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“What is the story of your piano?” a new friend asked when invited over for dinner the first time. My piano is an old upright, sitting untuned in the corner of my small living room, taking up more space than its infrequent use justifies.
My piano has a story? “All pianos have stories” she said after noticing my surprise at her question. My friend is a music therapist, and right on cue, suddenly my piano’s story came flooding out of me. Fully formed and without thought, as if I’d always had this tale to tell.
I had loved music since childhood. I sang in school choirs and learned to play the free instruments available. I started with the recorder in primary school and moved on to the violin in grade school and then the trumpet in high school. By then I was old enough to get a part-time job and saved up enough to buy a guitar and take lessons. But playing the piano had always been my dream. Unfortunately, a dream our family just could not afford.
I grew up in an immigrant Chinese family in downtown Toronto. My father waited tables in a Chinese restaurant, my mother worked in a Chinese laundry. She was not the stereotype of the high-pressured Chinese Tiger Mom. She was the lesser known archetype of the Cantonese Pragmatic Mom. As the youngest in the family, I wore only my siblings’ hand-me-downs. My mother wore her own clothes down to the point they were so bare, no clothing donation bank would accept them. Once, she found a box of water-damaged feminine hygiene products discarded in the laneway behind a pharmacy, salvaged them and dried them out for her personal use, complaining of the penchant for waste in this country.
I remember as a little girl always wanting to have my own doll, because all my friends had dolls, but my parents could not prioritize spending money on a frivolous toy. Such pursuits would not put food on the table, and were therefore a waste of energy and the little money they worked so hard for.
I always understood and accepted this. I even ingrained it. Although I’ve managed to achieve a career where paying the bills is no longer a concern, many say my usual wardrobe choices often make it hard to tell me apart from a bag lady. This does not offend or disturb me. Because, despite our impoverished childhood, my siblings and I were always fed with love. My mother would stretch her frugality once a week. Walking home from her work day, she would stop into some corner stores and bakeries to buy junk food and little pastries as a treat for us to eat while watching Saturday cartoons. I can’t remember which birthday it was when she finally spared the money to buy me a doll. Of course, by then I’d outgrown wanting dolls, but she worked too hard to know that and I never told her. I happily and gratefully accepted the doll, because I loved the gift that was her loving me enough to buy it for me.
So it was eventually with my piano. I think it was my father who finally convinced my mother they should buy me a piano. It was in my last year of high school, back when Ontario had a Grade 13. I took lessons for about a year, managing to get to a Royal Conservatory of Music level of Grade 6, before university demands forced me to stop. I had to make a decision in university, to pursue the more pragmatic goal of medical school, or the fancy of my love for music. The pragmatist in me won, independent of my mother’s disapproval of pursuing music as a career. But I also stopped piano lessons because, as with my doll, it was really too late for me to learn to play the piano in the way I wanted to. I had hoped to be able to play effortlessly, as automatically as breathing, but that kind of muscle memory has to be entrained from childhood.
I moved that piano around with me, from apartment to apartment through my university years and beyond. It took up space silently in my home over the next decade – until my son was born. He showed an early interest in music, so of course I had my old piano tuned and put him into piano lessons. Yes, I vicariously played that piano through my son. What a joy to hear it ring out in my home and know I was finally getting value from my parents’ money. My son took to music, although guitar was ultimately his instrument of choice, and he eventually faced the same end of high school decision of music or academia. Of course my mother was still advising against the impracticality of his studying music, and my son is still making his final decision.
Two years ago my mother died, predeceased by my father 15 years ago. Earlier this year, my uncle unexpectedly died (thankfully not from COVID). He was my mother’s younger brother and the last of my family who immigrated to Canada from China. As I sit in the quiet of my home, my piano once again silent as my son is off at university, it is poignant to me that the story of my parents’ generation is now over. To keep the memory of that generation alive, I know that piano will always take up disproportionate space in my living room.
I’m now a psychiatrist, working in palliative care and helping people through this time of extraordinary loss during the pandemic. Much of my recent work has focused on self-care for health care providers. Learning from this, I’ve come to realize that in my single-minded pursuit of my career, I’ve let all personal aesthetic pleasures fall away. It’s been years since I’ve read a book for pleasure, or picked up my guitar. I figured I’d get back to playing the piano when I retire. But maybe I should take a lesson from my work in helping others live with the uncertainty of the times. Maybe it’s time to get that piano retuned again, this time for myself, before its yet again too late to enjoy. Maybe that’s something we all should do right now.
In psychotherapy, sometimes a single question can open whole paths of reverie, and then discovery. So, what is the story of your piano?
Madeline Li lives in Toronto.
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