Striking the Familial Tune

When I was a little kid, I remember my dad sitting down at our baby grand piano playing the only tune he knew — one he made up many years ago. Our old sheep dog, grafted into our home after she romped freely for many years around our family ranch in Aubrey, TX, would sit underneath the piano and howl the blues (a melancholy tune she always seemed to carry whether music played or not) alongside the solemn striking of seemingly random keys and fabricated notes that magically stirred the heart when joined together in a melody of sorts.

It was my great grandmother’s piano. I never knew her or met her. I’m not sure I could point her out in a line-up of black and white family photos. But, as my dad occasionally reminisces about her and her husband, he gives contours and color to the type of woman she was. Words like “angelic” and “goodness through and through” are bandied about with tender certainty. 

These simple modifiers, commonly applied to a family’s matriarch, carry a great significance for me when my prevailing familial story reeks of booze, divorce, and dysfunction. 

I marvel at the stories of my family from bygone eras. You could probably characterize many of them as unseemly, but for the bulk of my life, these stories were merely faint shadows that lurked in the corners of my lonesome soul. I knew they were there, scuffing the baseboards, but they were always edged away from the light for the protection of my childish innocence.

Their obvious presence caused an ache to know who these shadows were and why they acted so. 

Over time, a story here and a story there were shared — some with great reticence, others with nostalgic ease, yet all received with great attention. So, I began to take note…

8 years ago when I quit my job as a teacher, I began writing family stories as told by my parents. I was going to put together a memoir of sorts — both art and story, both fiction (but maintaining the spirit of truth) and fact. I called it: The Farce, The Curse, The Blessing — which was in reference to my father’s impulsive bargain with a God he didn’t believe in to save my life in return for his and my soul when I was rushed, not breathing, to the NICU at my birth.

(And here I am…working in ministry…Was the bargain a farce? A curse? A blessing? TBD.)

I hoped for the stories to bring healing. As Gregory Orr’s poem says, I hoped to “remake the [or my] world with words” so that my experiences and memories, the harsh realities of the past, and the innate desire for a future restoration, could be cast into the purifying and reconciling light of all Reality through the use of new language.

This work has, to an extent, helped me. At times, that is.

Yet, the faint ache lodged within me by the mythic aura that has always haunted remains.

While some of the familial strains are still stretched out, unable to be presently healed with rest and time, some of them, after twists and turns that led to a painful swelling, have gotten stronger and stronger — made whole, or at least on its way. 

Nonetheless, I’ve still maintained my distance out of a pride or pain (same thing?) I can’t quite comprehend. Distanced from those who would welcome my presence in their life. Distanced from those who would swiftly reject me.

Yet, here I am in a new home, purchased primarily because of an inheritance from this very family that was once invested, stunned by the presence of my great grandmother’s piano in the corner of my living room — the same piano my dad would sit at as our dog sung along. 

I sit with them at the piano now and strike the keys and belt the melancholy tunes I have learned over the years. Each scratch in the wood I see and each scratch of the throat I feel, each sticky key and each bungle of a melody, evidence of a people who share the same blood, the same pain, the same story. It is evidence of a people who are the same, but in different ways — all in need of a unique, renewing purgation found often from the pounding of a piano. 

With this piano, with these songs, with this room, I find myself wanting to honor a woman, and subsequently a family, that has haunted me from the beginning; I find myself subconsciously wanting to build a bridge with the entirety of myself and story, through art and aesthetics, until one day, maybe, the piers, beams, and cords that (please, God) stretch me into the past and within my being begin construction the other direction — into the present and into the future. 

Maybe this bridge, moving both forward and back, will be lined with pianos. Maybe emanating from them is a melody of not a melancholy tune, but one of bright sounds drawing and wooing the shadow (please, God) into the light, casting not a form of the thing but the thing itself — enfleshed with a pulsating heart and a soul longing for redemption.

Maybe.

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