Thursday, December 19, 2013

Teaching Little Fingers

***trigger warning: child sexual abuse***

The only musical instrument I can sorta play is the piano.  The only song I can play on the piano is the first and only song I ever learned.

I'm proud to say I can still play it.  Both because my memory is long and my anxiety is managed.  Here I am playing it today:

My sister Kitty taught me the song from her book Teaching Little Fingers to Play by John Thompson.  I was about three when she taught me the song.  I'm forty-three now and I never practice playing it, yet the song is stuck inside my head like the first phone number we had.

I was told to memorize our phone number before I could start kindergarten, so I did: 279-2580.  I can barely remember the current phone number I have.  Something about early childhood memories makes them stick better than more recent ones.  279-2580.  That sequence of numbers might as well have been branded into my brain.  I will never forget them.  Same as with the first and only piano song I learned to play.

It's so easy.  Just three fingers.  Well, two fingers and a thumb.  Thumb on Middle C, pointer on the white key next to Middle C, and tall man on the next white key...

Here we go (thumb, pointer, tall man)
Up a row (thumb, pointer, tall man)
To a birthday par-ty.  (pointer, thumb, pointer, tall man, thumb, thumb)

I used to cringe every time I'd think of that song.  Now I've taught it to my daughter.

I was hesitant to teach it to her.  The song has such a horrible meaning for me.  But I was put on the spot with her question, "Mom, do you know any songs?"  I didn't know what to say other than, "Yes, I do."

"Teach me, Mom," she said.

So I did without thinking too much about what it was I was doing.

Katie picked up the song right away.  She giggled each time she finished it, proud of her achievement.  Her innocence, her freedom, her open-mind.  Her smiles make me smile.  I watched her play this horrible song several times.  I knew I was going to be fine.  Katie's going to be fine.  Everything will be fine.

Katie played the song for her daddy when he got home from work.

He said, "Oh yeah?" and then sat down to show her what he knows.

Which is a lot more than I do.  Will's been teaching himself how to play the piano.  Now he can teach Katie.  She will not get stuck knowing just one song.  Her repertoire will be full if she wants it to be.  She will not know the agony of knowing just one horrible song.

I have fantasies of playing the piano in front of huge crowds of people.  Like Elton John.  Or Ben Folds.  Or Tori Amos.  Or Fiona Apple.  They are pure fantasies.  Nothing I will ever achieve.  That would involve overcoming two of my biggest anxiety triggers: public performance and playing piano.

I've gotta watch myself that I don't try to live vicariously through Katie, now that she's showing an interest in piano.  Neither Will nor I push Katie much.  If she shows an interest in something such as piano playing, we encourage it, but we try not to turn it into a chore.  If you have to remind someone to practice, they probably aren't as interested in the thing you want them to practice as much as you are.

As with all things parenting, turns out I learned just as much by teaching our daughter my horrible song as she did.  By not holding back and keeping it a secret inside myself, I can now see the beauty in it.  A simple song to begin a life of creative exploration.  No longer a song to cover up the noise from the bad things going on in the room behind the piano.

Around the same time my sister Kitty taught me how to play the song, my brother Pat, about 13, started sexually abusing my friend and me.  It lasted a couple of years, but the trauma I experienced has lasted a lifetime.  But it's not all I've experienced.  It's one horrible thing that's happened to me in a lifetime of both good and bad events.

We'd take turns.  I would play the song on the piano while my brother would take my friend's hand and lead her into his bedroom, curtained off behind the upright piano.  Then, when it was my turn to take my brother's hand and go into the room, my friend would sit at the piano and play the song.

Here we go.
Up a row.
To a birthday par-ty.

Oh how I used to hate that song.

Now, incredibly, that song makes me smile.

How can that be?  Emotions all tangled up inside the notes I hear that trigger memories, simultaneously hearing these same notes in the present moment.  Opening myself up to hearing a song from a different perspective changed my life.