Cuttings by Joe Mills

Before I had kids, I was confident that I wouldn’t be the type of parent who would cut the crusts off sandwiches. My attitude would be “Deal with it” or “You don’t want the crusts? Then you cut them off.” But, it turns out there’s a big difference between the parent I thought I would be and the one I actually am. I have a child who doesn’t like crusts, so . . . I cut them off. After all, why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I make a sandwich that he actually will eat? As for giving him the knife, we have medical insurance, but it’s not that good. So, I ignore my younger, judgmental, self who watches in disgust, and I just get on with it.

But these moments are upsetting to me, not because of the crust-cutting, but because of what happens next. Do I throw the crusts out? Do I compost them? Do I grind them into bread crumbs for later use? No. I scrape some peanut butter and jelly across them and cram them into my mouth. Not because I’m hungry. Not because I want them. But because I don’t want to “waste” them.

Parenting has turned me into a human garbage disposal. I finish the remains of juice boxes, slices of gnawed-on pizza, spoonfuls of yogurt clinging to containers. Often, I do this, while alone, standing at the kitchen sink. To be fair, I always have had scavenger tendencies. On a plane trip, I once tucked a pat of butter into my shirt pocket to “save for later,” then I took a nap and awoke to a melted grease circle on my chest. Having kids, however, has amplified this behavior.

It’s not just food. It’s the stickers, the birthday gift bag trinkets, the stuffed animals, the junk that floods into our lives and that I won’t just throw out. “Maybe we’ll use these someday,” I think, cramming crap into drawers, “For some kind of art project or something.” So, it’s not surprising when the kids took a few piano lessons then stopped that I insisted we keep their books. Danielle wanted to donate them to the Goodwill, but I wouldn’t until I had “used” them. We had paid for them, and I was going to get our money’s worth.

Then, surprisingly, I did.

The day came that I felt more oppressed than usual by the clutter. Things had to go. But, I could only justify getting rid of the children’s music books if I first went through them and played the songs (even though I didn’t play piano). I imagined this as akin to a scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night where the protagonist, Dick Diver, burns books to keep warm, but before he does so, he commits each one to memory. In other words, I wanted to see my action as Romantic, heroic, not as the garbaging of crusts, which is what it was.

I sat at the piano, opened the Primer, figured out the numbers my fingers were assigned, and began to puzzle out the tunes. I didn’t bother to learn them; that wasn’t the point. I just wanted to do them so I could jettison the book.

Along with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” there were the ubiquitous “Ode to Joy” and “Old McDonald,” and I thought, “No wonder the kids quit.” Then I came to a piece called “Frankenstein Waltz.” I played it, then played it again, then again, and each time I found myself oddly moved. I liked the melody, and I liked playing it. As a result, after I finished, I didn’t put the book in the giveaway pile instead I put it to one side. I returned to the “Frankenstein Waltz” several times over the next couple days, playing it slower, faster, softer, louder. I found myself walking around with the tune in my head and looking forward to sitting at the keyboard. I had no illusions that it sounded good or that I was performing a difficult task. I just liked playing it.

At first, I didn’t let anyone know what I was doing. I suspected an adult playing a children’s song over and over would seem pathetic or creepy or both. I would seem like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, repeatedly writing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Finally I did start playing with the family in the house. The kids, in kid-fashion, took it as a matter of course, and Danielle responded in just the right way. She didn’t laugh, or applaud, or condescend. She noticed but barely reacted. Later, I would wonder if this was her way of encouraging me, treating me like an animal that you don’t want to run away – pretending to ignore it and not making any sudden moves

After several weeks, I had the half dozen notes of “Frankenstein Waltz” down, and, in all modesty, I was getting pretty good at “Lemonade Stand” and “Grandmother’s Pie.” One night, as I played these, Danielle came over and said, “You need to move on from the children’s books.” She handed me one of her piano textbooks; she had been taking lessons from a teacher for more than a year. It felt thick and adult and intimidating. It wasn’t in primary colors. It didn’t have illustrations of clowns and balloons. It scared me. Using it would mean I was serious about learning to play the piano, and that seemed like too much of a statement and commitment. After all, I was just a crust-gobbler, a scavenger. Wasn’t I?

I put the book to one side, but I didn’t give it back and I didn’t bury it in the closet with some hazy thought of “maybe someday.” Instead, a few days later, when no one was around, I opened it. As I did so, I could sense my younger self watching, surprised yet again by my behavior, and this time I was equally surprised that he was refraining from his usual sneering. Instead, as I worked out the first tune, he seemed to be considering me warily, withholding judgment, at least for a while.

Joseph Mills
Joseph Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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