Rose Through Time by Harmke Buursma
A Forgotten Piano
Twelve pairs of bright young eyes stared up at me as I told them that a substitute English teacher would take over my classes next week. Well, maybe only ten pairs, as Tommy, a heavily freckled kid with glasses and a penchant for sticky fingers, was exchanging playing cards with his friend and classmate, Noah. A smart but easily distracted boy with piercing green eyes, who often wore Spider-Man t-shirts, and always had to show me his newest comic book.
I stopped talking and leaned against the desk which was cluttered with my students’ homework, colored pencils and pens, and a “#1 Teacher” mug I had received as a gift. I scraped my throat until Tommy and Noah stopped their whispering and looked up at me with embarrassment. There were only a few minutes left, so I continued on with what I had to say.
"Now that we are all paying attention, I want you to promise me that you will be nice to Miss Singer who will be your substitute teacher next week. Your writing assignment will still be due on Friday and I will grade it when I return. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and I will see you all in a week."
"We'll miss you, Miss Hart," a tall girl with strawberry blonde braids and a small upturned nose chirped from the front row.
"We'll miss you," the other kids joined in as they stood, picked up their backpacks, and filed out of the classroom. I lingered for a moment, taking in the rows of students’ desks and askew chairs, the motivational posters on the walls which were my idea to brighten up the room, and a large sheet of paper tacked up next to the white-board featuring impressions of the children's hands in multi-colored puff paint and their own hand scrawled names. My fingers traced the desks as I pushed in the chairs and tidied up the room before leaving.
My black purse started to buzz as I said goodbye to the receptionist. I reached around in its bowels until I pulled out my phone in its bejeweled case. The word “Mom” popped up on the screen in bright letters and I pressed the green button.
"There you are, honey, are you still coming over to help with the preparations? Maybe you can make a stop on the way and bring over more napkins; I'm worried we don't have enough. And since you are going anyways, can you also grab a bag of ice."
There was a local grocery chain near the school, so I swung by there to pick up the groceries. Snatching a shopping basket from the pile by the entrance, I wound my way through the aisles. My mother told me that we needed napkins and ice; so I grabbed those. Then I got myself a candy bar. I felt like I needed something sugary and chocolatey. Using self check-out, I paid for my items and dropped them in the trunk of my car. Once I settled back into the drivers seat, I took a moment for myself. I unwrapped the candy bar and bit into its chewy caramel center, savoring the sweet flavor. Then I stuffed the empty wrapper in my cup-holder, buckled my seat belt, and drove to meet my mom.
I parked my blue Nissan Sentra in the concrete driveway next to my mother's silver SUV and grabbed the napkins and bag of ice from the trunk. I walked up the ocher flagstones lined with smaller decorative stones that formed a path around the cream-colored, stucco, two storied house that used to be my grandmother's home. My fingers trembled and I choked back tears as I remembered how, as a child, I spent many days running around in the backyard in my bathing suit, my grandmother laughing and following me with the water hose until I tired, or how I helped her whip-up extravagant sorbets which we promptly devoured. I would never again see her kind face surrounded by a halo of silver hair, bound back on top of her head as she strained over a crossword puzzle or taste the golden crusted cinnamon apple pie that she baked each fall with crisp apples from her own tree.
I used my shoulder to press open the side door leading into the garage and dropped the heavy bag of ice on top of the freezer box in the corner. I set the napkins on top of the storage shelf holding tins filled with a random array of screws and nails along with clear plastic bins that held a bunch of scarves and other cold weather gear. Then, I popped the top of the freezer which was still stacked with storage containers filled with my grandma's homemade stew and assorted casseroles. I moved some containers to the side and plopped in the bag of ice that had started to thaw, leaving the tips of my fingers moist.
"Is that you, honey?" my mom's voice shouted from inside the house.
"Yeah, I just put the ice in the freezer," I replied. My mom opened the door leading from the garage to the kitchen, her hair tied up in a messy ponytail, tendrils of copper hair framing her face like a halo of fire interlaced with shoots of silver. Seeing my mom with bags beneath her eyes spreading out like bruises and her clothing in disarray when she normally was groomed to perfection, brought home my reason for being there. "Mom," my voice hitched; she took one step towards me and enveloped me with her arms.
"I know," she whispered against my ear; her chest sunk as she exhaled deeply. Her hand gripped mine tightly, and she led me further into the house. The air was heavy with the sulfuric scent of eggs and the cloying perfume of the floral bouquets placed throughout the house, making my stomach turn. My mom had prepped her chunky potato salad along with deviled eggs, made special by the finely minced onion and pinch of curry powder she added as her secret ingredients. I moved them from the kitchen island to the fridge which was already stocked with drinks.
