Sometime between the age of 2 and 4 years old, my parents got me a toy piano. It was white and shaped like a baby grand, but only had two octaves (from G below middle C—to G above middle C). I thought this was the most wonderful thing, although thinking back to how that must have effected the family, it is my guess that I was the only one with that particular thought. My Dad taught me how to play ” St. Louis Blues” (oddly enough in the key of F#) on that little piano, which was his specialty on the piano, having learned that one from an old black dude who hung around my dad’s family’s General Store in Appomattox, Virginia back in the 1920’s. This-playing the piano and singing, I saw as my destiny-a pathway in a miraculous musical direction, as I learned that song and played many other popular songs (by “ear“) over and over, as much as I could get away with. I’m sure there were times when my parents were ready to toss me and that little piano out on our ears, but they never did.
As my Dad was in the Air Force, we moved quite allot, and each time we moved we pared down our possessions as much as possible, as we never knew what or how big our ‘quarters’ would be. However, much to the disapproval of the rest of the family, that toy piano came along regardless of it’s necessity. But a tiny toy piano can take you only so far.
When I was twelve my mother found an ad in the local paper (The Orlando Sentinel) for an old upright piano ( a Wurlitzer) for $100, being sold by an old couple who used to play piano professionally back in the days of vaudeville. Along with this wonder came a stack of unbelievable old great sheet music, some of which I still have, but most of which time and the salt water spray and constant humidity of Cocoa Beach turned into crumbling unusable fragments of the past. We were in Florida for 5 years and to protect the piano from the elements, we were told to install a special light so it wouldn’t warp or get dank, which we did (both put in the lamp and get warped and dank ourselves, by and by.). Then my family and the Wurlitzer were transferred to Hanscombe Field Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts, where we stayed a little over a year; and then as my Dad switched to NASA we moved to Houston ,Texas, and I finally ended up here, in Austin, to attend The University of Texas. In a moment of madness, love, and generosity, I gave my old toy piano (that I still had in my early 20’s) to one of my best friend’s baby daughter, hoping it would inspire her as much as it did me.
Oddly enough, the man who was to become my Husband offered to get my upright real piano from Houston and bring it to Austin, so I could have it to play, long before we were married. That probably clinched the deal. When the first piano tuner we hired here looked that old Vaudevillian Wurlitzer over, he marveled at how incredibly much used and worn down was it’s inside workings, wondering how it still managed to sound as nice as it did. Of course a piano has it’s own magic, and why he wasn’t on to that is the real question.
Then we and my old piano moved to Westchester County, New York, as my husband wanted to return to his job at IBM research there in Yorktown. We all stayed there 2 and 1/2 years before moving back home, as we couldn’t take the cold and the attitude of the locals there who really had strange and amusing accents (just joking- as we were the strangers in a strange land there-hard core Austinites that we were.) So, this time our old beloved Wurlitzer and our new edition, a two year old girl and her new toy piano and my husband and I returned to Austin.
Unbeknown-st to me, my husband surprised me one year with a baby grand piano for my birthday, trading in the old Wurlitzer was part of the deal. I named her “Jazzebelle,” as it was a family tradition to name our pianos ( and cars.) Our daughter took piano lessons from the time she was 6 years old and became quite good at it, until she became a rebellious teenager. And I renewed by love for the piano and progressed in my playing through out those years.
15 years ago we moved into our current home on a hillside with a great view of the ‘Hill Country’ and beyond, I continued to play Jazzebelle until her whole upper register zonked out, when the sound board cracked. My piano tuner, who has so wonderfully cared for Jazzebelle for so long finally declared her no longer save-able, as only a very good friend could and would do. Her name is Mary Smith and she virtually rebuilt Jazzebelle over the years, and knows her stuff, no question; ergo : we bought a portable, affordable electric piano (we named “The Imposter”) as when you strike the keys with your finger, what’s really happening is a recorded piano’s sound of that note is made to copy that note as the internal computer is programmed to do. Which, we all know- given my proclivity for cyberphobia, to say nothing for a few moments of well documented computer rage (see “Camp Carnage” on this site for evidence of this tendency,)-would never really work out. So my husband, in a moment of rational madness, offered to take me to the Steinway Gallery here in Austin to look for a possible match. I was so over come by the experience, I was unable to play any of the pianos there (*?) even I didn’t know why then, but the sales personage took me to a room full of Grand pianos, where I went from one to the other sitting down and putting my hands on the keys and closing my eyes at each and every one. I sensed an almost magnetic connection from one particular one, out of the whole room full of gorgeous grand pianos. This sounds so regretfully new-aged to say nothing of nuts, I’m the first to admit that; but I honestly felt this jolt of power, an almost magnetic connection with that one particular Steinway Grand that we bought, being unable to play a single note ( much to my husband’s suspicion, to say nothing of the sales person’s) but trying them all out for comfort, like one would at a Lazy-boy furniture store or something. I don’t know about you, but the more I think about that, the weirder it seems, no wonder I have monthly appointment with a psychiatrist, and that’s just a blip on the screen, the tip of the iceberg in truth. Oh well, not to worry, what with Global Warming and all.
Any Way, this Steinway Grand which is strong, and loud, and guides my hands from time to time, definitely has it’s own soul. All Steinway are made, each one, from one single tree, so I guess that isn’t all that strange of a thought really, that it has it’s own soul. It is alive, as it once was as a tree; and has quite truthfully been my salvation in times of deep depression, trouble, and strife. Sometimes I think It wills me to keep living and trying to do the best I can do. Since I’ve had him ( this piano’s name is Ruben,) I have had some serious and painful surgeries just to be able to continue to walk. I had a fall that tore some important tendons on my right foot, which had to be fished for and re-connected which was worse than it sounds. Also in that same fall, it’s probable that I broke the head of my femur badly enough that the blood stopped pumping up through the marrow, I ended up with avascular necrosis (the bone done died in der) that spread to my pelvis, so I got to have a complete hip replacement as well. As when one side of the body’s shot, the other side usually takes over the load, so I ended up with an arthritic left knee so worn out that the cartilage moved out or something enabling the femur to cut in to to the tubular and fibula (lower bones of the leg, south of the knee), making walking agonizing. In hopes that this would help some, my orthopedic surgeon yet again tried to drain what we thought was excess synovial fluid, as my knee was so swollen and aching and this can help, at least temporarily; however this time what came out was mostly blood (not a good sign). So once again I got the grand prize of yet another joint replacement, which was not as much fun as it sounds, believe me. I had to re-learn to walk at least 3 times. (Think of me as Saint Caroline, the patron saint of the Lame and Insane, (kidding)). I am hardly Saint material, but one of the best parts of my life has been playing Ruben, and it is my firm belief that playing the piano is the closest thing to prayer I can think of, or maybe another form of prayer. I thank God for my life and that little toy piano my parents got me so long ago, as learning to play the piano and playing it well, or at least pretty dang good (regardless of style) can be the most enjoyable thing a person can possibly do.