I like things. No, I like things, tangible things.
There’s a line in a Stephen King book that’s stuck with me, about an interview that may or may not have happened – I can’t get Google to confirm or deny it. The interview subject is a Holocaust survivor. When asked why, in the face of mounting evidence that the Germans were exterminating his people, he did not flee, the subject says merely “we had a piano.”
A piano is never just a piano; it’s a symbol of affluence, of things that you can provide for your children, or family, continuity and a place in the community. It’s also, of course, a literal anchor. A piano is huge, heavy. You can’t take it on a plane. You can’t even put it in a car. That piano will hold you in place long after you stop taking lessons, when it’s stood silent for years. That is the nature of pianos.
It is also in the nature of pianos to collect other things. A postcard that you set down. The video you mean to return. A handful of change left in your pocket from a trip. Movie tickets and bobby pins. Eventually, you cannot use or recognize your piano; it has accreted to itself the small detritus of your life.
The nature of pianos, then, is to anchor lives and accrete objects. These are not dissimilar ends. Rather, the objects themselves are anchors for memory and the piano is their dusty gathering-place.
I cleaned off my piano this week, dusting carefully around and over the accretion of objects. Found a shoebox of old postcards, small change from the months I studied in Poland. The hand-drawn sketch my father made of the plantings around my house, carefully annotated in his architects’ capitals.
Each of these objects serves a purpose.
I know people who are unsentimental, who pride themselves on “going paperless” and never saving so much as a movie ticket. But for me, I need these things. They are tangible proof that my memories exist.
My family doesn’t “do” heirlooms. There is no plate passed down from my great-grandmother and preserved for Thanksgivings. No jewelry with stories. I have a ring of my grandfather’s, and one of my grandmother’s, but no stories accompanied them to my jewelry box. I do not know what memories they anchored, but those were not bequeathed to me.
Does it sound Victorian to say that there’s a history of madness in my family? Probably. But I had whooping cough, so now I’m Victorian too, and I’ll say it. I live with the knowledge that at some point in my life it’s likely that I’ll untether from reality. That I, like the rest of my mother’s line (and how Victorian is that) will simply start writing my own reality.
That terrifies me.
I need my reality to be real, and provable. To be tangible and accountable and measurable. Look, the movie ticket says. You saw the Pokemon movie. With Dave. You enjoyed it, even if you thought that the ending was a Jim Crow-esque “separate but equal” solution to the question of what to do with Mew Two. The ink is almost worn off that ticket. These objects are not my memories, of course, but they’re evidence. Proof I can point to that my version of reality is still aligned with the universe’s, that I haven’t spun a world of my own and imposed it on actuality.
The piano is clean; the small accretions that tie me to reality have been stored in the shoebox on the shelf. I anchor my reality with these things, and I am grateful to them.