My mother’s piano

I have been following some of the discussion on the blog No place for sheep, in part a debate over feminism, in part over freedom of speech and all because of one woman’s threat to sue another for defamation.

I am amazed at the heat that’s generated there. The language from those who comment is largely academic, or religious or occasionally a rant.

I do not feel equipped to enter into the discussion. It terrifies me. I stand in awe of Jennifer Wilson’s ability to respond to her detractors. I could not sleep at night if it were me.

The comments roll in thick and fast, as if we are on a battle field and the first line of attackers arrive only to be repelled, soon followed by the next line of attack. Of course there are many, perhaps more commenters, who are on Jennifer Wilson’s side.

It puts me in mind of the nature of conflict and how we deal with it, on line and off. I’m not so good at it myself. A fight wells up and I can feel my heart thumping, the perspiration under my arm pits shudders to the surface and my mouth goes dry.

I pitch myself back in time to my mother’s piano in the hallway of the Camberwell house. It is a tall and dark hearse-like instrument with keys made of real ivory. I think of all the dead elephants that went into the making of my mother’s piano, elephants all the way from Africa.

The name above the keys in gold lettering, ornate as a dancer, takes me to Europe in my imagination. A German name maybe, or Austrian. A name that speaks of dead composers, or ancient carpenters, cabinet makers, craftsmen, always men, who built the box that holds the sliced elephant tusks on my mother’s piano.

My mother plays Die Fledermaus. She sings along, Dutch words, military words, words that take her elsewhere back to her girlhood, back to her old life, back home to the Marnixplein where the life she leads now was still a dream, filled with hopefulness and colour, filled with the joy of her youth, her beauty and her prospects.

My mother’s voice rises above the roar of trucks along Canterbury Road. My mother’s voice rises above the cacophony of voices from the television. My father turns the dial higher and higher. The television volume goes up and up.

The house is alive with noise: my mother’s music, my father’s silent screams for attention, louder and louder and I cannot think for the noise of my parents, for the drums of war, the aeroplanes that fly over head, the bombs that drop.
We are silenced.

And all the time behind my eyes an ache swells. I don’t want to fight, I want to cry.

50 thoughts on “My mother’s piano”

  1. I checked out the link you provided, but, frankly, I have no idea what they're talking about.

    I'm probably less confrontational than is good for me, meaning I sometimes give in when I shouldn't, at considerable cost to my self-esteem. One reason I write a blog, is so I can give my opinion about things, sometimes very trivial things, without getting shouted down. Yeah, someone can confront me in the comment section, but I have all the time in the world to come up with a good reply, usually a good deal after my anger has subsided. But, of course, people do squabble about the silliest things on-line. I follow a number of entertainment-oriented blogs, and in the comment section of one, all kinds of nasty insults were being traded over whether the old sitcom MR BILKO was funny or not! If these people were in a room together, I'd bet they'd come to blows. C'mon, it's subjective! You either laugh at BILKO or you don't. You can't "prove" it's funny by calling someone a jerk.

    Speaking of sitcoms, I know you didn't mean it to be funny, but your mother playing the piano while your father tries to drown her out with the TV, did sound like something straight out of a comedy. I wish my parents confrontations had been limited to something like that. They weren't, and I know, from what you've written in the past, neither were yours. A thin line between comedy and tragedy indeed.

  2. My mother's voice is never quiet, much less silent. It used to be such that no one else could ever be heard. I don't know that this is true of your mother but I think quite often as daughters we feel this to be true that we can never rid ourselves of our mothers. I don't know that I would even want to but I do wish it could be more quiet at times. 🙂

  3. Elisabeth,

    The way in which you seque from one seemingly unrelated topic to another amazes me. Going from the white wall in your refrigerator to rubbing cream onto your mother's legs, or from some new controversy {which I confess I know nothing about – remember according to Monica's reading or my progressing moon I'm suffering an internal conflict so loud I cannot hear anything else} to a scene from childhood and your mother's piano. I couldn't help wondering what the name was on the gold plate? The story itself is like a musical composition – beginning placidly then rising to a crescendo at the end. Maybe a Bach fugue? Your stories thrill me. Make my days rich & beautiful. Thank you for this gift,


  4. Debating feminism can get way out of control and in some cases leads to a punch up, being a male i tend to bite my lip and say nothing. Is it really worth suing someone for defamation because the only people who really win are the lawyers and solicitors who charge like wounded bulls :-).

