Grandma's lesson still resonates

We were going to "learn the power of music," and that was just the end of it.

Such was the promise made to me and my brother Austin one rainy Friday afternoon by my knife-wielding grandmother, who spoke from the kitchen in a voice that sounded furious.

I was only 7 years old, and she was mostly obstructed by the tower of piano scrolls that stood high between us, but I could imagine what she looked like -- short, stout, with wild red hair that clashed horribly with her ruffled pink kitchen apron. We could practically hear her whittling away stubbornly at that last chunk of cheese and trying to reclaim it from the creeping mold.

We were there, just like any other Friday afternoon, to practice our Spanish. We made no secret around our house about how we loathed our weekly lessons. We'd both make the slow march across the yard to the adjacent apartment where Grandma Anita dwelt, stall as long as we could kicking at pebbles or picking her geraniums before knocking softly on her tiny front door, hoping she wouldn't hear and we could run back down the street and keep playing with our friends.

But Grandma always expected us. She'd answer, frown at the looks of unabashed disappointment on our faces, and beckon us inside sternly with one short, bejeweled index finger.

We'd file into her cramped living room and sit between the mountains of dusty boxes that seemed to swallow her apartment. They were full of old crayons, paintbrushes, staplers and other mementos of her days as a grammar school teacher. Though she always swore she'd use them someday, they remained undisturbed, perched precariously on top of each other since the beginning of my memory.

Until it came, that is.

It was on that rainy Friday that my brother and I had arrived to find an enormous baby grand piano occupying the apartment's entire living room. It looked ludicrously large in its new home and I remember initially marveling at the magic some wizard must have performed to fit it through the front door.

Along with the piano had come dozens of ancient-looking piano scrolls, which, when placed inside the piano's secret front compartment, played a variety of tunes.

Now the apartment seemed twice as crowded, the boxes full of my grandmother's past stacked even more dangerously in each corner. My brother and I sat on one of them as we nibbled cautiously at our snacks, watching out for blue spots and hoping we could sneak them into the trash soon.

"So now," Grandma began, making slow scraping noises as her Birkenstocks shuffled across the linoleum, "we'll spend an hour working on Spanish, and an hour right here, at the piano."

She drummed her fingers on the dark wood, her many rings making tiny clicking noises against it's shiny surface. Austin and I exchanged glum looks.

"You know, Beethoven was performing recitals by the age of 6," she said.

Good for this "Beethoven" guy, whoever he was.

We started our musical training that very day. After agonizing over Spanish vocabulary for an hour, we took turns at the keys, picking out notes and pasting together sloppy chords. The fact that Grandma couldn't play a lick of piano herself didn't seem to bother her in the slightest. After suffering through a few introductory lessons taught out of her beginner's book, Austin and I showed up at Grandma's one day to find a tattered yardstick hanging casually in her loose grip.

We didn't need to be told what it was for.

From then on, when we made a mistake, we felt the consequences. A nice tap on the knuckles for slips of the fingers and much heartier whacks for missed chords or fumbled riffs.

After a few lessons with the stick, it became apparent that Austin's career as a pianist would be short-lived. Grandma's shock-and-awe teaching strategy seemed counterproductive, and after a while, Austin started associating the feel of the keys at his fingertips with impending trauma. He would often flinch and twitch at the keys, and more out of frustration than sympathy, Grandma banished him from subsequent lessons.

But despite my brother's shortcomings, it seemed I had potential. To supplement our weekly lessons, Grandma proceeded to hire a piano teacher, whom I knew only as Mr. Albert. Mr. Albert was a tall, bony relic of a man, whose long white hair framed his sunken, grayish face. He had thin, spidery fingers and reeked of mothballs. I dreaded his visits perhaps more than anything, because it meant I had to sit next to him on the bench and try to keep up with his swift strokes. Somehow, he always knew when I hadn't been practicing and never hesitated to tell Grandma, who usually sat behind us, poised to seize the yardstick from its perch against a nearby wall.

After awhile, between Grandma's and Mr. Albert's exhaustive efforts to bring out the prodigy in me, I managed to retain enough to bumble through a few simple tunes. A snippet from Beethoven's 9th Symphony was my specialty, as was a primitive rendition of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer." I'd play them again and again on loop until I literally could manage with my eyes closed. Just before a visit from my Uncle Ray, a WWII vet, Grandma even tried to teach me "The Marines' Hymn," which I butchered beyond recognition.

I did get a reprieve on some days, though. Some of our lessons were devoted to music appreciation, during which Grandma would rustle through the boxes of scrolls and pick out tunes that seemed to mean something to her.

Some days, she laughed, reminiscing about her time as a resort owner with her first husband, my grandfather, when she accidentally locked herself in the wine cupboard overnight and was found giggling and hiccupping the next morning.

Some days, she'd cry over the two sons she'd lost, one to an aneurism and the other to a bullet courtesy of two thugs who followed my uncle home from a bar and murdered him on his doorstep. The music seemed to take her over, every note willing her deeper and deeper into her memory, forcing her to a place she both loved and feared, where she kept those most precious and painful of scars.

I'd never heard most of those songs before, but somehow, for reasons I was too small to understand, I felt them, too. I would curl up in her lap and rest my head on her shoulder, while she'd hum in her classic singing voice -- regal, yet broken -- with tears at the corners of her puffy eyes.

I'll admit, these memories are fading. It takes intense concentration to even summon them anymore. Our music lessons didn't last long, as my family moved away from Grandma -- and I, foolishly, never looked back.

But every once in awhile, I'll find an old piano sitting alone in a corner somewhere, and my fingers will find the keys they know so well. Though I know there's no yardstick hovering over my head anymore, I hesitate, not wanting to mess up, as I slowly allow the incredible "power of music" to flow through me.

In those moments, the memories flow freely. Grandma was right all along.

Davis High School graduate Thomas Pardee, a member of the Teens in the Newsroom journalism program, is a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago.