The last time I heard my grandmother play her piano, I was about 7 and she was close to 80. I had asked her to perform an arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which I’d just heard Judy Garland sing in a televised version of The Wizard of Oz. I was told later that my grandmother, descendant of a long line of German keyboardists (church organists active in Bach’s day), had been a fine pianist when young. She had certainly looked the part. I had once seen a photo of her sitting - a girl in white lace, pale and incandescent with burgeoning womanhood - at the shining black piano in her father’s darkly paneled house in Edwardian Los Angeles. In the bent, limping, grey-haired figure I knew, that girl was a lovely rumor, a myth. Still, I always associated her vanished sepia beauty, her intense dark stare into the camera lens, with all that was music: its sweet promise of something incredible just around the corner, its structuring in sound of all the emotions I felt but could not describe in words or ordinary deeds.
That day in my seventh summer, however, is memorable chiefly for what my grandmother was no longer able to do; her struggle to play with arthritis-gnarled fingers was hard to watch and to hear. As she bravely continued, I quietly and cruelly inched my way up the stairs, till the sounds were blocked by the door I shut between me and the music. Finally, as I sat on the bedroom floor, half-horrified by what I had done, the music stopped. Not surprisingly, my grandmother never played for me again.
The last time I myself touched the piano was the afternoon of my final piano lesson at the instrument several years later. I was 11 going on 12. I had finished my Louis Köhler exercises, and Roy, my scruffily handsome teenaged teacher, who always thrilled me by picking me up at my parents’ house in his battered blue MG, was standing behind me saying something about correcting the tempo, when my grandmother emerged from the dining room. She always stayed there during my lessons, listening, a shadowy presence just past the arched doorway, a kind of human metronome the tyranny of whose judgment I could not escape. She even seemed to tick, in a maddeningly metronomic way, as she sat in the gloomy room, her gilt-edged china gleaming dully above her head.
My grandmother was clearly unhappy, and now I know why: I should have been sitting on the curlicued bench that whole hour, rolling out perfect scales in parallel thirds. But I was in love with my teacher, and with his talent, and too often (as on this final occasion) I had coaxed him into playing Chopin and Beethoven for me while I listened from the stairs. It’s no wonder Roy obliged, because my grandmother’s piano was a very fine one—an 1887 Mason & Hamlin “art case” upright, lacquered a strange clear black that showed the grain of the wood at the edges of sculpted leaves and fluted legs. And it was a rare species, one of the comparatively few models M&H made between the mid-1880s and the early 1890s using a stringing mechanism that tuned the strings with screw sockets instead of pins. Hence the un-Victorian, vaguely vulgar term for the model: “screw stringer.”
This mechanism revolutionized the industry by producing pianos that rarely needed tuning. M&H had already made a name for itself in 1883 by patenting a “tension resonator” that gave their pianos a singing, sweet tone which, combined with crisp action, soon made these instruments the most sought-after in the country and out of it, and earned M&H the sobriquet “the Stradivarius of American pianos.” They were, in the end, too expensive to make, and a revolt among piano tuners, who believed their livelihood threatened, ended the short career of the “screw stringer.” This exotic origin made my grandmother’s piano all the more symbolic to me of things unattainable, but not so far away they couldn’t be adored at a distance.
Roy sounded like Horowitz at that piano, and looked like a Greek god as he played, but the spell of both was shattered as I realized my grandmother was angrily casting doubt on his pedagogical skills. It was true: Roy did play for me more than I ever did for him, and I knew I had been testing my grandmother’s patience on the matter. From my adult standpoint now, I can wonder how she, an old woman who loved peace above all else, could have agreed to allowing her excitable grandchild access to her beloved instrument for lessons and scales, which he then did not fully apply himself to, when she need not have done so. My grandmother could have kept to her drawn shades and her sewing and left me to my own devices, which in our little town were few. But she didn’t, because she was a “good Christian woman,” and because we had once, during an altercation at the breakfast table, realized that we were each equipped with the same strength of will, and would stop at nothing to have our ways. She understood the need to acquiesce, perhaps as her elders had once done for her.