  5. This crescendo ed like a piano concerto, Elisabeth, and tears pricked at my eyes at the end in the same way that music can evoke them as well.

    I am often drawn to conflict and feel exhilarated during and after it. But I note, too, and feel sober about its effect on my psyche and body — the racing heart, the agitation. It somehow doesn't seem healthy —

  6. The saga over at your place continues to hot up, Jennifer. I'm glad i weighed in for my two bob's worth but I'm not sure I can offer much more. I suppose it depends on who says what and when. I've just watched the clips on Marjoe Gortner about the wealth gathering evangelists. It's pretty extraordinary stuff.

    Thanks for encouraging me to weigh in on the debate, Jennifer. I salute you your courage in not allowing yourself to be silenced.

  7. Life is often a thin line between tragedy and comedy, Kirk, which in part is why this blog furore at no place for sheep fascinates me, not only the content but the passion behind people's beliefs and positions.

    It reminds me in some ways of the conflict in Gulliver's Travels between the 'Big- endians' and the 'Small endians', you know, the one group who argued you must eat the egg from the pointy end and the other group who argued you must eat it from the broad end. A ridiculous dispute, but as with your sitcom, one over which people came to blows.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  8. I'm among the small proportion of people in this country Philip who do not possess a TV, in part because of my childhood experiences and also those of my husband, as well as our shared view that too much TV can reduce the learning capacity of children. After nearly fifteen years without one, I can only imagine that background noise now.

    Thanks, Philip.

  9. My mother's voice is not loud, Rubye Jack, but she is persistent and has a way of continually drawing the attention back to herself, which may be one of the reasons I'm forever trying to assert myself online.

    Mothers and daughters can have a powerful dynamic about who's on centre stage and who's in the wings. It can be a real battle.

    Thanks, Rubye Jack.

  10. You are generous with your view of my writing, India. It is a pleasure to read your review, and I'm glad that these thoughts work for you. Thanks, India.

  11. I agree, Windsmoke, suing for defamation is not usually a helpful way to go. It might keep the lawyers in business but it can cause others wasted hours of worry and grief.


  12. I think there's an element of anger and aggression, Elizabeth, that is necessary and healthy, but it's all to do with the degree of anger and what we do with such feelings. I

    I'd say it's important to be able to get angry but it's a problem if we respond either by passively turning into victims who ask to be kicked or alternatively if we go out and shoot someone rather than be the victim. Extremes, I know, but extremes are what give anger it's bad reputation.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  13. I am not fond of confrontation. I avoid it if at all possible. That doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions—and, occasionally, strong opinions—but I am acutely aware that that is what they are and others are entitled to their own views. I was brought up in a household where the man was the head of the family and that was the end of it. In fact once my father said (or rather declaimed), “In this household I am God,” (there’s scriptural precedent—something to do with Abraham as best I can remember—but don’t get me started) and he believed that. Obviously once I grew up I was going to be affected and either embrace his views or reject them. Three guesses which way I went.

    I have mixed views on Feminism though because Feminists come in all shapes and sizes. In principle I agree that men and women are complementary (it’s a better word that ‘equal’) and that’s how I’ve always treated the women in my life; we balance each other out and compensate for the other’s weaknesses. I get irritated by the Feminists who think they’re better than men. Yes, in some ways women are better than men—all you have to do is look at academic scores are school—but on the sports field the boys are clearly faster and stronger. This is why I prefer the term ‘complementary’ to ‘equal’. In general I have always preferred the company of women.

