Most of what I have posted about so far has been about the sadness and danger that affected my family – but there was, and is, happiness and good times mixed within and so today’s post is about the part music played in our family.
My mom had taken piano lessons as a child, and soon after my parents bought their first home (the one we all grew up in), she started saving for a piano. When it arrived, it became the focal point of our living room. My dad, though he didn’t play any instruments, loved music and had a stereo set up in the family room. We grew up listening to Mom play the piano, and Dad play albums (mostly Country and Western).
My older brother, Mark, started piano lessons around age seven, and could play by ear. He then took up the guitar around age twelve and is now what I would consider a master guitarist. My younger sister, Gloria, is also a gifted pianist and took lessons from the same teacher as my brother. Their children are all musically inclined – they play a variety of musical instruments, dance and sing. As for me, I did take piano lessons for a short time, but I could never quite master the practicing required. My passion as it relates to music is to enjoy the talents of others. My husband, John, is also a music lover and we passed the love of music on to our children, Greg and Tony.
As a special treat for those of you that are reading my blog and supporting me, here is Chapter 10 from The Best Girl. There are only seven other people that have read my manuscript, so this is a sneak peak just for you! Enjoy.
“Piano night tonight!” Mom announces after supper. “Mark, you’re going to play, too!”
I love piano nights; I wish Mom would have them more often. The musical instrument is the most beautiful piece of furniture in our house and Mom is very proud of it. When someone wants to buy a piano, they have to save a lot of money. Way before I was born, when Mom first started working at the bank, she opened a special savings account just so she could buy a piano. One of my favorite things of all time is to listen to Mom and Mark play. Mark has an extra gift – the ability to play by ear. Even Mom is amazed at how he can sit at the piano and work out a song, without ever looking at music.
Guests are not allowed to play, or even touch, the piano. If one of our friends taps a key or slides a hand along the wood when Mom’s home, she immediately yells at them. My friends are always amazed that she knows, even when she is in a different room.
I’m the first one in the living room tonight, and while I wait I run my hand over the top of the piano, freshly polished with Pledge. The wood is the color of Mom’s coffee when she adds a little milk to it. Under my hand, the wood is smooth – it feels a lot like the silky lining in Mom’s winter coat. When no one is playing it, the black and white keys are hidden behind a rolling door. As I slide the door back, I watch it magically disappear inside the piano – when it settles into place it makes a slight squeaking sound, which alerts my mom.
“Are you getting everything ready, Joanie?” Mom asks from the kitchen.
“Yes! Are you playing Christmas first, or requests?” I cross my fingers and hope for requests first – I already know what mine will be.
“Christmas first!” Mom shouts. “I’m almost ready, just finishing up the dishes.”
Mom stores her music inside the matching piano bench and when I open it tonight, I find my favorite songbook. There are no Christmas songs in it, so I carefully place it on the top of the piano. I search through the bench until I find Mom’s Christmas music – I know she will want to play Silent Night, Away in a Manger and Deck the Halls – but I also enjoy Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, so I get those out, too.
“Okay, everything’s ready!” I announce. “Who’s going to be your page-turner tonight, Mom?” I ask, but I already know the answer. Mark doesn’t like to be the page turner anymore, so it will be me.
“Hmm . . .” Mom says. “I just wonder.” The reason I like to be the page turner is I get to see Mom’s elegant, long fingers slide and zoom up and down the keys, and be the first to hear the music soar out of the piano before it fills the living room. I can’t believe that something made of wood, felt and strings can produce such joyful, lively music.
While I wait for Mom, Dad and Mark to come in the living room, I push a key down very slowly, and listen carefully, trying to make the felt hammer strike against the string as gently as possible. I wait until I feel the vibration under my finger – then I lift my finger and press down hard so that I can hear the sound full blast.
Everyone finally comes into the living room, and Mom gets started. We all sing our hearts out as Mom plays one Christmas song after the other. Our “Fa La La La La’s” on Deck the Halls are the best we’ve ever done!
Just behind the piano bench is the Christmas tree, with all of our presents under it. Well, except the ones from Santa – those are in Mom’s closet. I know they are because I found them there. Not only did I find them, but I opened them all – I didn’t take all the wrapping off, just enough of it to see that I’m getting an EZ Bake Oven. And some mixes for it. And a Lite Brite. I didn’t mean to peek at every single one, but once I got started, I couldn’t stop. When I was done, I taped the paper back up the best I could. But, that night when I went to bed, I felt very bad for what I’d done, and I couldn’t sleep. I finally got up and went out to talk to Mom – by the time I got to the family room I was bawling like a big baby.
