Selected by Sara
This memoir is immensely moving and very, very real to the reader. The author uses the everyday object of a piano to reflect not just his changes in mood, but the way he grows and progresses. As his family and friends change, so does he, and the piano is a clear and reliable anchor and source of pride that connects him to his past and the people in it. The writer uses imagery and vibrant dialogue to relay the events retold in this memoir, and having been written by a 13 year old, this is pretty much brilliant.
My Mirror, by Michael Gellman
Its sleek black wood shines like a midnight sky. Its graceful curving arms stretch to the floor, in a relaxed posture, almost resting. The headboard atop its integrated ivory and ebony keys read Steinway and Sons. It is a piano, the kindest in the world.
It’s a precious family heirloom, and has traveled through many different homes and was played by many hands; especially my grandma’s hands. It was my grandma’s piano. She was a music teacher, and she played me songs on the piano before… well, before she died.
I remember the night very well. It was almost my bed time, and Grandma Marcie was upstairs in her room. My sisters, Lily and Abby, and I wrote nice cards for her, hoping she would get better. I understood that she was sick but that was the extent of my knowledge. (Because we were triplets at the age of 4 and a half, we were naive and didn’t fully know what was happening.)
“If you give me your cards I will take them upstairs to her,” said Dad softly.
“Can we?” we asked.
“No, I’m sorry,” Dad said as he shook his head with his eyes searching my face for signs of emotions. “But don’t worry, I will.” My parents didn’t want my two sisters and I going up the carpeted stairs to her. We didn’t know why. For us, she was already out of reach, slowly becoming a distant memory. Much later, I knew that she had died that night, after my dad had read his mom, our grandma, our letters.
After she died, my family took the piano because I was already expressing interest in playing, as was my sister Abby. Because of that, the piano became ours, and I began to take lessons.
Almost immediately after I got the piano, I started taking lessons with Atsuko, a petite Japanese woman who looked to be in her 50’s. Over the course of three or four years, she was a constant presence. Even though I was young, we developed a warm relationship of smiles and laughter. Our relationship ended suddenly when she died of cancer. I was upset, but mostly shocked. I didn’t realize she was dying. I still remembered the last piano lesson I had, and wanted to complete my assignment so I could play for her. But she was gone as quickly as an unpracticed piece of music, just a vague memory of an occasional hug.
It was also impossibly similar to a third tragedy in my life: my parents’ divorce. I was only ten years old when it happened.
“Everybody gather round the breakfast table,” dad said as Abigail, Lily and I were laughing and teasing each other. “I have some bad news.”
“I know what it is!” I said with my mind meandering somewhere else entirely. I didn’t notice until looking back that at these words, that my father and mother looked worried. “Great Grandma Edna died, right?” She had been sick awhile and my dad was a little anxious, but she was ninety-five and I only saw her on occasional visits.
“No,” said dad in a hushed voice, his eyes downcast. “Mommy and I are getting divorced.”
Those words rang in my head for many sleepless nights to follow. The memory will always be there, will always be a part of me in a way. I remember I was more than really upset. I felt devastated.
“This can’t be happening!” Lily said with defiance as she stood up and pounded her little fist on the table.
“Ya!” Abby and I chorused behind her. Then I remembered a car ride we had six months before. The subject of divorce had sprung up, and my dad and mom promised us that would never happen to our family. I believed them. How foolish I was.
“You said you guys would never get divorced!” I said with a giant lump in my throat. Tears started to trickle down my cheeks. Small, sad tears rolling down my face. We all got on the couch and started crying. Mom, Dad, Abby, Lily, and me: the last time we would all be together.
Within a few hours, I found myself at the piano channeling my bad feelings. I don’t think I really realized that at the time, but the piano was there for me. My friends would ask me if I was upset about my parents’ divorce. When I told them I was okay about it, they were surprised. I had an unlikely friend to help me. Now, looking back on it, I can see that. The divorce was followed by several moves and the disposal of many things, including, in fact, the couch. The truth is, I haven’t cared much about throwing things away, and I don’t often have the need to keep something. But that is probably because the piano has always been there for me. In a way it has comforted me over the years, a constant figure among everything else.
But life went on and so did the world. I went to school, and I practiced piano. I got a new teacher, Kirsten. Over these last few years I’ve known her, she’s come to make a big impression on my life; she has a caring loving heart, a good sense of humor, and is always easy to talk to.
I remember one day when I went to her house for a piano lesson. I knocked on the door and immediately Conner, her loving friendly dog, ran out and started barking happily. I pet him for a while and then went inside her apartment.
“Hey Kirsten!” I said smiling. “I practiced well this week.”
“Oh good,” she said and started eating something that smelled and looked fantastic.
“Can I have some of that?” I asked sort of sheepishly. “It looks really good.”
“Sure.” She handed me a fork. One thing that blows me away about Kirsten is her food. It is always incredible and this definitely kept up the standards. “Come on. show me what you’ve been working on.” As we went to her bedroom to play on her piano I was very happy.
“Okay, so here it is!” I turned on the metronome and started to play the keys of Kirsten’s piano. Suddenly I felt something warm and furry by my legs, under the piano. “Conner,” I laughed. “You’re distracting me.” Kirsten tried to help by telling him to go—but he wouldn’t. It was okay. I really liked Conner.
Two years ago, doctors found a tumor in Conner’s liver and he went in for surgery. I could see the symptoms: He started slipping this way and that on the tiles of the floor. He couldn’t even walk up the stairs to get to the sidewalk. He only lived one more year. Even though I knew… it was sad. So I wrote a song on the piano. Kirsten loved it.
The piano has stood in my house for as long as I can remember, reminding me of the past. It reminds me of Atsuko, my parents’ divorce, and now Kirsten’s loss. When I am angry I play loudly. When sad, I play a piece in a minor key.
As I’m playing, it is usually Grandma Marcie that comes to mind, even more than Otsiko or Conner. When I play the grand piano’s ivory keys, I am reminded subconsciously of her and I draw strength from that. Sometimes I think about how she played it, too. I thought of her when I won a piano scholarship. I thought of her when I won an award just recently for my piano playing. I knew that she was watching me; watching my progress and my setbacks, watching my struggles and victories. Helping me through…
But most importantly, my piano is like my mirror, my reflection. It keeps me in check because whenever I look at it, I know how I’m feeling. My piano… it shows me an honest version of myself, not altered or edited by me, my family, or my friends. That helps me more than anything else in the world.