    We never had a piano in our house—neither of my parents had a musical bone in their body although they both thought they could sing (my dad like Bing Crosby, my mum like Gracie Fields)—but when my dad was made redundant from the cotton mill he used his redundancy to buy me a electronic organ (a Yamaha B220R—I can still remember) because at the time I was showing an interest in music but I certainly wasn’t badgering him for any kind of musical instrument. He knew the shop manager who opened the place up late so we could go in and have a proper go. It cost £600 which in 1973 or thereabouts would have been quite a bit. I took to it like a duck to water, taught myself to read music and, very quickly thereafter, started writing the stuff. It’s all gone now—tossed in a fit of self-righteousness about twenty years ago—all bar one rather jazzy piece on an old cassette tape somewhere. For the longest time I believed I would be a composer and the notion of being a writer simply never entered my head; writing was like painting, I did it for a bit of fun and nothing more. My best friend’s parents had not one but two mini grand pianos and we used to jam on them but I was never anywhere near as good on a piano as I was on the organ where my left hand was only used for playing chords.

  14. My mother stunned us with her stony silences – silences so loud that they deafened.

    I'm not a great one for arguning – I am aware that I sound stupid and whiney so I pretend I am above that sort of trival nonsense and carry on regardless.

    Feminism is its own worst enemy. (in my opinion)

  15. I veer between the two – fighting full on, or crying my eyes out; rarely taking middle ground.

    I wish I could somehow, but, like you, I can read/hear about debates such as the one Jennifer Wilson is in, but to participate or be the main subject would be soul-suckingly exhausting. I'm happy to stick to observations, people watching, learning my own silly lessons and farting!

  16. Good for Jennifer Wilson, thanks for the link.

    I think you mean sliced tusks, not trunks when you are talking about ivory. And when the elephants are finally gone, the next generation can look back in dismay at the conflict materials from the Congo used in consumer electronics like cell phones and laptops.

    The war memories are very poignant — were you a child when you experienced bombing raids?

  17. Dear Elisabeth, your writing always reflects your train of thoughts and the way you make connections in your mind and the subjects you refer to.
    I am like you, I hate conflicts. I need and crave to be liked, even though I am ticked skinned and can take some occasional abuse. If I was dealing with an issue like that I woudl most likely withdraw from the fight. Or rather, I would most likely never be in that situation as I am too cowardly to bring up subjects that can be perceived as provoking.
    I often wonder (without being disrespectful to the writers) if those that get involved in such disputes actually on some level thrive on starting heating discussions. After all, they have to expect that when posting about controversial subjects.
    The story of the piano is very melancholic, I guess most of your childhood was, dear friend.

  18. It takes a great deal to get my hackles up when I feel threatened with confrontation I decide whether it is really worth the bother to persue the matter as some persons just argue for the sake of arguing and don't really have a mind of their own but feed off the ideas of others 😀 Great writing!

  19. I just had a peek at No place for sheep and it's one of the betetr blogs I've come across.

    I loved, loved, loved that photo of your mother's piano. Can you imagine that I grew up in a small flat (just one bedroom) with a similar by the front door? You took me down memory lane. Thank you very much.

    Greetings from London.

  20. I found my grandmother's piano at my uncle's house in Philadelphia in the year before last and all I could feel was sadness and my grandmother's lost dreams. It was such a hard time back then.

    Great post.

  21. I don't like fights and walk away from them. Usually they're over something trivial and no interaction from me will make any difference to the outcome.
    I've wondered about piano keys now and again. Mostly when people say I wonder how many elephants died for this. I think probably only one, there's a lot of ivory in one pair of tusks, surely that's enough for one piano?

  22. I've a feeling many bloggers are like you and me, Jim. They prefer a degree of harmony in their communications. It's easy enough to misunderstand and be misunderstood in day to day life, let alone on the screen, where it's so much more likely. Throw in a dose of hostility and it's even worse.

    So I prefer a conciliatory rather than a conflictual approach most of the time. Though I have had my moments when I've tried to assert my authority on line and I've never found it satisfactory. It seems to make things worse. One however vaguely hostile comment begets a similar or worse response on and on in an endless battle. It's not worth it.

    As for feminism, I'm wary of all the '…isms'. They tend to be polarizing and can set people's hackles on edge. So although I support the notion of respect between the genders, in all their diverse forms, not just male and female, and I would call myself a feminist of sorts, it's the feminism born of the 1970s and before then with the suffragettes. It's the feminism that fights for all minorities not just women and the feminism that does not consider there is only one type of woman or man, or person, only one type of feminism. It's more inclusive than that. It's the feminism that also includes a masculine view, mutual respect for each other etc etc.

