de(tales): grandma's piano
Cara Meredith and I were clearly destined to meet, one might even say that our connection had our name on it. Once we did get to know each other, we realized that we have far more in common than just a name. One of these things is a love of story and Cara tells a wonderful one here today. Enjoy.
I remember Auntie’s phone call, offering me Grandma’s piano. If you want it, it’s yours, she’d said, as if gaining ownership of a 1950’s family relic was no big deal – another phone call made, another offer accepted. I’d said a hearty yes-yes-yes without hesitation, this the piano my father and his three siblings all learned to read music on, malleable minds conjuring the difference between black and white, sharp and flat, octave and single-step note.
This, the piano my grandmother’s fingers effortlessly danced upon, the holiness of hymnal filling her house on the hill, the hilarity of ragtime that provided us with permission to grab hands and dance in the living room.
This, the object our family gathered around after meal times, when voices young and old joined together in magical eight-part harmony, our harmonies an extended prayer of praise.
Really, we didn’t see Grandma and Grandpa more than once or twice a year, when weather and Dad’s vacation time and money permitted. But then there we were again: passing through Auburn and Grass Valley and Nevada City, driving up North Bloomfield Road toward their yellow ranch house. Scrambling out of the car, we’d bound across concrete steps, pausing first to examine our names carved in once-wet cement, flinging our bodies into wide, welcoming arms. Once inside, I’d waste no time. I’d head straight for the piano.
“Are you practicing everyday, Cara?” Grandma Mac would ask ten-year-old me, her feet trailing behind my own. Scooting me to the edge of the bench, she’d nestle beside me, two warm butts fitting squarely on 30 x 14 inches of wood. I’d nod my head firmly, cheeks reddening as I wiped sweaty palms on blue jeans. Dry fingers, dry! I’d command seemingly drippy appendages. Then, with heart pounding, I’d give her my best, fingers outstretched, back straight, shoulders relaxed. I’d play “Fur Elise” or “Allegro in G,” because I just wanted to make her proud, I just wanted to please my grandma.
She’d nod her head approvingly, even if I had to stop and pause and start the same section four times over, even if the notes played were not nearly as perfect as those she breathlessly, mindlessly produced.
Then she’d point to the duet book resting before us, the one she’d pulled out in anticipation of my arrival. She’d set the beat, counting a slow 1-2-3-4, our eyes craning to read notes mere inches before our eyes. With four hands now upon the small upright, our music filled the living room, its melody the only radio necessary. We’d practice the same song again and again, or we’d flip through the book’s pages intermittently, our imperfection sufficient for the time spent together. We’d gather the cousins and Aunties and Uncles and Grandpa around, and we’d provide a concert, giggling at comical rhythms in measure four, breathing sighs of relief after the struggle of that middle section.
We lived and breathed and had our being around that old piano, generation upon generation awakening its keys to attention.
When I was in middle school, we got the call: She has Alzheimer’s, Grandpa breathed uncertainly into the phone, distrusting his own utterance.
Truthfully, we’d seen the signs for a while, wondering if constant misplacement of car keys and growing forgetfulness on walks, at the grocery store, in her home, was a sign of Something More. While our visits didn’t abate any less than before, her mind did, lost in a revelry all its own – forgetting a grandchild’s name, neglecting to turn off the burner on the stove – her eyes growing glassier and more distanced each time we saw her. Like before, I’d run to the piano bench. I’d sit down on its worn wooden seat, waiting for her to trail behind me, wanting to play those ancient duets together. Sometimes she came, but most of the time she didn’t.
Lost to a chronology all her own, she’d sit at the bench on a Good Day, those old fingers somehow remembering what her mind did not. She’d plunk away at the keys, chord by chord, one octave after another, her strong alto harmony filling in the blanks.
I saw her for the last time in August of 2001, two weeks’ before she passed. This time, Sister and Auntie and I sat on a padded mauve bench in the nursing care facility, Grandma’s wheelchair pulled close to us. We held her hands, her knees, her shoulders. We squeezed in around her and we sang the hymns of her youth, “Amazing Grace” and “It is Well” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” We sang the songs she used to fearlessly lead her family and her church in – we sang the songs she could now only grunt along in approval, mouth muted, mind dulled.
But still, she grunted. Her grunt the affirmation of a thousand yes’s, of a million words unspoken – that guttural, throaty grunt was enough.
My own eyes filled with tears, mouth closed to song in that emotion-filled moment. We knew this was our good-bye, just as we somehow also believed that her farewell was yet another greeting to the Great Banquet. There, she’d feast again. There she’d sit at that old wooden bench, her fingers dancing endlessly, her voice soaring loud and clear and perfectly pitched to the soprano beside her. For there, she’d be restored. There, her mind would be made whole again.
Today, that small upright nestles snugly in the far corner of our dining room. According to Piano Tuner Robert who plunked away at its keys a few months’ ago, I’ve overspent its worth in moving fees and tune-ups alone. But when I see my two-year old son, the fourth generation in our family, tap away at those same black and white keys, I too am filled with wonder. I marvel at the music he’s creating, as I remember the stories and the songs, the memories and the value held within Grandma’s piano.
Cara Meredith is a writer, speaker and musician from in the greater San Francisco area. She is currently writing her first book, A Hundred Times an Hour: A Memoir of Belief and Disbelief, when she’s not on a hunt for the world’s greatest chips and guacamole. She loves people, food, reading, the great outdoors and her family. She and her husband, James, currently live in Pacifica, California, with their almost two-year old son, Canon, and a second little boy set to make his appearance in August.
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.