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Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem
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‘Heart and soul’ and why I ghosted my dad

I could never read music, but I could play, and oh, the memories I made at the piano with my mom
A duet on the piano. (iStock)
A duet on the piano. (iStock)

I’m ghosting my dad.

I’ve kept him on “read” for the last several weeks.

OK, he’s called a few times and I’ve answered because I’m not a total monster, but — I keep it brief, stones skipping off of water, no depth, just staccato: Yeah, all good, Dad. Shabbat shalom, love you.

I can’t go deep now.

It started when he sent me a simple text:

Hi Sarah: The piano no longer is playable. Time to get rid of it. OK? Love, Dad

The old upright piano in the living room.

We got it when I was 11.

That was 31 years ago.

And no, Dad, it is emphatically not OK.

He sent me me that text on October 65, just over two months after the war began, and I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with any more loss.

OK, I know, it’s just a piano — a hunk of polished wood, some ebony, some ivory. A little green antique lamp over the stand for the music books.

But it isn’t just a piano.

It was my piano and my mom’s piano

We LOVED that piano.

And I used to be a girl who played the piano.

My mom and I would sit on either side of the piano bench — she would take the high notes and I, the low. “Heart and Soul” was our fave, and she was good enough to play different melodies on the right hand with flourishes and trills while I would clunk along with the low notes: C to A to F to G, with a slip on E if I wasn’t focusing.

“You can’t change the rhythm without telling me,” my mom would snap as I got better and bolder. “A duet means that two people are playing together. Not two separately on the same piano. It doesn’t work that way. LIFE isn’t that way. It’s all about being in sync with the people around you.”

I would roll my eyes, and she would stalk out of the room with the piano and slam the door to her office.

I would do the same, except I’d stalk off to my room.

Ten minutes later, we’d find each other back there on the bench and we would try again.

The piano became a gathering place for the family — my Aunt Judy was especially good. My Gramma, too.

And the piano was a portal that could take us to a golden dreamy place 200 years or more, to a time of music by candlelight, written in ink dipped in feather quills.

Or a time of honky-tonk and bathtub gin. Scott Joplin ON FIRE.

Or a time of heart and soul in perfect rhythm, until I missed a note.

I even had a piano teacher. This guy who smelled like cigarettes and furniture polish. His name was Jeffrey and he was from Chicago, just like my mom, and he spoke like Chicago, with a whirly mix of wind and crinkled newspapers and the thwack of a baseball bat against a ball in each sentence. He loved Gershwin the best, but he would play Beethoven for me since he was my favorite, and I would copy him note by note until I had the whole piece at my fingertips. I never learned to read music, but I would play what he did — “Fur Elise,” “Moonlight Sonata,” “Pathetique”… I knew them with my eyes closed, like literally.

My all time favorite was “Fur Elise” — it was the first piece I learned, and I could ROCK it with my eyes closed backwards if I had to. Once I did it on a dare, and I nailed it. I fkn NAILED it.

I would cry when I played “Goldberg Variations” by Bach. The piece is a series of slow little half steps in a minor key. It was my favorite for a while because it reminded me of winter and the smell of my mom’s spaghetti bolognaise, and steam on the windows in the kitchen.

She must have had it on the radio one winter night when I was really little when she was cooking, and it stuck.

Even then, I was nostalgic AF.

But that’s music, the sticky notes — when you play, it’s the memory in your fingers. And when you listen, it’s the memory of sound. I hear “About a Girl” by Nirvana and I remember what it felt to kiss for real — you know, with TONGUE — for the first time in my bedroom in January. I can smell incense, and cinnamon gum. I can feel our braces stick together.

When I hear “Unchained Melody,” I remember slow-dancing at Alex’s bar mitzvah. I remember what it felt like to wear clunky shoes and an ivory pant suit that looked like something my mom picked out, which she totally did, and shuffle on the floor with the disco ball sending a million snowflakes of silver light whirling all around us.

That was in December.

I remember the smell of pine needles.

I hear “Santeria,” and I’m on the beach.

“The Boxer,” and I’m on the bus heading to Jerusalem from Kibbutz Gezer the summer I was 16.

That’s music.

It takes me out of whatever terrible moment I find myself stuck in, and I flow with it.

And even though I remember all of it, I forgot how to play the piano. I forgot because I filled my mind with other things. With SAT prep and school, and boys and boys and boys — sometimes girls, but mostly boys. I forgot how to play because my mom got sick and she couldn’t sit there anymore next to me, and when she did once or twice, and I’d change the rhythm unexpectedly just because, she would leave, but she’d go lie down instead of stalking off to her office, and she didn’t come back.

The thing that came so naturally to me went away with her and everything, with life adding up, the magic fading away. Jeffrey stopped coming and the books were packed away, and all this time just passed, and when I see a piano I just look at it and ACHE for it — and for the notes I used to play and how my mom and I would play side by side.

And now 31 years and a dozen lifetimes later, my dad says our piano doesn’t play anymore. You press a key and it only sighs — no, it’s worse than a sigh: it’s a wheeze, a death rattle.

And its just sitting there, an embarrassing wooden hulk taking up space in the living room.

I haven’t physically touched that piano since 2021 — when I was last in LA. For many reasons, some practical and others too personal to even let myself feel completely, I haven’t been back.

The house that I grew up in is just that, the house I grew up in, and no longer home. The lights are dim and the voices of my family getting together and singing by the old piano have faded far beyond echoes. I’m still looking for home.

But whenever I’m there next to that piano , even though I’ve long since stopped playing, I always run my fingers over the polished wood. I rub away a speck of dust, but I never touch the smudges from the old finger prints. Sometimes, I’ll roll back the cover and press a key or two. If I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I’ll play a chord.

And now, all these years and miles away in the middle of the war in Israel, in the midst of all this frigid darkness, I close my eyes and can almost hear it again, the plinks and plunks of the keys under my mom’s fingers and mine, heart and soul, I fell in love with you, heart and soul, I fell in love with you maaaaaadly. I can feel the warmth of our crowded living room, surrounded by family and the stirrings of home, even where I sit alone.

I feel the tears rising in me.

Why do people have to get frail and sick and old and die?

Outside, the world churns. The war rages. Every day takes me further from those moments of warmth and love and family. Every day takes me further from my mom. But knowing the piano is there in the living room was a comfort. And so I’ve left my dad on “read” all these weeks. Couldn’t go deep and tell him how sad I am that I’m here and each day is brittle and terrifying and I feel alone and my mom is dead.

But my dad and I are still alive, and the piano is still there, gasping along — at least I tell myself it is. And where there’s life, there’s hope.

And even now in the middle of this miserable time with no end in sight, I’m still here, gasping along too. And maybe it’s time to see my dad again.

So I open the phone and click his name.

“Don’t you dare touch that piano. Let’s find a goddamn tuner and play it again.”

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.
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