    And your musicality does not surprise me, Jim. You have such a strong sense of rhythm and that is also developed through music. What a pity you threw out those early compositions. You never know what you might have found among them.

    Thanks, Jim

  23. It is amazing how loud certain silences can be, Jane, especially when they emanate from important people like our mothers. And when we try to protest at this unspoken hostility it can sound high pitched and therefore in vain. As for feminism, it can run the sad fate of so many causes, it can become exaggerated and therefore less likely to be heard, like a good whinge, despite the validity of its efforts, namely to emancipate women.

    Thanks, Jane.

  24. 'Soul-suckingly exhausting' is a great way to describe the impact of the awful battles some folks get into, especially when they are threatened with legal action. I know myself to some extent , I've been there, for daring to speak out.

    And because I despise certain 'conspiracies of silence' I'm grateful for the likes of Jennifer Wilson, only I cannot stand up and yell out loud with the rest of them for fear of sounding inarticulate and under theorised.

    Most tend to wax eloquent on theory. I take a personal, non-theoretical approach and it does not work so well under the ravages of intellect and the academy.

    Thanks, Kath.

  25. Thanks for alerting me to the distinction between trunks and tusks, Mary. You're right. It's funny that I didn't notice it earlier, but it's easy to overlook such bloopers when you're the writer.

    As for the bombs dropping during the second world war, they happened before my time and therefore only in my imagination.

    Thanks, Mary.

  26. My childhood had its ups and downs, Zuzana, as I expect most childhoods have, but I tend to remember the more dramatic moments, which is also not surprising. Such moments are the most emotionally laden.

    I see myself as strangely both thin skinned and thick skinned, Zuzana – if such were possible. Perhaps you are similar. I cannot imagine you as purely thick skinned given the sensitivity of your blog.


  27. It seems to me it's good to allow yourself to be stirred up in the face of another's anger, Rose, but perhaps not to be too overwhelmed by it. Not that you suggest you are.

    When I get overwhelmed I can't think for myself, at least not temporarily. It's hard to hold onto your head when others are losing theirs.

    Thanks, Rose.

  28. I'm glad you enjoyed this trip down memory lane, Cuban and that you took a look at Jennifer Wilson's blog. I think it is a good blog, a thoughtful place where a degree of heat is inevitable I suspect. After all Jennifer herself claims the place is not for sheep.

    Thanks, Cuban.

  29. Pianos are so evocative, Pandora. They bring back rich memories from the past. And yours of your grandmother's piano in Philadelphia seems all the more poignant , especially given the location, this sense of other worlds and other times.

    Thanks, Pandora.

  30. Ivory tusks evoke images of a bygone era for me, River.

    A time when our ancestors were less likely to think of the damage done. They'd wade in head first and feel entitled to the kill – perhaps. I can't say, but I'm with you on avoiding conflict wherever and whenever possible, though sometimes conflict's unavoidable and necessary, but not to the point of murder real or virtual.

    Thanks, River.

  31. your piece, is a soft hand, elisabeth, important, resonating. so many voices present to be heard.

    i've just come from listening to the news interview. what i reject mostly is MTR's desire to censor all pornography. let's be brave enough to look at the underlying and complicated issues and elevate sexuality to a new level while addressing equality and human rights at the same time. let's not blanket everyone with a phrase like all pornography is evil. that would be as foolish and wrong as saying, all christians are evil. only the ones that want to proselytize and impose, pornographer or christian. i am not saying pornography is good. i am saying there is goodness to be found in an exploration of sexuality. i am not saying christianity is bad, but i am saying no one has the right to dictate prudence to the world. fundamental rights, yes, but not prudence.


  32. This is so moving Elisabeth. My mother had a piano very like that, and of course back then it never occurred to me that the keys were made from elephant's tusks. You pack so much richness into these pieces of writing – conflict, music, feminism, elephants, piano-makers . . . Thank you.

  33. I clicked on the link and read Jennifer's post and some of the comments. Not knowing anything at all about the woman in question made this reading a rather peculiar, if fascinating, experience. I'll have to google and see what I can find, from the comments she sounds like a religious fundamentalist trying to use feminism as a tool to further her agenda. I'm sure Stephen King could write a great novel about such a character!

