It came with us always. First the old upright, then the Baldwin, then the Steinway grand, no matter how often we moved, or how far — she'd no more have left it behind than she'd have left me. There was, in those days, much shouting and storming about, the screeching of tires as my father sped off in the night. When I was 10, they split up for good, and we landed near Palo Alto, where my mother was left, a single mother in the suburbs, in her 40s, in the 1950s, a decade that did not take kindly to divorcees.
What saved her was the piano. The house rang with it. My ears rang too. Those great, rolling chords of Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt surrounded me as I stomped down the hall, slammed my door, dived into a book. They filled our small house with yearning, twining their tendrils through my heart, unspeakably sad, unspeakably beautiful.
I'd come home from school and she'd be giving a lesson, a towheaded kid bent over the keyboard. Up and down the keys his fingers fumbled, painful, awkward five-finger scales; but in a few years' time he'd be playing "Malagueña." They gave her independence and self-respect, those lessons, and the pleasure of a job well done.
I wanted to play too, but I lacked the self-discipline, though when it came to reading and writing, I'd get so engrossed I'd forget to pee. I read weekends and after school, on school breaks, on school buses, in the back of the car, at the dentist's, the doctor's, at the dinner table, pausing only to turn the page.
After the dog and horse stories came the novels of Victor Hugo and Lawrence Durrell and Jules Verne and journeys to the center of the Earth, to Alexandria, to Paris. Then I moved on to Anna and Emma, doomed, desperate creatures who did their desperation so beautifully; and later, to Juliet and Cleopatra. I loved words the way my mother loved music, the sounds, shapes, patterns of words; they sent shivers like those great rolling chords, only they were sounds that made sense, that satisfied the senses and the sense.
It was by no means clear how an addiction to novels would ever translate to a living wage, but she was no Tiger Mom on my case; she was on my side. One morning I found her at the kitchen table, reading out words I'd copied the night before: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past." I'd copied that Shakespeare sonnet for the thrill of the words.
"Oh, Gayley," she said, "this is beautiful — did you write this?"
That's my ma, I thought, she thinks I can do anything.
The school I went to was a good-enough public high school: no high-stakes exams, no pressure to rack up extracurriculars to pad out a CV, no CVs. I was left free to wander and dream. And it so happened that those hours of novel reading gave me a sense of what a sentence was, and a paragraph, and did certain things to my brain that transformed a pretty good student into a much better student, and gave me a way of organizing my life that saved me as surely as the piano saved her.
For more than four decades I've been a professor who's tried to teach kids to hear the wonder of words, to get them to see how the plays of Shakespeare might help them think through questions crucial to their lives, like who they are and how they want to be. But it's harder these days, when education is all about information input and the arts are dismissed as frills, when words are valued not for beauty but utility, for outcomes measurable on exams. I'd have loathed it; I'd never have stood being pushed and prodded and forced to jump through hoops. For me, anything that ever inspired real work has been about love.
Labor of love — what metric could measure that, I wonder. And the "value added" of my mother's piano? How in these hardscrabble times would my mother and I find a way; where would people like us turn?
When I think of her, it's that look of hers I remember, a way she had of gazing elsewhere as she played, dreamy, yearning. "Clair de Lune" is my mother, the "Moonlight," the "Appassionata." Now it sits in my living room, the last of her pianos, a Steinway, grand as the room is small. I still cannot play, but its lesson I prize beyond measure: How well she knew — how well they knew, the old masters — that transmutation of longing to beauty, to a saving grace.
Gayle Greene is a professor of English at Scripps College. Her most recent book is "Insomniac."