The Melodies of a Family Piano

I swear I heard a few chords of ``Ain't Misbehaving'' shake loose from my old upright piano as the movers wrestled it down two flights of stairs and out of my life.

Although the piano was a permanent fixture in my childhood home, it arrived many years before I was born - a grand gift to my parents on their wedding day in 1927. They were married in my paternal grandparents' home in St. Paul, Minn., a gracious old place with lots of dark wood molding and heavy beveled glass. It also had a big front porch, like most of the other houses on the tree-lined street.

Mother remembers the day being unusually warm and sunny for November. Wagner's Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin (I still have the sheet music) was played by a family friend on the brand new Bush and Gertz solid-walnut upright in the living room.

It was a fitting gift to the wedding couple from the groom's parents. Daddy had learned to play by ear in the honky-tonk style of Fats Waller. Mother was enchanted with his playing and had her own special requests: ``Rollie, play `Melancholy Baby,' '' she used to say.

She still recalls their first apartment. It was so tiny. They joked that they could sit on the davenport on one side of the room and play the piano on the other.

Despite the hardships of the Depression years, we girls, their three daughters, were obliged to take piano lessons. With Mother as our taskmaster, we dutifully pounded out years of lessons from Czerny and John Thompson instruction books, and endured the dreaded recitals.

It was not that unusual in those pretelevision days to have a piano in the home.

Thinking back to the string of bungalows on our block, at least half of them had a big, elaborately-carved upright in the living room. Friends stopping by after school often ended up banging ``Chopsticks'' or ``Heart and Soul'' over and over on the piano.

Daddy was a man who seemed embarrassed by displays of affection, even with his own children. But he spilled his soul in the strains we heard on the piano when he thought no one was listening. He played the old ballads with a heavy honky-tonk beat that went on and on, rocking the house with a rhythm and harmony I still remember.

Only one of us ``girls'' has any claim to musicianship. In addition to her day job, my sister is a folk singer and has weekend gigs playing the piano for contra dances.

She once told me that she dispels any performance anxiety by imagining Mom listening to her play. I play (badly), and only for myself, hymns, old ballads, and Chopin. Nevertheless, my time at the piano still relieves the tensions of a busy workday and has provided a special solace at times of loneliness and grief.

When Daddy decided to learn to play the organ in the 1950s, I inherited the piano. It moved with my family and household goods from Minnesota to New York, to Pennsylvania, and to Arizona.

I saw to it that my children had their own introduction to the piano. We provided the piano with numerous polishings, adjustments, refinements, and replacements. When it came time to make a second move within Arizona, it was abundantly clear that the piano had to go. None of my children or the family had a place for it.

There were many phone calls in response to the ad I placed in the local paper. For days, people came to the house, inspected the piano, and professed interest.

But, I knew it had found a new home when a daddy showed up, a shy man with a couple of little kids and a wife in tow. The old piano resonated with his ragtime beat, while his wife and kids beamed in approval.

It took two years for me to replace my instrument with a smaller electronic digital version. My musician sister helped me pick it out, and it's just right for hymns, Chopin, and ``The Talk of the Town,'' or whatever music suits my mood and ability.

It fits nicely in our town house and will never need tuning. It can sound like an organ when I play hymns. It can play its own demonstration piece. I can move it all by myself. It can interface with a computer, but I'm not sure how. It even has an outlet for earphones, so my grandchildren can bang on it without being heard.

And Mom still beams when I play for her.

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