    I used to hate conflict, too, but don't mind it now.

  34. Thanks for your thoughts on this difficult debate, erin. MTR perhaps assumes too much for too many and I'm with Jennifer Wilson about the bullying nature of using threats of legal action as a silencing mechanism. You and I both know full well how dangerous silencing can be.

    Thanks erin.

  35. I imagine today's piano keys are made from some synthetic material, Juliet, but when I was little I was so aware of the nature of ivory. It both appealed to me in its beauty and horrified me, all those dead or tuskless elephants.

    Thanks, Juliet.

  36. Some people do enjoy a battle, metaphorically speaking, Jozien and we need them. If every one reacted like me and shied away from conflict where would we be? I suppose the issue though is how we fight: whether fairly or deceitfully. I reckon you'd be fair in so far as you could.

    Thanks, Jozien

  37. You're right I reckon, Eryl. Stephen king could probably write a great novel about such characters – shades of his book Misery – all that effort to force people into seeing one's own point of view, even if it kills them.

    Thanks, Eryl.

  38. Hello Elizabeth:
    We have so enjoyed reading this wonderfully evocative post with its haunting descriptions, not least the hearse-like instrument and the poignant image of those poor, dead African elephants whose tusks supplied the ivories.

    Like you, we tend to avoid if at all possible confrontation and, unless a dearly held principle is threatened, believe that life has so much more to offer than to engage in unnecessary argument. But in our case this may well be simply becoming older!!

    Reading your replies to others who have commented, we discover that you too do not have a television; we have been without for over thirty years and miss it not one iota.

    Thank you so much for visiting our blog and signing up as a Follower which has led us to your own – a splendid discovery and a joyous way to start the weekend. And thank you too for your comment to which we will make reply later this morning.

  39. I was intrigued by your line referring to your father's cries for attention in the midst of the cacophany … you rarely write of your father in such a tone (I understand some of the reasons why) – it added a new dimension to the complexity of family.

    We have a television here, but no service, so we only use it for playing (imported) DVDs, usually documentaries. While our children were growing up, we never owned one. I think you are right in your view that they interfere with learning. They certainly interfere with playing for small children.

    Best wishes Isabel

  40. I don't like confrontations and do my best to stay away from those who seem to get enjoyment from conflict. I feel sorry for what we do as a species to other animals and to ourselves.

  41. Don't know how I missed this post.

    Your mother's piano is so much like my mother's. I'm flooded with memories right now.

    I didn't read the confrontational piece. Yesterday, I sat with a friend who lectured me on her politics for an hour and then filled the next hour with why I need to return to the Mormon church. Too much confrontation.

  42. I'm sorry to have so long getting back to you here, Jane ad Lance. Sometimes my blogs get away from me.

    It's good to read from you that ours is not the only household without a television. It's strange how little I miss it, though my children would prefer to have one despite its absence over the years. They watch DVDs and download stuff from the computer but it's not quite the same. Even so none of us miss the advertisements.

    Thanks, Jane and Lance.

  43. And yours is another household without a television, Isabel. My goodness there are more of us than I had imagined.

    I'm late in responding here, Isabel. This comment ran away from me. looking ahead to future posts, I hope you enjoyed your birthday.
    Thanks, Isabel.

  44. I'm with you about the savagery of confrontations, Syd but sometimes it is necessary to express disagreement. In my view it's not so much the conflict as how we deal with it.

    If we bury our anger too much it can sneak out when we least expect. Therefore I'm all for a slow and steady recognition of our disagreements and efforts to share some understanding of them without bloodshed, real or virtual. But it's never easy

    Thanks, Syd.

  45. The sort of conflict you describe, Kass, is the sort I'd rather do without for all my attempts at consensus in my comment to Syd above.

    That sort of bible bashing, trying to force someone into agreeing with your point of view, espousing your religion etc is not a fair expression of conflict in my view. It involves bulling and bludgeoning another and it's not helpful. I reckon that sort of confrontation needs a solid defense. Good on you for not giving in.

    On a lighter note, I'm glad the image of my mother's piano bought back good memories of your mother's piano.

    Thanks, Kass.

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