The Only Child's Voice
Around my eighth birthday, a new addition to our home arrived. It travelled north inside of a moving van from Florida, came up the front steps of our home in New Jersey, and rested in the first room to the left, where everyone could see. It was so special that we re-named the room after it. Making itself at home behind our bay windows, its 88 keys and black lacquer shined in the afternoon sun. It was grand, but a baby, like me.
I began lessons long before then on my grandparent’s creaky wooden upright, the one my mother learned how to play on. At five, I started with one hand, but decisively practiced until I could work both of them. A chunky little girl without recognizable athleticism, I had a natural gift, according to some. But in reality, my world revolved around my mother, and I just wanted to feel more like her. Nothing felt natural, or gifted, until I had a piano of my own.
When I finally did get my own, I absolutely was not willing to share it. I just did not like it when other children—acting recklessly youthful in a way I never understood—mistreated my things. A bad case of Only Child Syndrome, perhaps, as I believed that everything qualified as “my things.” When other kids slapped and beat on my piano, I would wail for them to stop, in visceral overreaction. Eventually, I learned to close its fallboard, protecting the keys, before we had young visitors over. An intense precaution to take, for sure, but this wasn’t a Beanie Baby collection at stake. I could hear that it hurt, and when it did, so did I.
As my fingers grew, so did my ability to make the piano come alive. With its top propped up and insides exposed, I learned how it breathed: with soft whispers and grandiose gestures. Emerging out of life's single digits still as an only child (and grandchild, on both sides), I seamlessly transformed inanimates and non-humans into people who were part of my life. Me, my piano, and my puppy, Maggie, would fill the house with life and noise, Maggie panting on the floor next to me, feeling the vibrations of our music. In a way, they both became my sisters—one who could listen and one who could speak.
Things changed when I turned thirteen and my father moved on. Not to another lifetime but another life—one without my mother, and seemingly without me. It was hard to notice the difference at first, between his usual absence and her devotion to me. Divorce was not in style in the late nineties, though, and being a community trendsetter did not suit my mother well. Our home, previously abuzz with phone calls and friends, fogged over in a noiseless, contentious cloud. I knew it was not my fault, but I could not help but sense that her over-prioritized relationship with me was what made him leave. So, I tried to help her make sense of her independent journey forward and give back the support she gave me for so many years. But I couldn't. She was angry, at everything, and I couldn’t fix it.
After that, I filled the house with a different kind of noise. When no one would listen closely enough to truly hear me, making music put a voice to what I could not say: I am hurting, too. My words surged through the notes, and my tears flowed through my hands. This therapy continued throughout my teens, as the music became a crutch for seeking resolution for the anger I felt. In my mind, it seemed like the only way to say, what about me? So resentfully, I banged, cocooning deeper and deeper into my loudest silence.
Despite regressing emotionally, my skills developed technically as I played more and more. I had an instructor named Joe to thank for that. Every Wednesday night, he would visit for an hour, checking her tune and stretching her sound. I learned by watching and listening, as he with his big glasses, mushroom cut, and short-sleeved button-downs would bounce through the music, gleefully. Then, it would be my turn, and I would monkey through the motions and eventually learn the song. I played at my happiest with Joe. Preparing to graduate high school, I gave the grand finale of his annual spring concert with Mozart's Fantasy in C Minor, a thirty-plus-minute coronation of years' worth of struggle. And like all good high school coaches, he sat beside me, turning the pages, as I did it best that last time and prepared to move on.
I moved to Florida for college, a decision that felt like less of a choice and more of a necessity. A thousand-plus miles south, I could escape it all—my family, the silent noise—with the hope that distance was all I needed resolve our issues. More importantly, I sought emotional independence, the key to answering my own what about me's. When I first arrived on campus, I would visit the college of music on occasion, sneaking into a practice room for thirty minutes of therapy. But soon thereafter, I did not want therapy; I just wanted to stop. After much debate, I turned down the opportunity to minor in music. I blamed it on not liking the professors, but really, I just needed a damn break. Having less opportunity to hide behind the music meant finding my freedom, even at the risk of having no music at all.
My substance became unsubstantial: sun, football, boyfriends, parties. Skipping along toward semi-adulthood, my trips home became less frequent. The places and things once so familiar became less so, with new bedsheets and white walls covering my old photographs and posters, the last remaining stains of teenage salt. Things felt similar, but they were hardly the same. My Maggie, much older by then, greeted me with youthful eyes that begged to jump up for a kiss but could not make the leap. My piano, still in its corner, sat closed and stoic—the jealous best friend who never left home.
With each visit, we had less and less in common. Sitting down for conversation, I would run my hands across the keys and ask how she was. I could feel the dust between my fingers and knew she was being ignored. Even worse so, the music suffered as we grew further apart. I attempted to play my biggest triumph, the Fantasy, once through. I knew what the motions felt like, where my fingers needed to be, like an amputee with phantom limbs. But my joints tensed up from the failing effort, and I couldn’t finish it. Overcome with frustration and loneliness, I violently slapped my hands against the keys—like the reckless children from our youth—abusing one of my closest relationships, willing to abandon it forever.
My four years in Florida came to an end, as most fantasies do. I graduated with a degree in journalism, learning how to tell other people's stories, but still unsure of how to tell my own. I began law school in New York City and continued to hone this craft of advocating for others, a decision that seemed responsible for a pre-adult in a pre-recession world. While I knew that another degree would not afford all of the answers, I hoped that living back up north would. Maybe just being there would help me face the things I ran from, and in my time away, maybe I gained strength to deal with them. Maybe it meant finding my voice—without anything to hide behind—and using it for myself.
Piece by piece, and year by year, I did. My father and I spent a lot of time learning to understand each other, which I realized took so long because we are dramatically alike—too proud, too internalized. What my mother and I mean to one another continues to evolve. With our intense bond comes intense feelings, both good and bad, but we address them knowing that love underlies them all. My dog, Maggie, lived a long, great life at home. I still picture her, a grinning puppy, stretched underneath our piano and waiting for the next song.
My piano, and our music, was the hardest to face. Perhaps, like many old friends, I could not see where she fit into my life anymore. I was no longer a child, defined by my special talent, nor a scorned teenage girl, in desperate need of a louder voice. I found that voice, by moving away, growing up, and then facing my greatest challenge—learning to truly speak. I was ready to move forward with my life, but I could not leave her behind.
Law school wound down and I prepared for the world, spending much time at my old home in New Jersey. One afternoon, with no one home and nothing to hide, I sat down at her bench. Mozart's Fantasy in hand, I just played. My fingers remembered where to be, just like before, but with every fumbled note, I forged ahead this time. Breaks and pauses aside, we made it all the way through together. I held the last chord out and began to cry, realizing we just caught up on seven years of our lives.
About the author:
Joelle Berger is an attorney living in New York City. In early 2013, she left the grip of private firm practice to pursue a more sustainable existence and, most importantly, her writing. Her work has appeared in Women's Health, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, The Gainesville Sun, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and other publications. You can learn more about Joelle here.