We had a photograph on our piano, in the sunroom in the front of our apartment on the North Side of Chicago. The sunroom had little black and white mosaic tiles on the floor, like in the bathroom, and windows all around.
The piano took up the entire sunroom. It said “Rudd Ibach und Sohnen” above the keyboard. They said my mother used to play.
I didn’t like to look at that photograph. It’s in my desk drawer now, face down, in its metal frame with the flip-stand on the back.
It shows a sweet, half-turned, slightly out-of-focus face.
She’s almost smiling in the picture, but she wasn’t smiling at me.
She left. She vanished. She didn’t say goodbye.
I didn’t want to be reminded.
I didn’t like to go into the sunroom, with the grand piano and the photograph and the dust motes dancing in the shafts of light.
The dust motes, feathery, loft and drift. In the darkness the dust motes vanish, you cannot see them.
You don’t think about them when you can’t see them. Maybe they don’t exist. Like the music that used to come out of the piano. I don’t mean the sheet music, which was stuffed inside the piano bench, under the flip-top seat.
I couldn’t remember the music. Had I heard it?
She was gone. Had she ever been?
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People talked in front of me but not to me. They whispered behind their palms. They halted their words mid-sentence.
Best not to speak about it, pretend it wasn’t happening.
I would never tell. I never said a word. Of course, not a word was said to me.
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My father’s a doctor, surely he knew all about it.
My father knew things that other people didn’t, carried around a storehouse of knowledge, secrets in his head. These weren’t the kinds of secrets you told your friend or your friend told you–things you weren’t supposed to tell. They were things other people could know, might know, but generally didn’t–didn’t know the way he did.
My father taught me to orient a chart by the points on a compass. He introduced me to the earth–what it looks like and how it got that way. He revealed marvels of climate and land. He could list the conquests of Charlemagne and name the highest European peaks. He recalled the distance from Berlin where he grew up to Freiburg where he studied, and what time the trains departed and how long was the journey.
My father talked of the distant past as if it were yesterday. He remembered the birthdays of the aunts and uncles and cousins on the family tree he spread out on the living-room rug, and liked to speak their names as if I knew them.
But he didn’t like our questions, mine and my brother’s, mine even less than my brother’s. Robbie is older. I learned to stop asking them.
No one said out loud why my mother was gone and all the other mothers were there. It could have been a secret like the things my father knew, things out of books. But it seemed like the other kind of secret, the kind you were punished for telling.