“Hey Momma,” my twelve year old, Ally, says from the top of the stairs. “I want to know if you’ve heard this song.” I am in the kitchen making pralines, anchored to the pot, stirring away. Ally is supposed to be studying for her final exams, and I want to ask her why she isn’t. But she’s in 6th grade, naïve to multiple-choice deception and Scantron dizziness. I let it slide. She comes over to me and I see a big image of a full moon on her screen. “It’s by Claude Debussy,” she says, murdering the pronunciation.
I guess within the first few notes. “That’s the soundtrack of my childhood.”
In my house, Clair de Lune was known as the Moonlight Sonata; that’s what my father called it. Hearing it play on Ally’s laptop, I was transported back to my old house on Arcadia, my father seated at the piano, carefully picking out the notes of this haunting, beautiful song. The upright piano was stationed in the corner of our terra-cotta painted living room, surrounded by windows that looked out onto our big oak trees. With their immense shade, they cast a deep green glow into the room. At night, the lamps glowed in golden hues like the light of a candle.
With his back to the room, playing away, I could stand and listen and think about him, how he got up so early every day to work on people’s teeth. He was always long-gone before I woke up. But while he played the Moonlight Sonata, he was right there in front of me, this man whose attention I craved. It was the best kind of time to spend with him, because we didn’t have to talk to each other. In many ways, my father felt like a stranger. When I tried to talk to him, I stumbled over my words. But as he played this gorgeous music, he became a man I could know and understand.
Anchored to the bench, he was present, and, even if he wasn’t facing me, I sensed his full presence during that little space in time. Maybe some people aren’t knowable through words. Maybe they can only be known through music, and for my father, this was the Moonlight Sonata. The elegance and refinement of this song washed away the spit and blood that filled his days, and the tension and stress of being a provider.
I heard his life in this song, and my grandmother was a major overtone throughout. I heard her in the way the notes get loud, and repeat and plead, the same way she forced his mysterious bond with this music. When he was a child, she commanded him to return home after school and practice for hours. He wasn’t allowed to play football or be with his friends. With age, my father worked to transform the curse into a blessing. Playing classical piano became a release. He mostly hunted, fished and played golf, all away from home. Having him home was one of the best parts about his playing.
The lyrical delicacy of the melody that follows the song’s beginning requires two hands. Each plays different notes. The music gets complex, like his life had become. Watching him manage the song, I could reflect on how he navigated his life. The thoughtful execution of this song was redemption from the sadness—his alcoholic father, his unhappy, abusive mother, and the pain in his back as he worked every day.
Sometimes, he would rush through the song, impatient to sound it out, or sometimes, he would mess up and get frustrated, or, he’d move through it quickly to get to a part that was troubling him. He worked hard to learn the song, and I got to hear the manifold attempts, until it became part of his repertoire and he would simply play it. I think of it as his theme song. As an adult, I would laugh because he was so predictable. Whenever he saw a piano, he would sit down and play out the first few notes of Moonlight Sonata. I was always left wishing for the rest, because his visits to our house were infrequent and always on the way to somewhere else.
He never learned another song as important to him as the Moonlight Sonata. It was the pinnacle of his adult piano playing. He played other music—Chopin, Liszt—but whenever I thought of him playing, it was Debussy. I can hear his voice saying the song’s name. Scenes from his life rise up out of the notes, like I am remembering a favorite movie.
The beginning tempo sets a melancholy mood. First, the music lingers, but then it blossoms, and jumps from rapturous to sad to joyous. This song is like the playing out of a life, the way it gets softer again after it is loud, like old age. The repetition of the melodies is like the daily routines we all have. I see my father exercising, I see him at his Rockport house, in the early morning, watching the wildlife from his porch. In the end, there is a deepening and understanding, as in life, my father coming to some kind of resolution with what he has experienced.
Listening to the Moonlight Sonata allows for the very essence of being present. It’s one of the most concrete ways, besides meditating, to take notice of the present moment and live it fully. In this time and space, my father is now gone from my life, but when I listen to the Moonlight Sonata, he returns.