Tell me about your mother’s hands.
My mother is a musician. I don’t mean she fools around on the piano and sings in the shower. She’s a serious, professionally-trained musician and started her career educating the next generation of musicians long before I was born. That’s meant some really positive things for me. First, from the first day I came into my parents’ lives, I was surrounded not by generic radio crap, whatever happened to be floating around on the top-forty charts or classic rock (which, at that point in time, was probably Elvis and company, given that this was the early eighties, a time that is now quite popular on classic rock stations, making me feel dramatically older than I would otherwise prefer), but by the most sublime and impressive classical and jazz performances human artistic perfection had achieved. And Abba. Cause fuck yeah.
But it’s not just an appreciation for music and the arts in general that was instilled in me at a young age (and distilled in me for the rest of my life, more like a beautifully clear water than one of those silly delusional beverages that is popular with those who don’t follow the precepts well enough). It’s live music that I remember.
When I was really little (crib little, I mean, not what is esthetically pleasing to refer to as “smol”), I fell asleep to lullabies and much of my day was backed against fingers on keys. My mother’s absolute prize possession was (and still is) a natural wood Yamaha baby-grand that lived in our basement. I have played a lot of pianos in my life — definitely hundreds, possibly thousands. I did, after all, work in a music store and go to music school. But after all those testing times on the keys, I can say in all honesty that the only things that played better for me were full-size concert grands that cost nearly (and often well into) six figures. So it was quite a thing to learn to play piano on. That was the soundtrack of learning to walk and read and not to put everything in my mouth. Something I think every child must learn. And, given how many people are now spending their weekends, it appears most people never took the lesson to heart.
Anyway, there were guitars and flutes and various other instruments but the image I have of my mother that remains pretty constant, even if her age changes in the mental video, is her sitting at the piano flipping through books of Scarlatti and Mozart and turning pages of black and white into sounds. I have spent huge amounts of time listening to her play and watching the joy that she gets from it. So when I think of her hands, I see them flying over keys and filling every bar with love. I heard the same kind of playing from her students, actually. There really is something to be said for teaching by mirroring.
Many of the happiest memories I have of time with my parents are in that room, standing at the piano. Whether it was learning and practicing my audition pieces to get into music school or singing much later, listening to my mother play or standing around the piano (or the organ but that’s a story for another day) singing hymns and chorales in three parts. I have to admit that the missing alto line was rather obvious but it didn’t take away from the fun of making music as a family. When my parents visited me last year, one of the things we managed to do in their all-too-short visit was to stand around my keyboard (I have neither the money nor the space for a piano, even an upright) and make some recordings of singing together.
There’s more to it than that, though. My mother is a committed worker. She never stops. Not for a second. I don’t think I’ve seen her take a break before pretty much collapsing out of exhaustion at any point in my life. So every image I have in my head of her hands is of them moving, usually with calm confidence in whatever they were doing. She’s a phenomenal cook. I know most people have a general love for their mother’s cooking but that’s not it. I don’t mean she cooks things that I like to eat — with my extremely simple diet, my mother actually truly abhors preparing the bland food that I consume every day — she’s recognized among all our friends as the one everyone wants to visit at dinner time. Every meal is a serious endeavor, usually very creative. So I have memories of fingers quickly dicing and flipping and mixing and pouring. I don’t know what most of the things were in those memories — although I suspect chocolate chip cookies and banana bread were frequent items, since that’s what I am smelling as I write this.
My grandmother was a prodigious baker. Her shortbread recipe is the stuff of legends. In the postwar world my mother grew up in with food shortages and rationing, brutal lives and constant hard work, not to mention the new threat of the cold war and a sheer intensity and terror that had gripped all of society, she learned to turn cooking into an art form regardless of what it was.
Whether it was playing music or performing in the kitchen or one of thousands of other tasks, I can honestly say I’ve never seen my mother put her hands on anything she didn’t absolutely master. Those are the hands that held me when I cried and encouraged me as I grew up. I have nothing but love for my parents but the respect I have for my mother’s ability to turn her hands to just about anything and make it work, that’s beyond impressive by any standards.