8824 NE Russell St.
Portland OR 97220

Black Lamb

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Just a piano

Saying goodbye to a musical instrument wreathed in memories

March 1st, 2004

BY LANE BROWNING

I wasn’t there for the leavetaking. I said goodbye the night before.

It was just a piano. A piano my mother bought in 1956, when her husband was stationed in Okinawa and she was bivouacing in southern California with four kids under age nine. She’d been a professional singer before she married, and she missed the piano from her childhood home; so she paid $500 and took delivery on a Winter Musette. Dark brown, compact, plucky and utilitarian — that was our piano. My older brother learned to read music in two weeks. I started plinking away when I was four, and the metronome nearly popped a cog trying to keep up with me.

It was just a piano. No cachet and no pedigree, but oh, how it held its pitch! In Thailand, it stayed in tune despite brutal humidity and the effects of the long journey. In Oklahoma, it sang in the arid dust-choked summers. In Virginia, and California… through more than a dozen moves: up stairs, over balconies, down ramps, over highways, and across rivers — it held its pitch, and upon it we tattooed the themes of our lives. Dirges, anthems, ballads and ballets. Decades of joy and routine.


When my ten-year-old friend was hit and killed by a car,
I composed a eulogy on that piano. When I suffered repeated bouts of sinusitis and had to miss school, I played therapeutic jazz. When my older sister nettled me, I played (and she couldn’t, nyah nyah nyah) pop. When my father came home from yet another war, I delivered a carefully rehearsed “When Daddy Comes Marching Home Again….”

I practiced on that piano before my first school talent show. I practiced (hard!) before my debut with a real band (and was quickly supplanted by Georgia Moore, who could, damn her multitalented pixie-haired little self, play the flute). My high school boyfriend sat enraptured as I crooned Carole King and Laura Nyro tunes at the keyboard. I played duets with my best friend Mike, I played solo after my father died, I played for the wonderful man who became my stepfather, I played when I was too sick (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) to think. Month upon month, year upon year, miles of travel and travail. Memories beyond recounting.

It was just a piano — and a pet zone. My scrappy Scottie slept against its cool brown chest for more than seventeen years. Next came my graceful, doe-eyed herding dog, whose head rested on the pedals while she snored — for more than sixteen years. Most recently it was my manic border terrier. And atop the Musette dozed a series of lovely, languid, or ornery felines. For one sublime period in my childhood, a blue parakeet hopped across the black keys, or nuzzled my cheek when I sang. I miss him still.

When my mother remarried, my stepdad brought with him his spendy, snooty Kimball upright. Our piano tuner refused to touch it. My mom, by now a working vocal coach, acquired a gleaming black baby grand, and I got the Musette. Each time I came home to visit, I ridiculed my mother’s expensive piano, which felt stiff as paste compared to my frisky spinet.

It was just a piano. My piano. And I moved. More stairs, more trucks, more decks and rails and balconies and highways and U-Hauls; more lemon Pledge across the lid. My revered stepfather died, and I played while I sobbed. Mozart, the Beatles, Irving Berlin. The piano’s cabinet puckered in places, the keys yellowed; but the pitch remained true, and the touch — oh the touch! Springy! The key rebound on that piano was sheer bliss. I could fillip my way through Brubeck, Guaraldi, Beethoven, and “Chopsticks” with accurate aplomb — and no strain on my pencil-thin wrists.

Then I was thirty-eight, sleepless during a very high-risk pregnancy, so I played. “Over the Rainbow.” “’Til there was You.” Pachelbel’s Canon. Sometimes I just leaned on the cover, or opened and closed it a few times to hear the sound and feel the slide; it had tiny brass-colored knobs, one at either end, at the lowest and highest octaves. I was afraid, and the piano gave mute reassurance. Sometimes I lifted the top to watch the hammers. How young and beautiful my parents were when we got this piano! How fresh and unsullied we all were. How wide open the future.

My son was born healthy, but he needed four surgeries in his infancy. He took steroids and wore an eyepatch. I kept him on my lap, or beside me, when I played. By age two he still didn’t talk, but the piano! He spoke with music. He developed such a fixation he played for five hours at a stretch. Born with perfect pitch, he knew an A from an A-flat, a D from a C. He could walk to the keyboard and replicate a song just heard on TV. The piano connected us when words couldn’t.

Eventually, with therapy, he spoke, and eventually he transferred his piano obsession to other things. We both stopped playing. For years.

The piano waited.

And then my son’s dad left. “I still love you, but…” said the letter he handed me one April evening. And one of the first things I did, in my disorientation, was return to the piano. I played, and I played, and I played. At the keyboard, nothing had changed.

I was still the four year-old, the eleven-year-old, the coed, the bubbly talent show girl. I was just a girl. Playing the piano.
I tried last year to donate it to a needy organization, but when the time drew near, I huddled beneath the keyboard and hugged its slim wooden leg, clinging to decades of memories and too many emblems of change. I sobbed. I felt guilty. So I cancelled. But my mother, who weathers loss with the grit of a longshoreman, said, “A piano is meant to be played,” and by this time my son and I had a glorious electronic model we both adored.

So the Musette lives now with a piano teacher who introduces children to composition, chords, and quarter notes. He promised I can visit whenever I want, but I won’t. I don’t even visit the corner where its peppy little footprint remains pressed into the living room carpet. Why would I? It was just a piano. •

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