I was in the kitchen, making supper tonight, when I heard downstairs what sounded like a duet -- a legitimate, two-part clarinet duet. Anna, a fifth-grader, just took up clarinet this year; her sister Lydia has been at it for a while now. Tonight, they played Ode to Joy. And it was about the sweetest thing.
Their music was like a wave, sweeping me back to hours upon hours of making music with my sisters.
It reminded me of this moment, in 2011.
Will you come with me?
I slide onto Mom’s piano bench, a polished rectangle that always seemed tailor-made for two players instead of one. But I sit alone in front of these 88 keys, where we sisters spent years practicing scales and memorizing recital pieces. On the piano-console, a ceramic bluebird roosts, as it always has, this long-serving witness to our frustrated banging of angry fists on whole octaves.
I open Mom’s hymnal and fumble through Wesley’s songs, with all the grace of a pachyderm. I’ve never been good at solos.
My oldest sister, the real pianist, is home, too. Both of our families are visiting the house where my retired parents now live. We helped move Mom and Dad here a while back.
A move is a tough thing, like rewriting an old song that you're convinced will never sound as good as the original. How do you remake home in a place that smells like new paint and plywood?
I hope my sister will sit by me tonight, to play a song. We've always made music this way—sharing one piano bench—even when my legs were too short to reach the pedals. She was the first-born sister, leading, carrying the melody. And I, her baby sister, fumbled happily along the bass clef. She and I, we’d ladle notes with grand flourishes, filling that old living room of our childhood with a colorful soup of song and laughter. Even as adults, we would throw our heads back like caricatures of concert pianists, or like Schroeder on his miniature piano.
Dad invented a word for our ridiculous behavior: "flippity."
Alone, I flounder. The song has three flats—too many for a novice like me. The happy hymn I’m playing sounds more like a funeral dirge. And right then, in the way you know that a person has walked into a room, my big sister slips into the space behind me.
I miss a B-flat. She laughs. Instinctively, I scoot to the left. She finds her familiar place on this slab of wood. She rests her slender fingers on the keys, cupping her hands the way Lillye Love Winter taught her back in 1977.
And for the next thirty minutes, sister-elbows touch. We find our song, encircling us in quarter notes and old memories. I play bass notes, the ones that keep a song grounded. And just then, I remember my very first memory of my life as Jennifer on this planet: I was a toddler, carried on my big sister's hip. She pressed her cheek to mine and pointed to the gold-framed mirror in the foyer. “See? Don’t we look alike?”
Decades later, in this new home, we find ourselves side by side again. We play an incongruous medley of songs: "Be Thou My Vision" and "Unchained Melody" and “When You Look at Me” from the TV sitcom Joanie and Chachi.
It may seem a bit silly, but it feels good and right to laugh and make music, in front of a small audience of cousins now sitting cross-legged beside us. We both know there's more to a song than laying down notes. And somewhere before the coda, the music is already resolving. Because home is being remade here, in this sweet spot where two sisters brush up against each other's song.