“My goodness, what’s wrong?” Mom asked, as I crawled up onto the couch.
“I did something really bad.”
“You did? What?” Mom wanted to know – and so I told her. I was crying so hard I could hardly talk.
“I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to ruin Christmas! I really didn’t!” I thought Mom would be super mad at me, but instead, she put her arms around me and gave me a hug.
“Well, I think it’s going to be okay. But here’s the thing – when you open presents before it’s time, then you don’t get to be surprised on Christmas. Do you understand that?” I told her I did, and then she took me all the way back in my room and tucked me in. On her way out of my room she told me not to worry about it anymore and to get some sleep. But every time I look at the tree, I feel a little sad.
When Mom finishes playing just about every Christmas song I’ve ever heard, Mark plays one of the songs he is working on with his piano teacher, Mrs. Day. I would never say it out loud, but I think he might be better than Mom!
“Okay, time for requests,” Mom announces.
“I’ll go last! Mark, you and Dad can go before me,” I say.
“Hey, Good Lookin’ is my request!” Dad says, with a big smile on his face. He’s lying on the floor, between the bench and the Christmas tree. His arms are folded behind his head and he looks happy. This is another thing I love about piano nights – Dad is always in a good mood. I don’t worry, not even a little bit, that he will start shouting, yelling or hitting. When Mom plays the chorus, we all join in – when we do the last line – “How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?” we all start to laugh.
“Hey, Mom – do you think you can play King of the Road?” Mark asks.
“I’ll sure give it a try. Why don’t you stand next to me in case I need some help?” Mom suggests. I don’t know this song very well, but by the time they are done, I really like it. Nothing can top my favorite song, though.
“Is it my turn?!” I say excitedly. “I bet you can’t guess what I’m thinking of!”
“Oh, Joanie!” Mom says, with a little giggle. “Let’s see, can anyone guess what Joanie wants to hear?”
“It can’t be . . . wait, is it . . . Oh, Susannah?” Mark teases. And then we all laugh because Oh, Susannah is my favorite song of all time.
“You guessed it! Page 111 in The Little Brown Book of Songs, Mom!” I say.
“I sure hope you come up with a new favorite when you turn eight in February!” Mark says.
As Mom plays, I make sure we all sing along. While we sing, I see a picture in my mind of a young man, a cowboy I suppose, travelling around with a banjo on his knee, trying to find his one true love. I try to figure out how there could be dry weather and rain at the same time, how it could be so hot that you could freeze to death. And I picture Susannah, wearing a long dress – not like a wedding dress, just a pretty long one – sitting on her porch watching for him and then running out to meet him as he finds his way to her.
At the end of the night, Dad gets out his Polaroid camera. “Let’s take a few pictures before we hit the hay,” he says. After we’ve all had our picture taken, he hands the camera to Mark.
“Take a picture of your old man, will you, Mark?” he requests. Mark snaps the photo, and once Dad has put the backing on and spread the liquid on the top of the picture, he takes a pen and writes something on the back.
“Thanks for a great night,” he says to Mom. He hands her the photo and then leans over and gives her a peck on the cheek. Mom looks at the photo, then turns it over and reads the back. She gives Dad a peck on his cheek, and then sets the photo on the top of the piano.
“Yeah, thanks, Mom!” Mark says.
“It was the best!” I say. “How about one more round of Oh, Susannah?” I ask, hopefully.
“I don’t think so, little lady! Nice try, but it’s off to bed for you!” Mom says. I try to read her face, because once in a great while, even though she says no, she will still play it one more time. But, then I see her pull the wood cover over the keys and I know it’s not going to happen.
After I put on my nightie, I head to the family room to say goodnight to Mom and Dad. As I walk through the living room, I pick up Dad’s photo. He didn’t get the back stuck-on straight, and the liquid stuff smeared his picture a little, but he’s smiling and the lights on the tree are bright behind him. I turn it over to read what he wrote. It takes me a minute because it is part printing and part cursive, but finally I make out the words: To Lyla, my sweetheart. Love, John.