way, it became its own member of a family, always around during holidays or weekends to help gather everyone in the living room. And it was there for me, too,
when the house was empty and I felt I needed some noise to keep me company.
I’d spend hours practicing piano, but I was by no means a protégé. I started young, though, so there was hope. I was 9 years old, tall, and lanky; my mom was assured my skinny fingers would do wonders on the piano. She found Mr. Mazur, a man in his late eighties who always wore a hat and charged $25.00 for an hour and a half class. Mr. Mazur demanded excellence. He was short and thin, his fingers aged with spots and veins. Although he was 70 years my senior, Mr. Mazur and I got along swimmingly; somehow, I convinced him to order me a “Fun With Five Fingers Pop Song Book,” and together we played Boyz II Men and Whitney Houston, but only after I practiced Bach. He held strong to his rules: a student of his could not progress onto another song until the current melody was memorized. It was a frustrating fact to come to terms with. With him, I had no choice but to practice. If I misplaced a finger, Mr. Mazur’s 12-inch wooden ruler would come out to slap my mistake. I wasn’t used to practicing so much: basketball came easy, dance class was plain old fun, but learning how to play was a whole different story. There was no one else but me to do the work. Mastering the piano was not going to be easy. Anything of worth is worth effort, Mom would say.
Mom and Dad purchased the piano from Gail’s former neighbor. Gail, who was more like an aunt than a friend of my mother’s, was blessed with the ability to play instruments by ear and held the title of the neighborhood elementary school’s music teacher for a little shy of a decade. I enjoyed nothing more than skipping Temple on a Friday night to go to Gail’s house with a handful of cassette tapes of songs I recorded off the radio, eager to learn. Not long after she and I started playing together, I ditched Mr. Mazur. With a hug and a promise to remember my flats, I bequeathed Gail as my unofficial teacher.
The time didn’t matter. Mom and I could stop by after I was finished with school, or I could spend Saturday afternoon with Gail and the piano while Mom was at work. No matter when, she and I would create our own four-handed rendition of some Broadway classic or top 40 hit, and I’d teach Gail chords and whatever other wisdoms Mr. Mazur left behind. My additions to our sessions seemed in vain. Gail was proof of divine talent. She had already mastered the art without understanding, or caring for, the rules. Still, we kept notebooks. Created routines. Sometimes Diane, Susan, and Michael, Gail’s children, my “cousins,” would sit on the couch and sing along. Sometimes we performed for Gail’s cat. No matter when or with whom, for the next 10 years, I spent holidays and birthdays and sometimes plain old Wednesdays hunched over the piano, immersed in my tunes.
Gail’s daughters, Diane and Susan, were touched with the gift of music, too. They could sing, dance, and play. Eager to start the party, Diane would wet the tip of her index finger, tracing it smoothly around the rim of her wine glass, creating music with the tips of her hands. Whistles vibrated the bone china on the dining room table. The sound of nothing and everything at once.
As a family, we had our own twisted musical games. After dinner, but before dessert, we’d beat our hands on the table as if it were a drum set and try to guess the name of the song the other was beating. Thanksgivings were particularly raucous, the tryptophan knocking around our brains. During Christmas and Chanukah, Gail and I also took to choreographing synchronized movements to our duets. Diane and Sue didn’t think twice about following our directions, but Chantele, my sister, the shy one, often needed more coaxing. We dubbed ourselves Gail, Abriana, & the Showgirls. It’s a shame that during that time the song I most enjoyed playing was Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Nothing kills a party more than a depressing song about lost love.
It could be the music that makes these memories so rich, or it could be the people. More than half of what existed then has vanished: cars, floors, lovers, brothers, fathers, homes. Losing is an unforgiving process, there is no magical point or reasoning or catharsis. What once was simply is no longer. I am here to tell you how it used to be.
In a one month span during the summer of 2001, Gail lost her father and her husband. After that, Gail’s family and my family spent as much time together as possible. Sometimes we’d just gather for dinner, other times we took 3-day getaways to my family’s summer home in the Poconos, an escape from Brooklyn, the reminders.
There, one night, as the cicadas buzzed from the dark in the middle of the woods, and we sat at the kitchen table, dunking cookies into our coffee, Gail’s daughter Susan, who just lost her grandfather and father, told me she was only making it through her grief because of her brother. Matter-of-factly, she said if it weren’t for Michael she’d have broken down from the heartbreak, needed help.
Two days later Michael died fighting a fire in Staten Island.
His face blazed on the nightly news.
Mom saw his face on the television from the kitchen and dropped her plate to the floor.
Thirteen days after Michael passed away, the towers came down. Clouds, plumes of smoke. That night, invoices and letterheads blanketed the streets. I read by candlelight the names that appeared on each. Childhood, as I knew it, ceased.
