The doorbell’s ring still echoed in my head. I stood on the third step of the stairs that led up to the bedrooms and leaned my body all the way out. That way I could see the mirror that hung in the foyer next to the front door. I heard Mom wheel the rolling chair back from the computer and walk to the door. My older sister, Alexa Kate, ran from the den to join her, her sandy hair flying. Through the mirror, I saw Mom open the door and smile as a young lady stepped briskly in.
From the open window in the kitchen, the fragrant scent of honeysuckle and lilac drifted across the house and tickled my nose. Memories came flooding back. Grandma’s sweet, laughing face creased with wrinkles, her wispy white hair framing her face perfectly. The way she threw back her head and laughed, as she, Alexa Kate, and I made cookies, or picked dandelions and sent our wishes to the wind. The way she would scold us, shaking her finger and looking stern, but the merry twinkle in her eyes always betrayed her. The way her body swayed as she sat on the piano bench and played her whole heart out. Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, she played them all. She had taught Alexa Kate and me to play, too. We would sit in the living room and laugh and play and laugh some more. Whenever we couldn’t get a piece right, she would always say, “Learn to like the music, and the music will learn to like you. Music only plays right for happy fingers. So have fun, and it will come!”
But now Grandma was gone, and Mom had found another piano teacher to take her place.
“Maggie!” Mom’s voice drew me reluctantly to the foyer, where I stood behind Alexa Kate, trying to hide. The lady smiled at me, her short brown hair bobbing. With her flowery skirt and blouse, she seemed right at home.
Mom continued. “Maggie, this is Miss Tania, your new piano teacher.” She turned to Miss Tania. “Well, I guess I should let you get started? Which one of you girls wants to go first?”
I did not raise my hand. Let Alexa Kate go first. She and I were only eighteen months apart, but we were completely different. She was not scared of anything. Why did I have to get the timid genes?
The living room was just to the right of the front door, marked off by the couches. The old upright piano that Grandma had brought with her stood in the corner, crowned by an antique lamp and a photograph of Grandma, Alexa Kate, and me.
Alexa Kate skipped over to the piano. Miss Tania followed, with a large, bulging bag. She dropped promptly onto the chair next to the bench. The chair that Grandma had always sat in.
“Alexa Kate,” she said it with a lilting accent, “what have you been working on?” My sister picked up one of the faded yellow books that had been Grandma’s. “I just started practicing Heller’s ‘Study in A Minor, op. 47, no. 3.’”
“Ah,” Miss Tania nodded knowingly. “Why don’t you play it for me?”
Alexa Kate seated herself on the piano bench as comfortably as ever. Soon a lilting melody wafted through the house, Miss Tania humming along with a funny tone. I swallowed and raced upstairs to my room. Thirty minutes passed, and I lay on my bed, dreading my lesson.
* * *
“Maaa-ggie!” It was Alexa Kate. . “It’s your turn!” I forced my feet to tread down the stairs, into the living room. Alexa Kate breezily passed me, whispering, “She’s fun.” Even more fun than Grandma? I sat stiffly down on the piano bench and managed a lousy smile.
Miss Tania smiled her sweetest grin. “Hello, Maggie. What are you playing?”
I pulled out another music book that was falling apart. “Rameau, ‘Minuet in G minor.’”
The teacher nodded in approval. I set the book up on the stand. My fingers found the keys. Slowly, I began to play, her eyes boring into me.
Before I knew it, I was done. Miss Tania applauded me heartily. “Well done, Maggie! You are doing everything very well: the dynamics, the rhythm, the technique. Only the tempo needs to be faster. And—relax.” She reached over and gave my shoulders a little massage. It tickled. “You need to be completely comfortable. It doesn’t work if you can play the music perfectly; you have to have feeling, yet. Feel the music, Maggie.”
I bit my lip. How could I enjoy myself when Grandma was gone and Miss Tania was watching me instead?
Miss Tania reached down and retrieved a glossy new music book. “Here,” she said, flipping it open and giving it to me, “I want you to play this.”
I stared at the swarming sea of black dots. Sharps, flats, cadenzas, trills: this piece was fraught with danger. I looked at the title of the piece. “Summer Memories, Part One.” More like Summer Horrors.
“I’ve never played this kind of music before,” I stammered. “Only these.” I gestured to the pile of worn-out books on the table beside us.
“Only classical? Well, it’s time you start trying other styles of music. Variety is good for you. This is modern music. It looks intimidating, I know, but once you get the hang of it, it will be fun! Come on, try it.”
I set “Summer Memories” on the stand on top of Rameau. “Very slowly now, just to get a feel,” Miss Tania advised. Hesitantly, I placed my hands on the keyboard and dived into the world of unknown.
It was a nightmare. I had to stop after almost every note, find the next one, make sure I had them all correct, then carefully press down the keys. Worst of all, the piece was six pages long! The longest I’ve ever played was three. Note after painful note I trekked. Worst of all, there was no melody.
After I reached the middle of page four and the key signature changed for the third time, Miss Tania stopped me. “Good. That’s enough for today. Here, let me play it for you, so you know what it is supposed to sound like.”
We traded places. Miss Tania began with a flourish. She swayed with the rhythm and swept effortlessly through measure after measure, turning the pages flawlessly every time. She never stopped once. And there was a melody! It was beautiful to watch. And yet, while I listened in awe, the thought never left my mind: How am I supposed to play it like this?
The last note rang in the air, and Miss Tania lifted her foot off the pedal and her hands off her keys. “So, there. You try again. You need to find the tune, bring it out, and play the rest softer.”
