She said she looked for a key chain for me, one with a musical note as decoration, but she thinks they must only be in California because she couldn’t find one here.
Her grandma said there’s a store in California with every kind of key chain imaginable.
She pulled on her boots, music books tucked under her arm, while I tried not to laugh.
California, the land of musical key chains.
I made a mental note to find something for her and Joe before next week, now that I have a heads’ up that I’m on her list.
It’s strange, how we create identities for ourselves without even realizing it. I’ve defined myself by family; by age; and more recently, by words. I’m a writer, a journalist, a reporter. The other things I do? They’re hobbies, sideshows to the words that really matter.
But Sally wants to buy me a key chain with a note. The kind of gift you buy your music teacher. And in two minutes on the rug by the front door, struggling to balance while pulling on a too-big boot, she defined me by music.
My first piano lesson came from the girl I idolized, one year older than I. She played piano; I wanted to learn. And she carefully drew keys on a piece of cardboard and taught me the name of a handful of notes in our one-and-only lesson in the back room of the tiny West Texas church.
We moved when I was 11, amid tearful promises to drive across the state to visit as soon as we could get our drivers’ licenses. Those promises, of course, never materialized. But whether we had a bigger house, or my constant begging wore them down, or whether I had spent enough painful hours squealing notes from a plastic recorder that they realized I was serious, my parents bought a used Yamaha piano and a set of beginning piano books and told me to learn.
I didn’t take lessons until several years later.
Dad worked at home, and some days he’d come out of his bedroom office halfway through my allotted half-hour of practice because I was missing a flat. He’d looked pained; and I’d play quieter for a while (probably still missing that flat).
And somehow music grew into something fun. In high school I’d pick the saddest, most melancholy songs I could when the inevitable hurt feelings occurred, playing in the quiet that always came after 8 p.m. I’d play when I was bored, or to fill 10 minutes between other activities.
But music has never been anything other than a hobby. I’m not proficient enough to be a musician. And so, when I fell in love with words and writing and telling stories somewhere at the meeting of childhood and adulthood, I quietly took on the identity of storyteller and forgot about music.
Today I’m searching for Christmas carols that Sally can play, ones that don’t have any notes outside an octave range from Middle C, no more than one sharp or flat, simple block chords or single notes in the left hand. She’s been playing for two months now and her dad’s so tickled that she’s making music and I think he’s choking up because she can play ‘O Christmas Tree’ and it’s so relaxing, listening to her play, will I give her another Christmas song?
She says she doesn’t know ‘Away in the Manger’ so I try ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas’ instead and yes, she knows that one.
After New Years’ I’ll drop by my neighbor’s house across the alley, the one wanting lessons for her six-year-old son. And I’ll take out an ad in our classifieds, hang out my shingle, so to speak.
‘Piano teacher has openings available for beginner and intermediate students,’ it will say.
And I will give myself another identity, carry another name with a note-shaped key chain from California.