Saturday, November 10, 2012


Elliot came home to vote. And in the evening, he played the piano.  And a little later on, sitting outside under the fairy lights having a smoke in the cold autumn with his friend Josh, he asked me, "Will you leave me the piano in your will?"

The question both shocked and amused me because its innocence brought into sharp relief my own mortality.  Both of us know that if things go as they should, Elliot will outlive me.  And I expect that life will go on when I die.  But it was the thought of this piano, my piano, something I had brought into the family - it was the thought that this instrument's life would go beyond my own, that hit me with the shock of recognition.

That's why I laughed.  What else could I do? "My God," I cried.

"What!" he said.

It was because I was happy to have him home for twenty four hours before he went back to college, and because I knew that his life had already gone beyond my involvement in it.  And now disingenuously he'd sized up  what might  be left after I was gone - had understood, when it came down to it, as we sat together outside in the garden, when he contemplated us both: Mum, Piano, Piano, Mum, that the piano came up the winner.  I would die but the piano would remain, not the other way round.

And that was just as it should be. The piano had every right to outlive me. After all, this piano, a Petrof, had a certain pedigree and had already survived the fall of the iron curtain. Ben and I bought it in Moscow from Ivan Ivanovich, the head piano tuner at the Moscow Conservatory in 1994.  Ever since it has followed us round the world - from Moscow to Virginia, and then on to Brussels, back to Virginia and on to Rome and back to Virginia once more.  My Falls Church piano tuner took some interest in its origins and looking up its serial number determined it was made in Prague in the 1970s.  I had fancied it older.

Nevertheless I don't know what this Petrof lived through in the 1970's. We encountered it at a dacha outside Moscow.  Alex's piano teacher Marta, a violinist at the Bolshoi Orchestra, took us to see it - along with her husband and Ivan Ivanovich's daughter Svetlana. We met Ivan Ivanovich in the humble living room at this dacha and fell in love with its mellow sound and easy action.

Ivan Ivanovich and his friends wheeled the piano on a cart through the snow, up the road of the American Embassy Compound and carried it up the stairs to our apartment, and when I paid him for it both of us smiled. The transaction pleased us both. Everyone was happy.

It was on this piano that Irina, my Russian piano teacher, taught me Debussy's Children's Corner Suite and Tchaikovsky's Seasons.  Having this piano in our lives in Moscow made all the difference.  For me, it made life bearable.

This is why I well understand that knowing its history of survival  Elliot imagines it will outlive me too, and wants to honor that, and keep it himself until he is old. 

So I told him about a poem called "Ethics" where the poet Linda Pastan poses the question, admittedly tongue in cheek: "if there were a fire in a museum/which would you save, a Rembrandt painting/or an old woman who hadn't many/years left anyhow?"

 I asked Elliot and his friend Josh to picture the scene.  "You're in the Louvre," I said, "and there's a raging fire... what would you do?"

"I would hope," said Elliot, after some reflection, "that if I were an old lady in a fire at the Louvre I'd say to myself I'm dying in a fire in the Louvre... and that would be profound enough for me."

There was once another piano in Moscow.  I saw it at Chekhov's house - an  old upright on which Tchaikovsky had played for the Chekhovs when he visited them of an evening.  Hearing that story at the Chekhov house, I got it into my head that I wanted to play that piano too. I asked the tour guides if anyone played it these days. Dismissively, they said no.  There was a grand piano now, on the premises.

I took Elliot, then an infant, up there in his pram, and with a carefully chosen gift bought at one of the hard currency stores,  I pushed up the road toward Chekhov's house.  I knew what I'd say. I had prepared the words in Russian and practiced them as I walked.   I was going to give them the gift, and ask if I might play Tchaikovsky's Seasons on Chekhov's piano.

It was snowing hard.  And when we got to Chekhov's house - his name still clear on the doorknocker - I was sorry to see the museum was closed that day.

After that I lost my nerve. I never returned to ask if I could play that piano.  I wonder if they would have let me in?

Whatever the case, we're all going to die.  Just let us leave the masterpieces behind us - those we have gazed upon and those we have played. Let them joyously outlive us.

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