By Rebecca Rikleen, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
A piano was hardly a necessity in our circumstances. Necessity meant inexpensive food, wearing only what Mother sewed, squeezing all of us into the railroad flat over the hardware store, doling out her meager earnings from the factory, while father went to pharmacy school. A piano was hardly a necessity. Except to my Mother.
Her musical training had consisted of standing to the side, listening and watching as a teacher taught her older sister, so many years before. There had been no pianos during her wanderings, escaping over the frozen river from Russia to Rumania, marrying another refugee, coming with her new husband and pregnant belly to Rhode Island, learning to sew in a Philadelphia factory by watching the machinist next to her.
Now I was six, with a new baby brother, and mother stayed home from work for the first time. Somewhere she found a piano second-hand. Outside our tenement, the piano, swaying heavily, was lifted slowly by ropes and pulleys to the third floor. It was a neighborhood event, fraught with danger. In our apartment a burly man eased it through the empty hole where the window was later replaced.
With the piano now in an honored position, Mother played. She bought classical pieces for beginners, and started me on lessons with the spinster who lived around the corner and took pupils.
Curve the fingers, lift them high, wrists down, correct the finger placement, keep time by metronome, memorize the piece for recital. Piece after piece, Hannon finger exercises, scales. Sometimes I had to stammer, with eyes down, that we would have to owe her the two dollars for the lesson, but the teacher never turned me away. I learned to read music somewhat, skirted the exercises and fell in love with Chopin’s preludes and Bach’s fugues.
I poured my yearnings into that battered piano. When I was tired of reading or doing homework, I could sit at the keyboard and transport myself to a romantic time and an elegant place. I noted that Mother would excuse me from chores if I practiced. She never complained about mistakes or repetitions. The piano was my friend.
Recitals were another matter. They made me nervous. I was terrified and unforgiving of public mistakes. After one particular recital, unhappy with how I had played, I sulked among the empty seats in the back of the auditorium. Mother motioned me to come forward and sit next to her, but I would not, preferring to hide my shame in the dark.
After I left home and had my own place to live, I always managed to find an old upright piano, and always found pleasure in the lovely harmonies my fingers could play, even when they were stiff with cold in an unheated fifth-floor walk-up. Surely a piano was as required as having a mother and a childhood.
In time, I married and had three children of my own. One day my husband bought a small grand from someone he knew at work. It was a quick sale and within our means. The finish was ugly, black speckled paint that showed no stains; the piano had been used and abused in an army canteen, and then rebuilt as a practice piano. However, the lines of the piano were so elegant, the curves so graceful; the lifted lid soared upward, an extraordinary contrast to my pedestrian boxy upright. It instantly became a member of our family.
Seated at its keyboard I, myself, became grand. Instead of staring at the wood front of our old upright, I looked out at the room, down the hall, at an imagined salon, spacious, beautifully appointed, where friends gathered for music and soft-voiced discussion.
One of my children, four year old Annie, gravitated to the piano as my Mother had. She stood at the keyboard, and from a diagram, taught herself to read music, then to play. Once again we needed the beginners’ books, and as my daughter repeated monotonous exercises, I remembered my mother’s indulgent encouragement. Annie became proficient on that old grand piano. She took lessons from the music school around the corner, thorough lessons this time, ear-training, sight-reading, theory. She was the official pianist in school assemblies from the fourth grade on, and in summer camp for the musical shows.
When Annie went to college, her piano skills helped her to get into Princeton; her older brothers had already left home. Then, when the three older children were busy with their lives, my husband died suddenly, leaving me with our fourth and youngest child, a son, now eight years old, with my job, with an old dog — and the piano. I, my job, our old dog, my interesting child, and the piano managed to live –morning, evening, day to day, with little triumphs, and moments of solace at the keyboard.
Five years later the top floor of our building burned completely off, in a fire that took many water trucks and many hours to douse. The whole building closed for two years. In storage, along with the rest of our belongings, poor piano suffered cold and damp. By the time we came together again, it had died. The pin board had warped, shrunk, and lost its grip on the pins that wind the strings taut. Back in its customary place in our living room, the beloved piano sat. Tuners tried hard, oiled the pin board to help it swell, but all efforts failed. The piano had lost its voice. There it remained, a graceful, weathered chest that held my youth, my marriage, my young children, all the melodies we had made together. As it was bulky, occupying a large part of the room; it could never be ignored. Neither could it be discarded.
My open mourning for all things lost, centered in that piano, persisted more than a year. At last my youngest son and I agreed we would send it away. But not all of it. We unscrewed the legs and the lid and took them to the basement. We would have buried them with ceremony if that had been possible. Then the lovely curved frame, the keyboard, the pin board, the sounding board, the pedals, the music-sheet holder: an autopsy. All were taken apart slowly, lovingly. To this day I have kept some hammers, knowing I will one day make an art assemblage as a reincarnation.
I now play piano only in my memory, but listen fondly as small granddaughters labor haltingly over “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and recall my mother who began the piano story – a story of four generations.
Rebecca ran an early childhood full-day program, used her spare time to create assemblages out of discarded children’s toy pieces, wrote, and finally worked hard at painting when she retired.
She is a young painter and fledgling writer. She says, “Even though I am an old woman, and unfortunately, there is no short cut to honing skills. In my head I was always a painter and a writer. The eye and hands are trying to catch up.”