memory and gifts

Dad called on Wednesday morning to let me know that his mom had passed. He was haggard, tired from the waiting, the driving back and forth, and just the emotion of it all. I got the sense that the last two weeks of her life were among the most peaceful in the last few years, and the loss was anticipated and welcomed in the strange way that we say these things are. At least, that’s how we approach death from afar, and now I think that Dad especially is in the throes of realizing the loss. Memories, along with the permanence of death, and maybe a sense of mortality writ large, all make the moment more difficult, wrought, and empty.

My own experiences and memories of Grandma are plentiful. It was harder to tell later in life, but she loved having grandchildren around. She would take carloads of us to the coast for the good part of a week. She’d make angel food pie because I tried it once and loved it — something that 8-year-olds probably love more than real people. She’d watch kids play and open presents from her central spot on the living room couch, smiling back at us, laughing at the scenes. To this day, I still admire the sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallows she’d make at each holiday. She cleaned me up when I wrecked on my bike on the farm.

And yet, with all these notable memories, nothing really stands out. I appreciated and loved my grandmother, but I couldn’t produce a comprehensive memory of her that encapsulated something I’d miss. My trip out west for the funeral is something I plan mostly to see my dad, rather than some return to pay respects to a woman I’ve appreciated but never really knew. I’m not sure that many really knew Grandma, and that seemed to be fine by her. She bought me nice sweaters, and that along with the angel food and the trips to the beach were all important, but now really very distant.

That’s all the story there is to tell, save one exception. Grandma gave me my first piano. Technically, she lent it to us. The piano that sat in her basement, the one that we’d beat upon before Thanksgiving dinners, we transported down long country roads so that I could take up the instrument at the ripe old age of 12. I don’t remember the actual details, but it was something as uneventful as Mom asking me if I’d like to play, the suggestion that we could use Grandma’s piano, and figuring out the delivery issues with a pickup truck and 100 miles to traverse. The result is that I learned to play, and still do to this day. My darkest and my brightest moments are spent on a piano bench. The fact that I’m married today is probably a result of being able to play. The fact that I’m sane today is probably equally indebted to a piano. I’m not sure I or anyone else could have anticipated this when Grandma and Grandpa would come to visit, and we’d all politely sit as I’d clunk out arpeggio chord progressions on the left hand.

At the end of a long life, we can’t be sure if it will be our sweet potatoes or angel food pie or trips to the beach that will have made the difference. More likely than not, I suppose it is going to be the gift of the old piano in the basement that will make a difference in someone’s life. My fond memory will be in the lesson that there be one gift — one we wouldn’t be able to predict — that could shape someone else’s life, and be the piece that allows us to live on in others.

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