Gifts by Joe Mills

“Why do we remember the past but not the future?”

– Stephen Hawking

It’s the children’s bed-time, a transition period that is almost always difficult in our house. To stop myself from nagging the kids or getting pulled into yet another argument, I take myself away and sit at the piano. In the future, when my daughter and son reminisce, one probably will say, “Remember how Daddy would go to the piano when he didn’t want to deal with us? I hated that.”

I work through a few exercises in the book and then turn to “Simple Gifts,” something I used to play often, but haven’t for a couple months. Suddenly I hear the son say, “I know that song!” He stops brushing his teeth, crashes around in his bedroom, and then comes downstairs, naked, carrying his recorder. He gets on the bench beside me and tentatively blows a few notes. After a moment, he says, “Wait, Daddy, wait,” runs back to his room, rummages around some more, and returns with a crumpled piece of sheet music called “The Gift to Be Simple.” Different title, same song.

Maybe I should send him back to the bed-time routine. Maybe this is just a stalling tactic. Plus, as soon as his sister realizes he’s broken from the sequence, she’ll sprint downstairs as well.

Part of the difficulty of parenting is knowing when to be flexible. This is compounded by my son’s legal-like focus on precedent. If we do something once, such as let him stay up late or watch a PG-13 movie, or eat only Pringles for lunch, then in his mind, that’s been established as a pattern and a basic right.

But this feels different. So, we sit at the piano, the ten-year old naked boy and I, working out the melody of an old Shaker hymn.

There are moments that are evocative and poignant even as they’re happening. They seem to be eddies in our lives, gathering in and concentrating our emotions. I’m moved each time my daughter cuts my hair, sometimes remembering the hours she spent as a toddler combing wigs she had thrown over my head, sometimes imagining her cutting my hair in my old age. I picture her years from now visiting me from whatever city and life she’s in and getting out scissors to make me look a little nicer. I imagine her doing this as she visits me in assisted living, and how bittersweet it will be, both of us remembering the many times she did my hair in the past. Sometimes I see it so clearly, it’s as if it’s already happened, but I know that it’s just one of many possible futures.

My son sits beside me, legs tucked under him, blowing notes with spontaneous joy. The boy who can be so infuriating; the boy who is so beautiful.

We play together, something that’s often difficult for us to do since he argues with everything, literally everything I say, and I constantly, literally constantly, correct him. Even now, I resist the urge to say, “Why did you stop playing in the recorder group at school?” and “Why don’t you play more often?” He has such musical talent. He has so many talents. I don’t want them to go undeveloped. He’ll regret it. I’ll regret it. I resist the urge to say anything at all.

For a brief moment, the music binds us.

A period of grace in our often turbulent lives.

A small simple gift.

Joe Mills
Joe 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 six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. 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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