My children don’t feel the need to learn to read music. They have been singing since before they could talk. Emma plays piano by ear. Joy learns melodies and lyrics after hearing them once. My husband and I sang and read books to them in the womb. They’ve been inundated with sound, spoiled for it, perhaps.
In my childhood home, silence seeped under the attic door like a misty snake. Then, I heard his feet clomp across the floor. My stomach knotted as I waited to see if he turned to stomp down the stairs in his worn, cowboy boots. Instead, the squeak of rollers from a leather desk chair impelled against a plywood floor.
Filling the screaming space of nothingness, the constant silence roared against my ear-drums like blasts from fire hoses, a beast I couldn’t shake. In dreams, a familiar buzzing hurdled me room to room, the padding of my feet drowned by the sound. In the last room, I found my mother pushing a vacuum. My invisible statue screamed as silent as the dusty, antinque lamp in the corner. Mouth opened against a void, I had no voice. Stifled air jammed against the wind; a throttled throat choked back into my chest. I would wake gasping, sobbing, relieved to hear myself ringing from every pore.
And so, into the echoing emptiness, my breath quickened at twin creaks when she opened and closed the antique bench, flipped pages, squeaked against the hardwood floor. The notes began the way the colors of the rainbow blended together at the seams with no spaces in between. Graceful plinking, like welcome rain on the barn’s tin roof, where I read to my sheep from a bale of crackling hay.
Beneath the lightest tap of tiny tiptoes, boards of the polished hardwood floors creaked as I snuck into the living-room to see. The gentle voices of the keys soothed as they walked up the steps, slowly, evenly. Each vibration from a chord fed off the other, like a family singing together or laughing in a car.
When I leaned closer to watch her play, the broken chords from her grandmother’s Broadman Hymnal—whose worn pages turned almost noiselessly then—I heard the little black-winged notes fly off their formations on the page, transforming the room into tiny twinkling stars. The birds spun and whirled through the air chiming faster and higher like a ride at the fair, then arced toward me in rapid descent, like the leaves riding the breeze in the open space in the woods, where I spread a blanket with a breath; I’d hide there with my notebooks, whose pages turned with echoes of hope, next to the old tire swing that creaked against a branch in the breeze.
As the funny birds soared into me, I inhaled them and let them fill me up like the whispering tide, buzzing through my chest and singing like sugar-spun candy, humming in time with my breath.
When she walked away, the silence swallowed up the last of her footsteps, like a giant monster that no one had dare interrupt. I thumped my way up to the piano bench and clattered at the keys. Some days, I patiently plinged out one note at a time. But others, I wanted to own every key on the piano; cacophony jolted my mind, as I imagined the freedom to reach for every note at the same time.
But unlike the books my parents buried themselves in, Sesame Street couldn’t teach me to read music. I begged every day until, at five, my mother relented, and found a teacher who would take me. Over the next few years, I cracked the code of the notes. Music became my second language. Just like the newspaper or another novel, I wanted inside that secret world—to be able to transpose those funny birds into sound.
Over the years, every time there was a hole in me, a loneliness, when I had to wait for my parents, dinner, a date, the piano was waiting for me with pages of music ready to be played. Without the music I was lost. My memory is terrible. I always seek to translate the next piece of music into something legible, never beautiful, suck the life out of it to my limited abilities, and then put it aside moving on to the next challenge. I’m just a translator who needs to hear her own voice.
Photo, “Piano” by Wendy at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.