"I already cleaned the kitchen, but I could use your help with the other rooms. The nursing home isn't coming until tonight to pick up the equipment," my mom said. The fold-able hospital bed my grandmother had spent her last days on stood stripped of its linen in the corner of the living room together with an empty IV pole, the only clinical distraction from the otherwise cozy but old-fashioned room. My grandmother had been fond of doilies, and she had them draped over every possible flat surface, including the big boxed TV that still worked. On the side table, next to the brown leather love seat, my mom had placed a poster-sized black and white portrait of my grandmother when she was younger. She stared straight at the camera with a smile that said she had a secret. Her hair was coiled up and fastened with a clip, wearing a white blouse and pearl earrings, the same earrings that now made their home in my jewelry box after she gave them to me for my eighteenth birthday.
"You look so much like her," my mom said. "She was about twenty-five in this picture, the same age you are now. I'm glad you got her chestnut curls and green almond shaped eyes instead of the reddish hair your late grandfather gave me."
"I miss her," I said.
"Me too, but I don't believe she's gone. She'll be here looking over us and I want to make sure she'll be proud of the reception tomorrow,” she said patting my cheek. “I'll go outside to set up the tables."
My mom slid open the French doors and went into the backyard. I fetched the old Hoover vacuum and ran it over the carpet to make sure the floor was clean and fluffy. My grandmother was never satisfied until her beige carpet had straight streaks vacuumed into it. I glanced around the room again, taking in the wedding and family pictures framed on the wall behind the love seat, porcelain knickknacks on the heavy mahogany cupboard, and the Bavarian cuckoo clock hanging on the other wall above the stereo system that still played tapes, then I placed the vacuum back into the utility closet and joined my mom outside. She had started to set up the party tables; I helped her fold out the last one and set out the plastic chairs. It wasn't supposed to be windy today and tomorrow so we set up one of those pop-up shades but fastened it with ground-stakes just in case. Thankfully, May wasn't scorching hot yet, so we could host outside, otherwise my grandmother's house would have gotten cramped.
"Will you wait for the nursing home people to pick up the bed? I've got to go home and get your dad some dinner and lay my things out for tomorrow. Your dress is already ironed and hanging in your old room. You are staying with us tonight, right? That way we can drive together tomorrow morning," my mom asked.
"Yes, I'll be there as soon as the bed's picked up. Save me a plate," I said and walked her to the front door. She took her purse from the wooden coat rack on the left side of the door and fished out the car keys. I waved her goodbye as she reversed into the street and took off in the silver SUV. Once my mom left, the house turned extremely quiet and reverent, almost like a tomb. I shook that thought away. This was my grandmother's house, and besides her last days, it was filled with good memories. I took a seat on the bench in front of my grandmother's piano and opened the lid to reveal the black and white keys. I remembered her sitting at it with a straight back and her head held high while she played; it would be sad to see the instrument go but I didn’t have the space and my mom never really learned to play, much to my grandmother's discontent. The piano beckoned me so I slid my fingers across the smooth keys, testing their sound, and then I couldn't help but play one of my grandmother's favorite songs. An hour later, around seven o'clock, the doorbell finally rang. I brushed my skirt as I stood, closed the lid to the piano, and went to answer the door.
"Hi, so sorry for your loss, ma'am. We're here to pick up the bed and IV pole," a young man, probably in his early twenties, with a Hillsbrook nursing home tag clipped to his blue polo said. I nodded and told him and his partner, a bigger middle-aged woman wearing a colorful scrub top, to follow me into the living room. There, the man started wheeling out the bed while the woman squeezed my arm sympathetically. She was holding a pen and some papers in her hand.
"I just need you to sign some paperwork while Ben loads up the van, okay?" she said with a warm tone. I nodded as she pointed at the sections I needed to put my signature on. Ben folded up the hospital bed then rolled it over the freshly vacuumed carpet and out the door. Now I’d have to vacuum the streaks back in, I thought, as I signed the paperwork. The woman was kind and didn’t rush me, but her gentle concern didn’t feel authentic. Instead, it felt performative. It wasn’t her fault. She probably had to deal with bereaved family members all the time. It didn't take long for Ben to finish loading. The Hillsbrook employees and medical equipment being gone from the house made a huge difference. The living room looked like a living room again and not like a glorified hospital room. Without the clinical reminder, it looked almost as if my grandmother could walk in again and sit down to watch her soap operas. I redid the vacuumed lines in the carpet and put away the old Hoover. Then, I straightened the decorative pillows scattered on the chair and sofa, walked out of the house with purpose, and locked the front door behind me.