Passion and pianos

One of the people I admire most in my life is my grandmother Saralee, who became a fine pianist at a very young age, which earned her a scholarship to Julliard in the early 1940s. This is a woman who was devoted to her husband and two children, but was also so driven to plan her life around the piano. She's almost 90 and she still practices almost every day, running those arthritic fingers up and down the keys as if the very sound of music could feed the hungry, as if the perfect sonata or the most elegant concerto could achieve as much or more as the CEO of a corporation or a doctor in an emergency room. When she plays, the stakes are always that high. She respects music the way others respect business--the way many respect money. She acknowledges that no matter how many times she plays a piece, it could always sound different; it could always sound better.

I sense that many artists feel this way about their craft. I go through periods when all I want to do is write. It's not enough to write; I have to really write--I have to write as if what I'm doing is as worthy of time and attention as any other professional task. As if this were why I got up, why I commute, why I stay inside, why I put other things off. I have to feel an absence when I'm not writing, as if every day something doesn't get written I'm staring at a piano that hasn't been played. These are the stakes of not writing. Not writing is akin to not caring - something that feels very dangerous.

This begs the question, then, how does one transfer passion? Is it transferable? Or is that the wrong question entirely?

I don't know yet, but until I do, that will be the question that gets me up every day.

one hundred story #27: perspective

We're in her bed and we're both crying, she because her fingers hurt when she plays the piano, me because I've already lost one grandmother and am afraid to lose another, and she's so small there in the bed, no makeup on, window wide open like her arms. And then: a fart, a tremendous jolt of energy that shakes us up, giggling, gets us remembering that we're both still here, lying in her bed watching the full moon grow smaller in the sky. I am still at it, alternately crying and laughing, until long after I have descended the stairs.

On mourning

My grandmother died and I went to the carwash. It didn’t feel right driving out to her house in a dirty car. I gave the man behind the counter eight dollars and put the engine in gear. The automatic wash invited us in with its mechanical arms. I liked the way they washed without asking permission, the way the whole contraption cradled me inside the car, didn’t let me go. Once inside I turned the car off as the spray cycle started. The water was so loud on the windows, against the roof, that I couldn’t hear the street outside. The soap dripped down in even lines and the world was momentarily white. The car was my cocoon. The bird shit and seeds and yellow pollen that had stuck so goddamn tight to the windshield began to flake and peel off. The car was shedding. I was dry inside but really I was molting, little cells of memory stripping off my arms and legs with every shot of water. The last time I saw her, and that gap between her clavicle and her shoulder, and the time I laughed so hard at a wedding that she had to kick me to keep herself from laughing too, and the day so many years ago when she defended me in front of her friend, saying I was old enough and mature enough to be trusted to hold the family pictures, and the look on her face when she said, “I hope they can help you, too, Julia,” and that gasp of mock surprise whenever a grandkid stole a chocolate chip cookie or failed to pass the right card in pinochle. I wanted to stay in the wash cycle longer than the time allotted, but then the green arrows blinked and the voice said, pull forward now, and I wasn’t ready but the hot air vents had already started. The bubbles of water were being forced across the windshield and I could tell they didn’t want to go. The glass was crisp and nice.

I didn’t want to leave but the voice started again. The car rolled forward and the wheels were slick. The sun was too hot, the light too glaring. Sometimes things move before they’re really ready to. It was hard to get out of the car 30 miles later in front of a house that no longer had my grandmother in it. I just kept staring at the birdfeeder on the lawn and the lemon tree with green lemons. But at least my car was clean.

You should know

There are a few things you should know about my grandma Alice. You should know that she and her sister once spent a summer working at Yosemite National Park in the the 1940s. You should know that she can ride a bicycle backwards--that is, with her body facing the back tire. You should know that she got up on waterskis the summer she turned 80. You should know that she routinely pulled in 140-pound halibut off the back of a fishing boat in Alaska. You should know that she completed a ropes course in Costa Rica in her 60s. You should know that she can play a mean game of pinochle, and that she has the purest poker face in the world. You should know that her pies are so good that my brother and his wife used her recipe for their wedding desserts.

You should know that, when I was a kid and terribly shy, she was one of the few adults in the world who really understood what that meant.

You should know that when I was little, she was the soft grandma, the quiet one with a knack for listening and an endless supply of stories. You should know that she and my grandfather came to nearly every Sacramento regatta I competed in. You should know that I still own the purple and white sweater she knitted for me when I was five years old. You should know that she and grandpa hosted Christmas every year until us grandkids grew too tall to all sleep before the fire, and while every subsequent Christmas has been lovely, they are different without my grandpa's shadow lurking in the kitchen, my grandma's various hidden cookie jars.

You should know that my grandma has dignity.

You should know that when I saw her today, recovering from a bad fall, tubes and machines whirring around her, I saw a person stronger than I have ever been, and who knows, might ever be.

You should know that with grandmas like her, that's a quality that never fades.