Excerpt from work-in-progress…or, notes from working on the work-in-progress. Context: I’m writing the memoirs of my 92-year-old piano teacher and running up against all kinds of other things in the process (as if 92 years of history weren’t enough to grapple with). There’s my guilt over not continuing my piano studies after age 18. My fear of aging, of the elderly, of death. My self-doubts and self-criticism, of course, and my frustration at the slow give-and-take of working with someone else on a piece of writing, and my ego coming up against itself: I want the book to be this way, Virginia wants it to be a different way. It’s my project! But it’s her life.
I’ve never liked group projects. I like to be in control. It’s impossible to be in control when you’re interviewing someone who was born in 1920 about everything–everything–that’s happened since then, and trying to get it all down in the right order, and realizing that you know absolutely nothing about what it means to get old and look back on a long, long life. It’s impossible to learn how to write from that voice without listening to every word, and when I listen to every word it’s impossible for me not to write it all down and dissect, introspect, embroider, write more words, repeat. The simplest conversation expands, on closer examination, into a fractal map of ideas for essays and poems (and even dreams). To say “This is the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken” is an award-winning understatement.
June 16, 2012.
Virginia is having trouble getting up once she sits down. Why does this happen to older people? Is it muscle atrophy? Joint stiffness? Reason #358 why I am scared of the elderly. I don’t understand why they can’t stand up and I’m scared to think about this happening to me someday. Charge #358 against me. Defendant pleads guilty to being scared of the elderly.
So that’s why we haven’t gotten out of the car yet. She’s still working up the motivation for the effort it will require. Meanwhile we’re sitting here, with the air blasting and the engine idling, listening to one perfect Chopin mazurka after another. It’s her new CD, her second CD. (Will there be more? Or just these two?)
Fireflies are lighting up the rosebushes all around us. I close my eyes to concentrate on the nuances of each musical sentence. The music is exactly how I’ve heard it in my head all these years, ever since I studied these mazurkas with her when I was 17. It was the first time I felt that I’d learned a piece of music well enough to speak through it, to play the notes with an infinite variety of expression.
I could sit out here for an hour and listen all the way through both discs. Chopin is her favorite and mine too. Another bond between us. I open my eyes and we smile at each other at the end of the third mazurka. “Just one more?” she asks. I nod and we both close our eyes again as the chords begin to blossom out of the speakers.
I hear Jon shifting in the backseat. He has a head cold and I have been dragging him around all day, since 8:30 this morning—first to a bat mitzvah for one of my former students, then to a friend’s house where he passed out on the couch for a few hours. He’s not Jewish, has never been to a synagogue, feels uncomfortable with religious rituals. Now he’s also sat through two hours of dinner conversation about classical musicians he doesn’t know. He’s being very patient. Reason #249 why I love him.
We sat in the car for a while once we’d arrived at the restaurant, too. Virginia watched the people going past and tried to guess whether they’d go in. She asked Jon how to pronounce his last name and what town he was from in Maine and if he knew the town where her friends lived near Damariscotta. I wanted more than anything to just pick her up and put her on the sidewalk, to find some way of sparing her the indignity of trying to heave herself out of the car in front of us. I glared at the oncoming traffic as she slowly maneuvered out of the driver’s seat, muttering about what I would do to anyone who clipped her open door. As if my indignation could do something constructive.
I realize halfway through dinner that I’m taking mental notes on everything she says, on her smallest mannerisms, on the ways she’s changed over the years. I wish I had a tape recorder. I’m starting to think this book that we’re working on is actually two books. There’s the book she wants me to write, a formal biography like you’d find in a library. She wants to know that she lived a biography-worthy life. She wants to leave that behind for posterity. Then there’s the book that I’m finding it impossible not to write, the mash-up of essays and poems and reflections coming out of my urge to document every moment we spend together. I feel her slipping through my fingers like sand. No matter how much I try to convince myself that she could very well live past 100. Selfishly, I want her to stay the same forever. I want her to teach Chopin mazurkas to the child I hope to have someday.
I’ve never really loved anyone this old. When we walked into her house tonight, she said my dress reminded her of the 1920s. She has seen more history than I can comprehend. It is bizarre and impossible and amazing and I don’t understand it at all. And therefore I am obsessed with writing it all down, trying to weave it into something that will make sense. Am I just trying to comfort myself in the face of the knowledge that someday I will need to let her go?