Reluctantly, I gave another halfhearted attempt. To my surprise, the cacophony of notes was beginning to take shape. I began to recognize patterns in the rhythm. The melody began to sing.
By the time my lesson was over, I still wasn’t sure if I liked this new kind of music. All my life I had played good old classical music, the kind that had structure: A-B-A. “Summer Memories” was definitely different. Sharps were thrown in without any warning. Instead of the sturdy, steady beat, this composer had specifically written that you were supposed to speed up or slow down whenever you felt like it. But, I decided, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
* * *
The weeks passed, and I grew more used to Miss Tania and her music. In fact, I even started to look forward to my lessons with her. The sea of musical notes finally materialized into familiar ground, and at last I was able to forget the technical aspects and focus on feeling the music, like Miss Tania said. But one day, disaster struck.
At our lesson, Miss Tania announced, “I’m planning an end-of-the-summer recital on August 21. Do you know what you want to play for it?”
Alexa Kate squealed with excitement and immediately exclaimed, “‘Twilight, Starlight.’ It’s my absolute favorite!”
Miss Tania jotted it down in her green notebook, then turned to me. “Maggie?”
“Umm…” I pulled at my braid. I had never played in a recital. In fact, I had never played for anybody outside my family until Miss Tania came. I was always nervous around people, and performing for them? I’d probably pass out unconscious just as it was my turn.
“How about ‘Summer Memories, Part One’?” my teacher suggested.
I agreed glumly. “OK.”
Miss Tania wrote it down. She had over fifty students, so she had to write everything down. Me, performing for more than fifty people?
“And it’ll just be some of my students, the younger ones. My older students’ recital is on August 14. You’re welcome to come to listen, though.”
No, thank you. I’d be too nervous thinking about my own recital coming up.
* * *
The room was filled with chattering people. I was squashed between Alexa Kate and the end of the pew. We were in the church that Miss Tania had rented for the recital. Even if I turned my head all the way, I could barely make out my parents sitting farther back. This is it, I thought. Nervously, I studied the program that was creased and damp from my sweaty hands. Three-quarters down the list of names, I read: Alexa Kate Sullivan—“Twilight, Starlight,” by Thompkins. The next words might as well have been my death sentence: Magnolia Sullivan—“Summer Memories, Part One,” by Fitler.
“Look, you’re almost near the end, just enough time to gather your nerves,” Alexa Kate pointed out.
“Yeah,” I grumbled unenthusiastically, “or just enough time to lose them.”
“Relax, Mag, it’s not the end of the world.” Her words didn’t convince me.
The audience settled down, expectant. Brimming with pride, Miss Tania strode up to the front and made a little opening speech. Then the recital began.
I barely noticed the people who played before me. My head was swimming with panicky thoughts. Butterflies flew in frantic frenzies in my stomach. My hands were clammy and shaking. No one so far had messed up a single note—I guess I would set a first.
One by one, my turn drew closer and closer. Too soon, Alexa Kate walked confidently up to the giant, sprawling grand piano. Which meant that I was next.
Alexa Kate gave her prettiest smile and sat down. She brought her hands up smartly to the keys. As I had heard her practice countless times, the familiar glissando transported the audience into starry worlds beyond. She played it perfectly; she even looked like she enjoyed it. She caressed the last note like a loving mother, then bounced off the bench, bobbed a cute little curtsey, and started back to her seat, all the while smiling as happily as ever. Cheerful, smart, pretty Alexa Kate.
By the time Alexa Kate plopped breathlessly beside me in the pew, eyes shining, my stomach had completely flipped. My legs felt like the jiggly red Jell-O Grandma used to make with us. Slowly, I progressed to the piano, all eyes on me. I sat down, adjusted the bench, placed my foot on the pedal, and found the right keys to start. I knew they were the right keys, but suddenly, the keyboard became totally unfamiliar! No longer was it the familiar territory I had played on for five years, just a jumble of stark black and white. There was no comforting broken D, no stain on middle C to help me navigate my way. No hopelessly stuck sticker on B-flat, an ever helpful mile marker. This keyboard was different.
Time stood still. The keys blurred through my sudden rush of tears, and I would have run through the room and out the door if a flash of bright pink had not caught my eye. I looked up to the music stand. Scrawled in Alexa Kate’s curlicue letters with a glittery purple gel pen, the pink Post-it note hung like a lighthouse in a storm. I scanned the words: “Have fun, and it will come! Remember: I’ll still love you, even if you scramble the whole thing.”
Good old Alexa Kate. I placed my fingers on the keys again and poured my whole heart into the music. I forgot about all the people watching me. I lost myself in the music. My thoughts wandered to the times when Grandma was alive, when we would lie in the clover and watch clouds scud by, when we would take a picnic down to the creek and trail our toes in the water, when we would skip home from the Fourth of July parade with sticky faces and starry eyes. Those blissful summer days were without a care in the world. Our hearts were full to the brim. I knew I could never bring Grandma back, but I had my memories, and I would hold onto them forever.
I stumbled on the cadenza, and I missed a couple of notes, but I kept going. Now that I look back on it, I don’t think the audience even noticed.
Before I realized it, I had played the last chord. I held onto it for as long as I could, relishing the rainbow of colorful tones. In a dream, I lifted my hands gracefully from the keyboard, stood up, bowed, and made my way back to Alexa Kate amidst all the applause. She squeezed my hand and smiled. I smiled back, and in the pocket of my sundress I felt the pink piece of paper and the program tickle my leg through the fabric. I couldn’t wait to learn Part Two.