Now I see why the old lady came out of the dining room looking like a thundercloud. But things were said to Roy that reddened my face and seemed to me gratuitously mean-spirited. When we left the house for the cooler air of his dented convertible, I promised myself I’d never go back—I’d show her what happened to grandmothers who embarrassed the man I loved. I never went back, all right. I never saw Roy again (he died a decade later, I was told, in San Francisco), and my grandmother only lived a few more years before being felled by a sudden stroke.
I grieved, because I had never apologized to her for turning my back on her that day she took Roy to task; and because my fantasy of the beautiful girl in white lace at the shining black piano was obliterated by the sight of a waxen, highly rouged corpse in an open coffin, gnarled hands formed across her satiny bust into something like an attitude of prayer. But then came another shock. The will made mention neither of the piano nor of me.
I had assumed that I, the only grandchild who had studied piano, would receive the Mason & Hamlin. I assumed wrongly - and after what had happened with Roy, perhaps assumed foolishly. Because the piano counted among the household’s furnishings, it went to my uncle instead, along with the overstuffed chairs, prints of Swiss lakes and funny old table lamps, up to a northern California farm. I even had the misfortune of walking past my grandparents’ old house, with its seven mossy gables, on the day when the piano was being loaded into a van for transport, and saw it there, torn from what had been its setting for half a century. Torn, most significantly, from me.
For the next twenty-six years, my grandmother’s piano sat somewhere where I was not, and I mourned it like a lost lover. The scarred black upright was more than a piano. It was the music career that I might have had. It had sung for Roy, whom I had loved, through whom I had learned that I could love. And it was a connection to my grandmother’s fabled musical family, with their famous Italian violins, their easy familiarity with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, so at variance with the atmosphere of unhappy marriage and troubled finances in which I lived at home. Because of that parting of boy and piano, I became not pianist but writer.
It was a fate I didn’t wear lightly. Even when I took up piano again in my teens, there was a painful desperation about my studies. Music was a world I had renounced, which I could not welcome back into my life without agonizing memories of the Mason & Hamlin, of wondering where it was, who was playing it, and what had become of it. In my early 20’s, hopes were raised briefly when a friend of the family offered to buy the instrument from my uncle. But entrenched family politics were in force; the offer was refused.
Gradually, as with the man that got away, the only method guaranteeing freedom from perpetual heartache was to abandon the object of desire. This I did, emerging not happier but more of a realist, and certainly more free than I had been since childhood. I simply no longer cared. Yet some part of me even I could not reach could not forget the loss, or cease to mourn a little over it when, as deepest losses do, the wound it had dealt me failed to completely heal.
So why is my grandmother’s piano sitting in my Victoria, BC home today? It began with a call from my uncle in California. He had been thinking a long time, he said, about the piano, and about me. He gingerly probed the news that my partner of ten years had moved east, taking his piano, what might have been my consolation prize, with him. Almost as if breaking bad rather than good news, he asked, “I wasn’t sure I should even say this, but I wanted to make absolutely certain. Would you have room for your grandmother’s piano?” I nearly dropped the phone. Was Liszt Hungarian?
My uncle brought the piano up from California in a U-Haul trailer. I didn’t dare look at it till the chill November morning when we prepared to unload the instrument. It had been moved around, had been bumped and scraped, hadn’t been tuned in years and had sat in benign neglect more than half my total lifetime. I expected to find it in pieces, wires snapped, keys missing.
I got another surprise. Nicked and bruised, it was, and its ivory keys coated with dust and finger grease. But when we got the piano into the house and against the wall, I sat down on the carved bench where I had once hunched plinking away at my exercises, where Roy had conjured Beethoven and where my grandmother had tried to give me “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I strummed a C major chord. Despite all the neglect, the piano’s tone was still as firm and singing as ever. I turned to my uncle, in happy tears. “I’m sorry it took so long,” he told me, happily tearful too. “But it’s finally come home.”