Four good-sized men were paid a hefty fee to take our grand piano up the switchback stairs to a loft area that had never been used for anything but a home for an inversion table and weight bench, both long ago sold on Craigslist. As it turned out, not a single mover in Sacramento would risk trying to put this enormous instrument into place. So we hired a San Francisco company for this monumental task. The City is, after all, one of the nation’s most compact, vertical urban places in the world, so it is not unusual there for movers to shimmy large objects up narrow stairways.
Legs, lid, keyboard – everything was taken apart and carefully carried, step by step, to our loft, to be reassembled and permanently set up, giving a little-used part of our home purpose at last. It took a full two hours of grunting, avoiding walls and communicating with one another for these guys to do this. And once it was set up, it was a thing of beauty to behold.
You see, this isn’t just any piano. It is a vintage Yamaha ebony grand piano brought all the way from Japan, back in the late ‘60s, when my father owned a piano store in the Midwest. This one was placed in our living room for all to use. One of the first dealers to merchandise Japanese pianos in Indiana, my father would brag about the Yamaha brand as if it were a well kept secret – pianos made so well that they didn’t even need tuning after weathering such a long trip across the Pacific and over land to Indiana. Soon the university in our town would buy a fleet of them – for its music building, its dormitories, and its performing arts center. And the windfall of profit my father made from this transaction provided our family its first trip to Europe, when I was only 13. So what this piano represents in my life is much more than a mere piece of furniture.
My father played the standards by ear, wowing his customers and wooing them with the promise of music in their homes. Mom was a trained pianist, could read music well and play it hauntingly beautifully — as if each musical phrase were a prayer. To add to all that, one of my brothers was so good at playing nearly anything he tried that he eventually became a well-known pianist on cruise ships, making a 30-year career from it, evoking sighs and loving envy from the rest of us. Whoever played this piano remarked on its amazing tone, its delicate touch and the pleasure they got from playing it, so I guess you could say that it carries with it the parties, family gatherings, and at-home concerts that so richly populated my youth.
As for me? I had a good ear and could play a lot of things from memory, but was undisciplined with piano lessons, always trying to short-cut and rebelling at learning the basics. I loved playing, but resented how it came so easily to others in my family. Having discontinued piano lessons around age 8, I refused to take lessons again until I was older and could pay for them myself. This time, I would dictate to my piano teacher what I wanted to learn to play instead of being told. My goal was to learn to learn to play the intricate and syncopated musical phrases of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It took me a full year to get to the score’s main theme, and there I stopped, admitting that 20 pages were enough to keep me therapeutically busy for the rest of my life, since I figured I was not all that great at it anyway.
For a number of reasons, I all but abandoned the piano. College, travel and work got in my way, followed by having a life partner for 20 years who had little appreciation for my passion for music or writing, leaving me to believe I was not all that special after all. Sadly, it was not until I left him that I was able to cherish whatever skills lay untapped within me. Still, I saw piano-playing as something I would return to later – much later – in my life.
Losing Mom while she was still in her 60s was a sucker-punch no one in the family expected. Missing from our lives would be her care-taking, her intense sweetness, her sumptuous meals, the beautiful music she played on this special piano, and the reverence with which she would walk around our house on Holy Saturday with a candle in her hand at Easter time, singing the “Christ Has Risen” hymn over and over again after the clock struck midnight. Pop was lost without her and although he stuck around for seven more years, he would never be the same man again.
Following Pop’s departure, my two brothers, in a moment of grace, decided to let me have our parents’ Yamaha grand piano when I remarried as a wedding gift; no gift in the world could have been more precious to me. And as my new husband and I moved from a rental home in the Bay Area to our own home in a Sacramento suburb, the piano became my most prized possession. At first, it occupied a huge space in our formal living room, leaving room only for a sofa and chair and robbing us of coffee table space because of how far it protruded into the center of the room.
When a plumbing flood forced us to evacuate and put all our furniture into storage, we carefully selected a mover that had a temperature-controlled facility for this beloved friend. And upon re-occupying a now partially remodeled space, we decided to use the loft as a music room in perpetuity, since we knew we would never leave this home, and the search began for a mover willing to take on the task.
Once the black piano was in place, I would sporadically sit down and play my oldies-but-goodies – Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and a few other pieces that had become muscle memory over the years. But it wasn’t until last night that a paradigm shift took place in me that hurled me toward taking lessons again.
Please understand that I am not by nature a jumpy or nervous person. But last night was different. As I sat at my computer tapping out emails and editing client copy I was working on, I felt something missing – a void that pleaded with me to fill it. I called out to my husband, whose office is just down the hall from my own. “I’m all antsy,” I said. “I don’t know what to do with myself.” He suggested going to the gym and swimming laps, but I knew in my bones that that was not the answer.
Soon I found myself ascending the stairs that led to the loft – a place I visit only to prepare our home for guests. I turned on lights, grabbed a pile of sheet music from a nearby cabinet and sat down to play. I knew it would sound terrible – my sight-reading ability had atrophied and my fingers often missed important sharps and flats. But as I played old songs from my parents’ generation such as Misty, Makin’ Whoopee, Satin Doll and even a few classical pieces, I knew I had found my answer. The sheer pleasure of this long overdue act filled my soul and reminded me of the rich life and love of family that bears no price tag. It brought memories of my mother’s beaming smile and her high-pitched voice flooding back to me. At times I could picture her ensconced in the playing of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, with its other-worldly chord progressions and delicate melody.
Perhaps Oz’s Dorothy was right. All you really need in life is right in your own backyard — or in this case, up a flight of stairs. Because truly reuniting with my old friend, whose 88 black and white keys were begging to be touched, was transformative. And in the tradition of many who came before me, I will once again let music flow through my fingers, taking its therapy, memories, and smiles along for the ride.