“Oh,” said my mother. “That’s good.” She turned back to her dishwashing. 

“You barely looked at it!” The sweat from my hand had stained my first-place certificate. “Can’t you even pretend to care?”  

“Can’t you see I’m busy, Emma? I’ll look at it later.” 

“You always say that.” I retreated to the living room, narrowly dodging a misplaced shoe. Next to the scratched upright piano stood a leaning tower of music books: Mozart sonatas, Chopin waltzes, a collection of Joplin rags… I put down my score of the polonaise I had just performed. Hours ago, I was hunched over it, ignoring the contestants preceding me so that I could review my fingering and problem sections. Despite a memory slip, the judges deemed me worthy and let me win. I remembered my first piano recital, and how my mother helped me relax before I took the stage. That Mom would have been thrilled today.  

I left my certificate on top of the piano lid and headed to my room. On the way, I peeked into the kitchen, where my mother was passed out over the table. Hands that once played duets with me were loosely wrapped around a half-empty bottle of cheap Merlot.  

The next morning, my certificate was gone. Maybe my mother had mistaken it for trash in her drunken state. My paper record of musical achievements had a habit of disappearing in the last few years, and this was getting troublesome as college admissions grew nearer. Although my acceptance depended mostly on my audition, it couldn’t hurt to include my numerous awards and RCM exam results.  

“Emma!” said my mother. “Granny called. She wants to see you.” 

I froze. Granny never called. I’d usually see her at Christmas and couldn’t remember the last time I visited alone. I didn’t know much about her, other than a few stories I overheard my mother telling at dinner parties. When she was eight, Granny caught her sneaking out of the house way past her bedtime. She slapped her so hard that her face was swollen for a week. Another time, she grounded her for a month after she came home with a bad grade in school. She was also in charge of my college fund and could easily revoke it if I crossed her.   

My mother made me swear I would be home by dinner. She insisted that Granny was a rigid host who didn’t like people overstaying their welcome. I left the house after lunch and headed for the nearest bus stop. A blanket of snow hid the sidewalk, since neither of us had bothered shovelling it. After twenty minutes, a bus pulled over at half-speed, its wheels struggling to pierce the slush on the road. Great, I thought. Now I’m gonna be late. My breath fogged the window as I stared at business owners putting up wreaths, inflatable Santas, and fairy lights. Granny lived about an hour away in the suburbs. There, no sidewalk was left unshovelled, and the winding roads and cul-de-sacs discouraged any riffraff from venturing in too far. 

I rang the doorbell fifteen minutes past my scheduled arrival and caught my breath. What would she think of me? The door opened, revealing a tall woman with short, white hair curled into a perm. “I’m sorry I’m late! I should have anticipated the snow and the bus took forever to come and it was so slow and-” 

“My goodness, girl, calm down!” said Granny, adjusting her glasses. “Come on in.” 

I took off my drenched shoes and followed her. I didn’t even say hello! Granny went into the kitchen while I explored the living room. The gas fireplace offered a cozy welcome, its mantel covered in greeting cards. Near the arched windows stood a Bösendorfer grand piano with a mahogany matte finish. A bookshelf of music ordered alphabetically by composer put my tower at home to shame. I noticed a fancy piece of paper on one of the walls. It was a certificate from a piano competition with my mother’s name on it. First place. But this was the first I’d ever heard of it. Although my mother played as a child, she said she wasn’t that good, and we only had a piano because my father found it for free on Craigslist. He left before I was born to join a jazz band and hasn’t contacted us since.   

The kettle whistled from the kitchen, shaking me out of the past. Should I have offered to help? Once again, I had failed to demonstrate basic manners, and I bit my inner cheeks as Granny walked in with her tray. She placed a teapot and matching cups on the coffee table and laid out bowls of treats. Then, she took a seat and let out a cheerful sigh. “It’s good to see you, Emma.” She poured the tea and smiled. “It can get lonely in this big house, you know.” 

“Does it?” I said. “I mean- It’s good to see you too.” 

“I hear you did well at your last competition.” 

How did she know? “Yeah, I guess so.” 

“What did you play?” 

“Chopin’s Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante.” 

Granny raised her eyebrows. “That’s a tough piece. You must have been nervous.” 

I told Granny more about the competition, how I had spent months training for it, and even injured my left wrist from over practicing the coda. I paid for weeks of physiotherapy out of my own pocket. 

“Why didn’t your mother help you?” said Granny. 

“I didn’t tell her,” I said, my eyes trailing away. “She doesn’t care anymore.” 

Granny didn’t say anything. She just looked at me, as though she were studying my every twitch. She poured some more tea and handed me a chocolate truffle. “I noticed you looking at the certificate over there.” 

