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Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Piano Man

"Why did your grandparents buy that piano in the first place?" my wife asked me in Borders while she was thumbing through a lavishly illustrated book on bathroom remodeling, "did they just get it to match the living room shades?"

At first, this question struck me as rather odd and possibly even slightly offensive. Lately, my wife has exhibited an observably decreased tolerance for criticism or joking surrounding her parents, and I suppose I've gotten a little touchier and protective of my family, too, of late. I don't know why, though. Some peoples' skin gets thicker over time, some peoples' doesn't. In any event, I've learned to lift a lighter foot when issues about my wife's family come up, and I usually save my harshest critiques for when my wife's younger sister is visiting, because she's usually game for that sort of thing.

Anyway, the more I thought about my wife's question about my family piano, the more logical it became. I thought about my grandfather, and that man barely had the manual skill-set required to work a motor vehicle, so I doubt very much he had the coordination and touch, much less the inclination, to manipulate the black-and-whites of a piano. My grandmother was much too ill and, with her "crippled" hand, piano-playing was not really part of the deal for her. Then I thought about their kids. My uncles were only happy when running around our old neighborhood wearing coonskin hats and playing at Davey Crockett or Injun' Joe or whatever the fuck it was kids in the 1950s ran around neighborhoods doing. My mother, who was known t don a coonskin cap herself on occasion, was the only child with musical ability, though I have a hard time picturing my grandfather plunking down serious waddage for a piano just for her.

I mean, she was a girl. She wasn't worth a college education, and she certainly wasn't worth a piano. Let's be real here, people.

So, realistically speaking then, the only possible conclusion we can draw here is that my grandparents purchased the black upright Gulbransen for their house because it matched the asian-inspired rice-paper and black wood window shades. If you want to get really cynical about it all, they most likely bought this piano because their interior decorator told them to.

"I think," I said to my wife as she turned to a page in the book showing a thoroughly ornate and orange bathroom, complete with pumpkin-hued bidet, "that, in that time, upper-middle-class Jewish living rooms were supposed to have fireplaces, Ben Shahn paintings, and pianos. And my grandparents' living room had all three."

While I have trouble believing she was the intended recipient, my mother was was definitely the first beneficiary of the piano. She had perfect pitch, was a quiet, humble star in choir, and was recommended for a spot at the prestigious Interlochen summer music program, to which, of course, my grandfather refused to send her. Again, his stoic logic was, "why waste money on her? She's just going to get knocked up and/or married at seventeen anyway."

This, by the way, is exactly what happened. But that's a whole other blog post.

No doubt my mother played piano and my grandfather grudgingly paid for lessons for her, but her at one time assuredly sonorous voice went nowhere and she got a job stringing tennis rackets in a pro shop while my eldest sister played happily under the counter, until she finally found her calling as a librarian. My sister, now 41, no longer plays under the counter, though I'm sure she's inquired about the possibilities.

My wife and I have talked, since we moved into our own home and even before, on and off about getting a piano for ourselves. My wife took piano lessons from first through eighth grade, though she rarely ever practiced. I took piano from I think fourth or fifth grade through seventh grade, though I'm fuzzy on the details.

If you asked her, I'm sure my piano teacher would be equally fuzzy on the details, as she would be if you asked her any question, including what color car she drives or what her middle name is. Francine* (*name changed, lawsuit possible) was, and probably still is, operating under an alcohol-shrouded haze. I didn't know what the brownish liquid in the tumblers that sat on the piano beside us was, go-juice that she sipped gaily as my lessons proceeded, and I didn't know what drunk elderly ladies behaved like back when I was nine, but I now know that Francine was undoubtedly shitsmacked during most if not all of my piano lessons. The notes that she scrawled on my sheet music were totally indecipherable and looked as if they were written by a mentally-challenged person with Parkinsons who wrote them whilst driving a bulldozer. She was always dressed in a pastel-colored muumuu by 5:30. Sometimes, while I played "Stars" from "Les Miserables" or Loesser's "If I Were a Bell," Francine would dance laconically and disturbingly around her living room, twirling her muumuu behind her. Francine's house was dark, musty, unwelcoming and smelled like the stuffing of a Victorian fainting couch inside of which a mouse had excreted itself and perished somewhere around 1885.

My mother was in the habit in those days of dropping me off for my lessons. One day, midway into my 7th grade year, I began to catch on that something was amiss with my teacher, and I asked my mother to stay and observe a lesson, as I was somewhat prone in those days to telling tall tales, and I thought maybe my mom should see this spectacle with her own eyes. She agreed, and that was my last piano lesson.

Now that I'm doing Gilbert & Sullivan operettas with some degree of regularity, and now that my wife has gotten the musical itch back under her skin, a piano seemed to be worth chatting about. I got an email at my office last week that a woman wanted to donate a small spinet piano to the place where I work. Because we already have a piano on every floor, we really had no need for one there, but I asked her if she would consider selling it to me and my wife. She said she would, and, yesterday we went to go on a date with this little guy, and it appears that he wants to come home with us.

Well, he wants to come with the piano movers, that is. I mean, he's small, but he's not that small.

And so our slow, determined march on the road to Jewish upper-middle-classdom has taken another plod. We already have a fireplace, but it's fake. Just like any Ben Shahn we would ever put on our walls, if we had wall-space.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't it funny the things we remember about our childhood piano teachers? Or, rather, the things we DON'T remember?
    I found out just a few years ago that mine was a raging, highly stereotypical lesbian, which I never caught on to when I was learning piano with her. Up until my junior year of high school.
    Even when she moved my lessons from the music shop downtown to her house.
    Which she shared with her partner.

    At least mine wasn't drunk all the time.
    Congratulations on your new little bundle of musical joy!


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