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No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home

After years of temporary accommodation and scarce personal possessions, lockdown and a second-hand baby grand piano gave me space to grow.

20 May

Charity Atukunda

The piano has arrived, making a stamp in our kitchen. It must be strange for it to be in the company of new people. I hope we can appreciate it as much as the last family did. Wheels on the legs must mean it has become accustomed to frequent transitions; rough chunks of splintered wood show it has lived many lives, been neglected even. Equally, it could prove experience; the ability to adapt to new families. There are permanent stains on the top of the lid, as if the piano may have even played the role of a coffee table in a previous chapter. 

“I hope I can do it justice”, I thought, but this instrument just looked too extravagant to be placed in the temporary box flat I live in with my mum.

By the time the piano arrived, mum and I had been moving from one box house to the next for the last ten years – half of my lifetime. It just so happened that we had found ourselves stuck for a little bit longer in this one, due to Covid-19. Usually I didn’t bother unpacking. Notepads and pens, the only items that I took pride in, stayed neatly organised in my rucksack. Even if the bed I was sleeping on was provided for ‘temporary’ use, those books with pages of lyrics that I had written myself were mine. But while everything for us had always been so temporary, lockdown seemed painfully permanent. 

“Wheels on the legs must mean it has become accustomed to frequent transitions; rough chunks of splintered wood show it has lived many lives, been neglected even. Equally, it could prove experience; the ability to adapt to new families”

Before the first lockdown I had just started university, studying music, which meant part of my course was regular performance. I had always been comfortable in front of the stage as a singer, but as I’ve entered the early years of adulthood, I’m much more conscious of the silence when an audience is listening. I figured that university would get rid of these insecurities but instead, it exacerbated them even more. Being on the stage for ‘practice’ performances with the young faces either looking back at me, or looking down at their phones, caused me so much anxiety. I suppose I had this high expectation that I would click with a group of friends and they may be cheering me on, but all I heard was silence, with the occasional car driving past. None of my course mates’ faces felt familiar or comforting, and I would constantly remind myself that I needed to travel back home to mum, while they all went onto post-performance social events. I couldn’t get involved, I was too disconnected. 

Having the constant weight on my shoulders that mum and I would be moving house again, I wanted to create a circle of friends, a homely atmosphere at university. It became apparent that my circumstance hindered my ability to connect with others my age. I wasn’t interested in going for a pint after a lecture or getting swept up into a temporary relationship. I wanted a certain routine and it just was not happening. 

One day, my mum came home casually saying that she had found a free baby grand piano on Gumtree. I knew bringing in a piano may make this temporary flat feel more like a home, but I had my essentials and compensating for what we don’t have with a piano would not help. We would be moving house soon once again, so why bother with more things to shift at a later date. My response was a little placid – I didn’t say much at all. 

But then the piano arrived. It sat there in the light and dark of the window, and I stared at the instrument, unsure of what to do with it. I placed a vase of flowers on top, but, worrying they were too heavy, I took them off again. Opening up the top lid, I was taken back by all of the perfectly placed wires and tangles. I felt silly, I didn’t know the technical terms yet. I thought this was the kind of stuff only seen in American mansions. And yet, now I possessed one. I was overwhelmed at first, gazing at the piano daily while I made my morning coffee. 

“I thought this was the kind of stuff only seen in American mansions. And yet, now I possessed one”

One day mum went out for the essential food shop, giving me the space to approach the piano without her hearing me through the thin, plastered walls. I found myself gravitating towards it as soon as she shut the front door. As I sat down, I looked at my hands, unsure on where or how to place them. I had never had piano lessons. Apprehensive about how it may sound, I picked three white chords that looked like they should match. I played a very off note, and quickly looked up how to position my hands for each note. After a five-minute video, I found myself piecing together the simplest of chords. It sounded correct. As I became more comfortable, I started to sing – make up melodies even – while I was playing. There was that static silence between each note as I figured out how to transition from one to the other, but it felt good. I had accomplished the starting point. 

As mum came back through the door I said, “Can I play you something?”. I could see that she felt proud I had approached the piano, but I quickly backtracked, saying, “It’s not good, obviously. It is just a few notes. Don’t judge me”. The anxiety was rushing back to me, under pressure to perform, please an audience, and put a confident mask on. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her nodding to the chords I was playing with approval. Naturally, I smiled. It was nice to know that my audience was invested in what I was playing. In the moment, I forgot my fear of judgment and simply kept  playing. The silence in between each chord that was played, was filled with mum’s words of validation – “It’s really good Milli!” I felt a rush of adrenaline; all I wanted was to keep going, practicing and then talking about it with mum over dinner.

“The piano became a way for my mum and I to connect throughout the pandemic, but also through our ongoing housing situation”

I could breathe again. The piano became my safe space. I could play in lockdown without worrying about an audience. A year later, the piano is no longer a stranger that sits in my kitchen, but a piece that I am drawn to. The piano seems to be my outlet. Social interaction can be daunting and, as we all ease out of lockdown, the concept of replying to questions like “what have you been up to?”, or filling up space with pointless conversation, does not seem so appealing. Subconsciously, I find myself sitting at the piano – the feeling that fuels me after a good practice is far more rewarding for me than suffering a hangover after a night out. 

Now, I am in a space where I can offer something other than my voice. I can add “I sing, and play a bit of the piano”. 

I have never felt so creative and in the moment with something musical than I do with this second-hand baby grand. Once the piano became a firmly established new character in our family, our conversations shifted from Covid-19 talk, to piano practice and how I was finding the process of learning it. The piano became a way for my mum and I to connect throughout the pandemic, but also through our ongoing housing situation. Now I know I will eventually find my place amongst hundreds of students, and feeling accompanied by the piano in the four walls of our home has given me security and the confidence that no institute could ever provide. I don’t need validation from anybody else.

Now, my mum and I are stable – we’re not going anywhere. Every piece of furniture planted in this home of ours, is there to stay. After ten years of running with uncertainty, this is our real home. The keys are ours, the walls are ours and we can stop moving around with heavy bags in each hand.

The piano truly made its stamp, and represents our permanence in this new home. This will be the last one, an end to the run. The piano is the new focus. We don’t need to think about moving again and can simply use music as a gateway to building better relationships and moving into this exciting stage ahead. We have all heard it – that we should “stay connected” during the pandemic. In this chapter of its life, the piano is doing just that for me, for my relationship with my mum and my overall mental health.