“Yeah. Did my mother compete often?” 

“She sure did,” said Granny. “She was a fine pianist, just like you.”  

“I had no idea.” 

Granny dipped a biscuit into her tea. “Do you wish to study music in college?” 

“I’m considering it.” 

Granny closed her eyes for a moment. I couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or worried. It was no secret that music is a difficult major, and classical performance graduates weren’t at all guaranteed the life of a touring concert artist. Many would burn out and find themselves stuck without practical skills. Even if they did make it, the pressure to perform might lead them down a self-destructive path of anxiety and depression. I tried to stay optimistic by keeping an open mind about my future. I didn’t need to chase after glory, if I could just bring joy to whoever cared to listen. But I also wanted to be the best musician I could be, and college seemed like the ideal way to get there.  

About an hour had passed since I arrived, and the remaining tea had cooled down. This time, I seized the opportunity to be a good grandchild and offered to do the dishes. I took them to the kitchen and gently laid them onto the counter. As I squeezed some soap onto a sponge, I thought of our conversation. Even though Granny seemed agreeable, I couldn’t help thinking it might be a façade that would later be unveiled. But façade or not, at least she was trying to show interest in my music. If only my mother could do as much. And why had she downplayed her skills? 

It wasn’t until the soap was spilling onto my hand that I realized I had poured too much. Ugh, don’t get sidetracked! I picked up a teacup and scrubbed it, but the tea stain wouldn’t come out. Maybe it was an older stain that had set a while ago. Still, I kept scrubbing, until the cup slipped out of my fingers. I tried to catch it, but there was so much soap that it slipped again and ricocheted off the faucet and into the sink. The cup was broken. I looked at the living room entrance. Did Granny hear anything? I finished up and hid the cup pieces in my back pocket. 

Back in the living room, I took my seat and tried not to flinch when the sharp porcelain poked through my jeans. I gave Granny my best smile and pointed at the piano. “Does anyone ever play it?” 

“Not since your mother moved out, long ago.” 

“She never came back? Not even once?”  

Granny sighed. Now she did sound disappointed. She said that my mother had shared my ambition for piano. Granny had always praised her and encouraged her to do her best. She would take her to concerts several times a year to see the greats: Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich, Alfred Brendel… Even the eccentric Glenn Gould on his infamous low chair. Sometimes she would get to meet the artists backstage, and they were a huge inspiration to her. But when she announced she would audition as a performance major, Granny opposed. Granny’s husband had gone to Juilliard, and she watched him fall apart under the competition. She would not have her daughter suffer the same fate. They had a terrible argument, and my mother ran away for several days. She gave up music for a while, but it caught up to her when she met my father in college. When they moved in together, he convinced her to try playing again. That’s why the piano I came to practice on was brought in.  

 I let out a long breath. My mother had been a little hesitant when I asked if I could learn piano. No wonder she began to withdraw as soon as I showed serious promise. Even if she didn’t want to repeat the disaster with Granny, she knew the realities of a musician’s life. The conflict must have tortured her. And then my father left her for his band!   

In my cloud of distress, I shot out of my seat to grab a tissue and a piece of the teacup fell out of my pocket. Granny noticed it and stared at me. I threw my hands over my face. “I’m sorry! I can’t do anything right!” I cried. “I show up late, don’t even say hello or help you with the tea, and when I tried to be useful and do the dishes, I-” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the rest of the teacup.  

Granny burst out laughing. “Your mother did the same thing when she was your age! Scared herself silly over a piece of china.”  

Crisis… averted? “Wasn’t this expensive?” 

“Things can be replaced,” said Granny. “But you shouldn’t have hidden it.” 

I wiped my tears and placed the teacup pieces on a napkin.     

“Do you know why you’re here today?” said Granny. 

“You wanted to see me.” 

“Is that all she said?” Granny brought her hand up and rested her face. Her expression was hard to read.  

The sound of horns filled the room. I had set my phone’s alarm to play Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, and it signalled my time to leave. I thanked Granny for having me, and she made me promise to give her a concert next time. The phone rang just as she shut the door.  

When I came home, my mother was talking to someone. Her voice shook, and all I caught was, “I have to go,” before she hung up. I wasn’t sure if she heard me arrive, but I kept quiet as I approached her in the living room. She was leafing through a binder filled with all the music certificates and exam results I had earned. There was even a recital program for my last competition, and my name was circled. Next to it, my first-place certificate from yesterday. 


She was crying. I sat on the edge of the armchair with her for a while. Then, I went to the piano and played the peaceful opening arpeggios of the Andante spianato