Pythian Games

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When Grandma Played the Piano

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“Mother, this is Esther. She’s my daughter and she’s 8.”

“Lovely child. Esther–that’s my name too.”

“That’s right. We named her after you.”

“After me? How lovely.” Esther the elder, my grandmother, sipped her tea, her cup softly rattling against the saucer in her shaky grip. She looked at us with an impish smile. “And who is this lovely child, June?” Grandma asked my mother, pointing her gnarled finger at me.

“That’s Esther, my daughter. She’s 8,” mum said, without a trace of impatience.

“Esther–that’s my name,” she replied with pleasure. She smiled at me again.

I smiled at her, then sighed. Grandma was tiny and bent with papery, spotted skin and kind, watery eyes nestled deep in her wrinkled face. On our visits to the nursing home, we rarely got beyond my name and the endless intrigue it seemed to cause when she realised we both had the same name. I knew she would have this revelation another dozen times before we said our good-byes.

About a decade earlier, she’d suffered a massive stroke that wiped out her memory. Ever since, she has not been able to store new information or retrieve most of her memories. The present was fleeting to her, like water spiraling down a drain. The past was murky and evasive. She rarely finished sentences because she’d forget what she had intended to say. To most people, this was exasperating, but I did not have any expectations of how she should be, since I’d only known her this way: an old woman who was endlessly fascinated with my name.

“Get Grandma another biscuit, Sweetie,” mum prompted. She knew an 8-year-old would get fidgety quickly. I took my cue and darted over to the trolley that served the elderly residents their afternoon tea. I picked out an orange cream biscuit for me and a gingersnap for her, because I knew Grandma liked them best.

“Here you go, Grandma. A gingersnap, your favourite,” I said as I handed her the biscuit.

“Thank you, dear.” Then, looking at my mother, ” Who’s this sweet little thing?”

“That’s Esther, my daughter. She’s eight,” Mum said, on autopilot.

“Isn’t she precious? And we have the same name.” Smiling again.

A nurse walked over and bent down to my grandmother’s eye level. “Esther, would you like to play the piano for us?”

“The piano? Do you have a piano in this place?” She looked around incredulously.

After the crocheted lap blankets were removed, Esther the elder was gently hoisted up out of her recliner and led to the piano. Her slippered feet shuffled slowly across the linoleum floor, making a shoosh-shoosh sound. “Shoosh! Shoosh!,” Eunice, a spritely dementia patient, echoed the noise of the slippers and waved her hands ecstatically. Her dentures shifted in her jowls and she called out in her croaky voice, “Play us a tune Esther, something saucy!”

Grandma smiled benevolently at Eunice as she sat on the piano bench. Her shaky fingers settled on the keys and she cleared her throat. The chatter in the residents’ lounge died down, as if a conductor had raised his baton. Even the loquacious Eunice quieted, though her hands still waved about like an itchy octopus. I leaned up against my mother and dared not breathe as we waited for the magic to happen.

Esther the elder ran her fingers nimbly up the keys. “This was Earl’s favourite song,” she said to her audience, like a seasoned performer. And she began to play a beautiful melody, “September Song.” Earl was my grandfather. He had died  two-years before Grandma’s stroke. The song was dramatic, swelling and fading. Esther was immersed in the music, lost in the moment, yet very much alive and well. Even I, a child of eight, could sense her love and longing for Earl and discern her discouragement with her present predicament. With every fibre of my being, I sat engaged in the music, finally able to know and understand Grandma Esther and hear her heart.

 At the keyboard Grandma transformed from a bent and fragile woman with no memory of the past nor ability to engage with the present into a vibrant musician. She played complex pieces of many genres, segueing seamlessly from one beautiful piece to another. More miraculously, she could converse while playing. She could finish sentences. She could make connections and store information. It was as if contact with the keys were some sort of magical conduit to sanity, to memory, to functionality.

My mum would sit and listen to her mother’s music, tapping her foot, smiling and transported by Grandma’s melodies to another happier time. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye, I’d glimpse a quiver of lips and a solitary tear run down Mum’s cheek… while Grandma played the piano.

When the songs came to an end and the meagre applause of the aged died down, Esther slowly stood up, puffed from the exertion. Her spirit instantly retreated and her memory disintegrated. The disengaged, ravaged shell of my grandmother was all that remained.

We hugged her gently as we made our way out and she patted my hand and said, “Who is this?”

Written by Ali Stegert

May 28, 2009 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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