It’s been in the family six decades. Most of our history with this musical instrument is good, except for one really bad one.
Uncle Delbert found it about 1952 in someone’s shed near Perry, Iowa, while he was doing some wiring for them. He knew that Mom was looking for a piano so my sister and I could take lessons. How much did they want for it? $45. He hauled it to our farmhouse in his electrician’s van.
He and Dad lugged it into a corner of the front room, which had a linoleum floor, a plush plum-colored davenport and chair, a blond black and white television (with a “TV lamp” on it), and in the winter a tall brown heating stove.
When she was a girl, Mom envied the kids who took piano lessons. She’d attend their recitals in Dexter, and a couple of those girls eventually became her sisters-in-law.
Dad enjoyed hearing his sisters practice for lessons. Years later one of those sisters played for their wedding. The other one sang. Even Mom’s mother took lessons as a girl, riding a horse over dusty roads into town for lessons.
So piano lessons were our fate. Sis Gloria and I took lessons from Elinor Chapler in Dexter, at first getting out of school once a week to walk to her house for lessons. Mrs. Chapler had a baby grand piano, a dog that licked our legs, and a parakeet that much of the time had the run of the house and plucked the feathers out of its tummy.
Mom made sure Dad got to hear us practice pieces from our red John Thompson books. And even though piano recitals always accompanied planting season, my dad never missed one.
When Gloria was nine years old, her recital piece was “Chinese Lullaby.” Mrs. Chapler, who dressed up and wore red lipstick for recitals, with a hat on her plain bobbed hair, announced that Gloria’s piece had six flats. Gloria turned the pages but never glanced at the music. She knew it all by heart.
Gloria and I began to practice hymns for Sunday School, and pieces to enter in the Bill Riley Talent Scouts contests, all the while on the old upright. We played duets–everything from “Deep Purple” to a patriotic one that rocked the pumpkins decorating the top of the piano at a 4-H achievement night.
One by one, the old ivories gave up their glue. Mom found someone who would install plastic “ivories,” and even blacken the “sharps and flats.”
When we got older we began to complain about having to practice. Mom began to save the days’ dishes to bargain with–either practice the piano or do the dishes. We practiced. Mom happily did dishes while being serenaded by live music, often parking on the end of the piano bench–dishtowel in hand–singing along.
That was, until my boogie woogie stage.
Not the kind of music Mom had envisioned. About junior high age, I began to pound out W. C. Handy pieces: “Jogo Blues,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar.”
Over and over.
An hour of Handy is a workout, physically and emotionally. And for mom, spiritually. She later admitted that my heavy-handed blues and boogie days drove her into her garden, where she “slew her dragons” as she slew weeds.
But Mrs. Chapler put up with it gracefully. Of course, she only had to stand it for half an hour a week. She let me choose my recital pieces–from “Frankie and Johnny” my freshman year and “Shortnin’ Bread” the next, before I finally graduated to Chopin and Rachmaninoff.
Years later, after marriage, after my husband’s years in the Air Force and Vietnam, we bought our first house. My folks gave us the wonderful old piano, but what a chore to get it from the Iowa farmhouse to a Denver suburb. Gloria made this sign for its move to Colorado.
Here comes the bad episode.
Five years and one son later, we moved back to Iowa. The heavy old gal had lost its two back wheels in the move, so tilted back. My husband leaned his shoulder and head against the wall to pry the piano from it so I could slip shims under to replace the wheels.
He ruptured a disc in his neck, leading to surgery to fuse a couple of vertebrae.
But he recovered and decided that he still liked the piano well enough to take it apart, strip off the dark grainy texture, and refinish it. It wasn’t long before son Dan was taking lessons and practicing on the same ponderous piano.
She has an uncertain future. The last time the piano was tuned, we learned that she has a cracked sounding board, which cannot be mended. So the elegant instruments holds a silent corner in our main room, usually crowned with family pictures, those boogie woogie days just a remembrance.
This is the 8-minute story on Our American Stories.
March 2021, just got this note from a listener: “I just had a driveway moment. I just had to sit in the drive, car engine running and finish hearing your piano story. It was walking through my own history; you didn’t have the only mother who traded dishwashing for practice time. Thank you for the brief respite. Our American Stories is a terrific vehicle.”