My mother was a musician. I imagine her mother kept several musicians employed during the Great Depression in western Kansas by teaching my mother. Grandmother Bounce’s Depression era ethic was that money should flow. If you had it, you should employ other people with it. Since my grandfather had a job selling John Deere equipment, Grandmother spread his money throughout the community. My mother had music lessons — piano, singing, French Horn, music theory — from elementary school to college. When she went to college — the first in her family, I believe — she became a voice major at the University of Kansas. If interest in something can be judged by the number of possessions devoted to a task, my mother continued to love making music throughout her life. Musical possessions: an entire file cabinet full of sheet music for popular music of the 1890s to 1940s, books of arias, and church music for entire choruses (given to my daughter’s musical theater teacher); precious books of ballads, spirituals and folk music (given to a local folk singer and actor), hymnals (given to my sister, who runs a children’s church choir) and a variety of instruments, disposed of over the years.
Mom’s voice was legendary in our family. According to family legend, she placed second (and out) in the Metropolitan Opera’s State competition to find new talent. In college she sang opera arias and jazz with a band — until the boys all left to serve in World War II. We have vinyl records of Mom singing “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, accompanied on the piano by herself, possibly, or perhaps by my presumably gay godfather, Uncle Buzz. We have vinyl of Mom singing the “Lord’s Prayer,” “Because”, and other popular songs of the early 1940s, made for Dad to hear when we was away in the Pacific during the War. In fact, my husband and I played a record of my mother singing during our wedding.
The family story, however, says that Mom gave up a possible career in opera to be Mom, a fact that used to cause my brother great guilt. She coulda been a contenda! Perhaps.
What Mom did, however, was raise us to love music of all kinds. When we were small, she’d sing with us at the piano, offering oatmeal can drums and rhythm sticks for us to play as we sang Pat-a-Pan and other Christmas songs, folk songs, swashbuckling sailor tunes, and old tunes from her childhood. Church choir came next, with the various high, low and in-between Episcopal churches offering children’s choirs, or mixed-age hodgepodges ranging from me in elementary school to elderly folks, all of us in red robes and blousy white cottas.
When each of us entered first grade, we were given piano lessons. I’m not sure what my sisters played on when they were young, but we must have had an upright piano as I cannot imagine my mother living without a piano at all. When I was in first grade, however, and we lived in a Philadelphia suburb, my mother hired a church choir director from St. Clements Church — a very high church in the city — to drive out to the suburbs to teach us all piano. Mr. S. was a heavy man with a nasal wheeze, black glasses and a discriminating palate for music. He loved Bach and some Sundays — and always on Christmas Eve for midnight mass — we would travel in to the city to hear Mr. S. play the organ and conduct the boys’ choir. I still remember watching him play the giant pipe organ with his hands and feet ranging all over the organ, every limb engaged in the massive thunder of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Here’s a YouTube version to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nnuq9PXbywA
When one of my sisters began to play piano well, somewhere around 6th grade, Mr. S. suggested we buy a new piano. The whole family trekked into the city to visit a piano showroom. I remember touching the satin black finish of a new K Kawai piano and watching as she sat down to play at it. I was still at (and never grew beyond) the “Porky Pig on the High Trapeze” stage of piano playing — colorful cartoon music books with chords on one hand alternating with fingering on the other. My sister, by that time, had moved on to 2-Part Inventions from books with ornate covers while my other sister and brother, having put in their two years in piano, were moving on to other instruments — viola and voice, guitar and banjo.
When we moved to California, the piano came with us from house to house, until it came to rest on a corner of the living room of my father’s house in 1976. There it was the focal point of Christmas sing-alongs, experimentation with jazz, my mother’s occasional flirtation with arias and Carole King ballads, festive rounds of Chopsticks, and endless singing of folk songs in preparation for the endless harmonies of long car trips. And there it remained — until this week…..
A baby grand piano is no small thing to get rid of. For one thing, moving a piano properly is expensive — especially across the country. Everyone always assumed my sister would take it. But her house, like all of our homes, is small. A baby grand piano would simply not fit. We discussed donating it to a school or nursing home. No one was sure what to do with it.
Meanwhile, online, a group of friends was discussing a recent Storytime Salon piano recital organized by V., an author friend. Several author/pianists would be reading their stories and playing piano. I mentioned that we were looking for a home for our beautiful piano. Kathleen Krull, nonfiction author extraordinaire, expressed an interest.
“When can I come see it?” she asked.
I set up a meeting between Kathleen and the piano when my sister was in town. I wanted her to meet and approve of whoever bought the piano. After watching my sister lovingly play the piano for over 50 years, I knew she would feel a strong sense of loss when the piano left home. Kathleen had brought music with her. She sat down and played beautifully, and we listened and chatted with her husband, Paul and discovered my sister and Paul a mutual friend from youth.
When Kathleen and Paul left, my sister could see that they were good people who would truly love the piano. But when an offer came through by text and I forwarded it to all the siblings, she had a change of heart — a sudden clutch of loss, and texted , like a heroine suddenly realizing she has been in love with the hero all of her life — “I want the piano!”
She needed time and we gave her all the time she needed and tried to help her think through the process:
Me: Is there any furniture you can let go of so you can fit the piano in your house?
Brother: Weren’t you guys thinking of getting a bigger house?
Me: Maybe Kathleen could borrow it for a few years while you think about what you want to do.
Collective Message: You should take it if you can. You love it so much.
In the end, my sister was able to let it go. It would be too much to move it to Maine. She likes her house the way it is. She likes her current piano. And finally, Kathleen will let her visit and play the piano whenever she wants!
In honor of the piano, I sat down and played a last rousing round of Chopsticks before the piano movers came, loving the weight of the creamy keys, the glossiness of the piano body, the rich sound I will never forget.