One morning, looking for one of my old songbooks, I rummaged through the papers kept under the cushion of the piano bench and came across a newspaper from 1945. IT’S OVER, the headline proclaimed. For a moment, I forgot the piano once existed anywhere else. I couldn’t imagine it living in another’s home. I thought, where did this come from? Is this fake? Holding this artifact—this burnished paper announcing the end of the war through which my grandfather and grandmother would have just survived; my grandmother sick with typhoid, huddled next to the dead bodies of those she had walked the hundred miles with, the scent of gasoline through the woods, her recognition of Russian accents, my grandfather somewhere in a forest with a pistol in his stripes—I believed in the necessity to have lived the moment, touched those words, felt that ink. In the crisscross of narratives and properties, I felt a strange sense of historical importance. It seemed to me, then, there was a reason for everything. I put the newspaper back where I found it, took out Mr. Mazur’s hand-written chords of “Taps” and played it again and again until it was flawless.
Day is done.
Gone the sun.
There was a funeral every weekend the month the towers went down, but at some point in the middle of October, my friends and I were finally able to breathe, forget. Remember. Forget. We were sophomores in high school. We saw the towers burn through the windows. We were in Latin class. Four weeks passed. Then five. Forget. Remember. We remember it all.
I remember one summer, early evening, Uncle Bruce dropped by while Gail and I were practicing. Diane and Susan sat with Chantele in the kitchen, heckling me if—when—I messed up. Mom spiced dinner at the stove. Rey was gone. The towers were gone. Dad was gone. A picture of Michael in his Fireman’s Uniform sat in a 12-by-7 wooden frame between Gail and me on the piano’s ledge. Diane hummed “Only the Good Die Young.” Gail’s fingers danced on the smooth white keys. I kept up with what I knew, and as if he had been waiting to do so all day, Uncle Bruce pulled a harmonica out from his belt buckle just in time for the chorus. Our fingers danced, my sister and cousins crooned from the kitchen, Uncle Bruce blew that reed, exhaling and inhaling; anyone listening would have suspected we were professionals.
We might be laughing a bit too loud,
but that never hurt no one.
Only the good die young.
It was the stuff of movies, the stuff of my life. For two minutes Billy Joel echoed off the walls of my living room. And then it was over. The worst is when a good song ends.
Two months and one day after September 11, 2001, a Saturday morning, that same eerie, crystal blue sky spread like heaven: not a cloud in sight. My friends and I had yet to make planes for the night. Someone was getting ready to call someone else when a plane fell on Jen, Jeff, and Jason’s homes, and just like that Rockaway broke. Jen’s father died. So did every passenger on the plane. The funerals started up again. Clothing drives and fundraisers set in place. We were fifteen, tired of mourning.
On nights we decided it was time to take a break, my friends and I sat around my piano, turning Symphony No. 9 into a fast-beat, hip-hop ensemble, recreating Boy-Band favorites, and always, without fail, performing multiple renditions, duets, triolets, quartets even, of Heart & Soul.
Heart and Soul,
I fell in love with you,
heart and soul,
the way a fool would do, madly—
Funny how losing one thing can remind me of all the others. After the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy unexpectedly devoured my home, I was convinced (although it was less than a month away) that Thanksgiving dinner could still be held where it was always held: at our house. It became a difficult denial to conquer. When the process of rebuilding lie dormant for months, I’d fall asleep telling myself that nothing was permanent, listen to Chopin through my headphones, and fade away. It wasn’t until we moved back home, 8 months later, the carpet replaced by wood, the kitchen table now an island, the doors and walls and siding torn down, raised, made more stable, it wasn’t until I spent the night in my home-that-wasn’t-quite-my-home that I realized those song books and that newspaper, Mr. Mazur’s chords, and that old-wooden country piano was gone for good, too.
There were songs I never learned, favorite songs, soft renditions of Jim Morrison and John Lennon I’m confident I could have picked up. And there were songs Gail simply couldn’t teach, songs I clung to because of their lyrics rather than their symphonic symmetry.
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.
In my life planes have fallen from the air in the middle of a blue-skied morning. The ocean has traveled over highways and libraries and boroughs to flood my home. They say from every loss one, in some way, gains. I have been aware of such transiency from a very young age.
Boxes in the attic patiently wait to be unpacked. Grandma’s china and Swarovski champagne glasses. Dinner napkins and linens. By next November, we’ll have Thanksgiving back at the house, albeit with a new stove, new utensils and cabinets, our new dining room table resting on top of a new floor. There won’t be a piano for us to gather around, but there will be many of the same people; Diane and Susan and their small children, and we will make new music with wine glasses and the palms of our hands. I’ll remember Gail’s fingers dancing next to mine. Gail, the most recent one to leave. Unexpectedly. When I heard the news, it was if someone pressed pause on the soundtrack before I was ready to stop listening. But life goes on. That’s what she’d always say. Move on. Keep going. Sing if you want to sing. So before dinner, while we give thanks, we’ll listen to the silence that surrounds us, and in it we’ll hear the memories of all we’ve lost. And it will sound so beautiful, we’ll start to sing along.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet and essayist and educator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Seneca Review, River Teeth, Barrelhouse, The Moth, and many other places. She teaches for St. John’s University, for the College of Staten Island, and for the nonprofit organization Sponsors for Educational Opportunity.