After six months of piano lessons, my wife, Danielle, started coming home every week from the music teacher’s house and repeating the same sentence, “She says we need a piano.”
Each time I had the same response, “Is she going to buy it?”
We didn’t have the money, and we didn’t have the space. When the son took horse-riding lessons, we didn’t buy a horse, did we? To me, this seemed no different. We weren’t horse people, and we weren’t “piano people.” We knew some – professional musicians, members of choirs, people who had been playing since they could sit on a bench — but that wasn’t us. No, we were the little digital keyboard set up in a corner of the playroom.
I had found the old Casio while cleaning out my mother’s house after we had to move her to an assisted living facility. I brought it home because I thought the kids might like to mess around with it since it had 90 different settings including one to make the keys sound like drums. They had been fascinated for almost an hour; then it had been abandoned until Danielle started taking lessons.
I don’t know why my mother had this. I had never heard her play an instrument or even say that she wanted to, but, I do remember, when I was a kid, one day my parents decided to buy a piano. This must have been a huge decision, but, as with so many of their choices, I have no idea why they made it.
It’s too late to talk to my mother, but I call my father and ask him. There’s a long pause, and I realize that it’s not the silence of searching for a memory, but of trying to find a diplomatic response to a sensitive issue. Finally he says, “It’s something your mother wanted, and I wanted her to be happy, so . . .” As we talk, he explains that she thought it would be good for the kids, and also that in a working class neighborhood having a piano meant “sophistication, civilization, and all that. Your mother grew up in the country and went to a country school, and then came to town and always felt . . .” He falls silent again.
But, as it turned out, they didn’t end up buying a piano. The way I remember the story is that my parents went to the Wurlitzer showroom in the mall where the salesperson convinced them of the benefits of having an organ instead. It was more versatile, more modern, more fun. He insisted the organ was just like a piano, but was also much more. It not only had features to make it sound like a violin or flute or harp, but it had a One Touch rhythm section. There the colored buttons labeled Pop, Rock, Latin, Bossa Nova would play a beat, and then you pressed one key and it automatically would do entire chords. The salesperson assured my folks that the kids would love this feature, and we did play with it for hours … the first day.
Soon after this purchase, my mother won a Purina Cat Chow contest. Although my dad was hoping for a new lawn mower, the prize was an organ. Suddenly we had two in our small living room. Had any of us played, it might have led to some epic musical moments and memories. But we didn’t. Occasionally a friend or guest might turn on the power, mess around with the buttons and work out one of the songs in the primer like “Que Sera Sera,” but that was it. Mostly the organs served as mountain terrain for the army men battles I staged.
Decades later, my brother still has the Wurlitzer. It’s in his basement. He’s tried to give it away, but no one wants it. This, it turns out, is common. People have pianos and organs, and when they finally decide to part with them, they find no one will take them. A friend offered us a baby-grand; it came with the house when they bought it, but we have no room for it. Another periodically posts on Facebook to see if anyone wants the piano that’s been in her basement for years. No one does.
I didn’t want to buy a piano because I was scared of ending up with a five hundred pound knick-knack, one that we wouldn’t use and wouldn’t be able to get rid of. But there was another reason for my reluctance. I still had the fantasy that tomorrow we could throw some stuff in a gym bag, grab the car keys, and be gone. We hadn’t meant to be in this house and this town for this long. At first, it was going to be a couple years, then we had a five year plan, and, now, okay, it’s been almost twenty years, but still buying a piano would be a physical, undeniable, symbol, we were staying for a while. It seemed so permanent and so . . . adult.
But, on the little plastic keyboard, Danielle could only play pieces centered around middle C, nothing that went high or low. She had to ignore any notations about pedals, she couldn’t get used to how hard to strike the keys, and occasionally the batteries would die. Her teacher wanted her to take part in a recital, and she didn’t have an adequate instrument to practice on. She tried to find real pianos to play, at her school and mine, but often those rooms would be locked.
At some point, I realized that if the children had shown such a desire, if they had been taking lessons for as long as Danielle, I would have willingly agreed to a piano. I would have felt that I was being a good parent, making sacrifices for my children. So why wouldn’t I do the same for her, particularly since it wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice at all? I began to suspect that, once again, I was just being knee-jerk stubborn, and that my attitude stemmed from a laziness of “I don’t want to think about it.” It was embarrassing. I wasn’t helping her become the person she wanted to be; I was making it more difficult.
So, one day, when Danielle came home from a lesson and said, “She says we need a piano,” I nodded to myself. Yes, we did. I decided to surprise her with one for her 45th birthday. A decision that turned out to be easier to make than to enact.
A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.