Four hands on the piano signaled success

The young mom wanted more than anything to learn to play the piano. But everything seemed to conspire against her.

We were in our late 20s when my husband, Ralph, finally graduated from college. I say finally, because it took marriage, two children, student housing, and managing to keep our Ford station wagon alive four extra years before we could say, "We made it."

"OK, now I deserve a piano," I blurted out when he sat down for lunch just before the graduation ceremony. A look of surprise crossed his face.

"I lived a deprived childhood; we could never afford a piano. Now I'm an adult. We got you through school. Now I deserve a piano," I repeated.

He walked into the bedroom to get dressed. Putting on his shirt, he peeked around the door and said, "Well, OK."

The next week I cut out all the newspaper ads for secondhand pianos. I called to make sure the pianos weren't already sold.

"Here," I said, handing him the information about my latest find while we finished dinner. "I found one."

"Found one what?" he asked.

"A piano for $100."

"Bonnie, we need to wait," he said. "We don't even know if we'll have enough space in Santa Monica." Ralph had received a teaching assistantship at the University of California, Los Angeles, so graduate school was looming.

The air started fizzling out of my dream, but gritting my teeth in frustration, I had to admit that he was right. We needed to wait.

In July, we gathered all our belongings in a trailer and headed south. When we looked at a small beach cottage to rent, I glanced around to see if we could fit an old upright in some corner. There was no space in the living room, but we could put a piano against the wall in the dining room. I pulled Ralph over there. "A piano would fit right here."

He smiled. "Then you're fine with this small place, huh?"

"Yeah. This'll work."

Several months later, Ralph, with help, moved the upright piano we'd found into the cottage's tiny arched dining room. It smelled a little musty, but had great tone.

Ralph started graduate school, leaving no money for private piano lessons. The first thing that came to my mind was Santa Monica City College – maybe it offered piano lessons.

Skimming the catalog, I danced around the room when I found a class at the same time the boys were at preschool.

Practicing, however, was not so easy. Four-year old redheaded Denny crawled out of bed in the evening on a regular basis. That was my time to practice.

He'd pad out of the bedroom in his sleeper and climb up on the bench with me. Soon he began plinking on the high keys. I tried to ignore him. He listened to the echoes of the keys and plinked some more. Doing all I could do to keep focused on my own practicing, I continued to ignore him.

This practice pattern became an evening ritual. After a while, I didn't even hear him anymore. Ralph studied. Ryan slept. Denny plinked on the high keys, and I focused on my piece for the end-of-the-semester recital.

Finally, that evening came.

"I have to go to school tonight," I told Ralph.

"Well, you'll have to take Denny with you," he said. "It's midterms and I have too much studying to do. I'll watch Ryan because he'll sleep, but I can't concentrate with Denny getting out of bed all the time."

"No. I have to play," I said.

"Well, Bonnie, just get a baby sitter."

"I don't know anyone well enough to leave Denny with, especially when his father is home."

"Then take him," my husband said. "I'm exhausted. I just can't do it."

Pacing back and forth, I shook my head trying to figure out what to do. Time was running out. Finally, I bundled up Denny – with his sleeper on – and drove off to the recital with him.

"We'll sit in the front row, Denny," I whispered. "You have to be very quiet and listen."

He nodded, said "Uh-huh," and we sat down. Through three recital pieces, Denny held my hand, but then my turn came. "Why did I decide to do this? I do need a creative outlet, but ..." I thought.

Turning to Denny and letting go of his hand, I put my finger to my lips and stood up, leaving him sitting there in the front row. The piano seemed a mile away. I stepped up on to the small stage. The bench loomed before me. Slowly, I sat down.

After a long breath, I started to play. A few measures into the piece, I heard quiet snickering. I kept playing. A small body wormed up onto the piano bench next to me. I continued to play. I heard tinkling on the high keys. I kept right on playing. I sighed. Almost over, I thought: last phrase, last measure, last note. Whew!

I glanced over at Denny plinking. "OK, we're done," I told him. Taking my hand, he slid off the bench. We stood at the front of the platform, and I leaned down. "Bow with me," I whispered.

We bowed, and the class applauded. Denny and I looked up at the people in the audience. Someone in the back stood up. Before long, others joined her. We finished the recital by receiving a standing ovation.

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