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Palimpsest

Every Tuesday evening, I work at a nursing home.  My room is just down the hall from the chapel, with a beautiful grand piano.  Most of the time, the automatic player function on the piano is on, and I catch snatches of “Sunrise, Sunset” as I walk down the hall.

Around 5pm, though, a woman in her 60s wheels her mother into the chapel, turns off the automatic player, and sits down at the piano.  She asks, “What do want to hear, mom?” Her mother responds, “Just play.”

For the next hour or so, the woman sits at the piano, playing through hymns and simple classical pieces.  She has perfect posture, and she sometimes squints a little at her hands.  Her mother sits quietly in the wheelchair, positioned at the side of the piano bench.  At some point, the mother nods off a little, while the daughter continues to play.

When I see them, I can almost see their younger selves just underneath, like a palimpsest. There is the little girl, legs not long enough to reach the pedals, struggling through her first scales.  There is the young mother, sitting next to her daughter on the piano bench, patiently encouraging and teaching.  The young mother has perfect posture, and she sometimes squints a little at her daughter’s hands.

I have this habit I picked up from my mother: when I am with a good friend or close family member, I find myself looking at them with focused attention.  It can be disconcerting, as it seems like I’m staring.  What I’m doing, though, and what I think my mother is doing, is looking for the palimpsest.  If I focus enough, I can start to see the layers of younger selves, different lives, years lived.  This reminds me that a person carries with them all that they were and all that they are.  

As the grown daughter continues to play for her elderly mother, my last client of the night arrives.  She moves with a shuffling, Parkinson’s gait.  Her speech is slow and stilted.  She requires help to lie down on the table.  But as I look at her, I see the artist she was, the young woman with an unusual independent streak, the compassionate free spirit raising a daughter on music, art and books.  She is all these things, and it is a joy to see.

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