One summer my mother decided that we should retrieve the family Victorian piano from Albuquerque. This was a gorgeous mahogany Knabe upright that had been brought through sun, wind, across the desert to New Mexico Territory, all the way from Boston, not long after the Civil War.
It’s true that the piano was a treasure, but between the time my grandmother was put into a home and her apartment sold, it had been stored in her garage on Tijeras Avenue, other family memento mori piled high around it.
In the days before we moved to Colorado I would visit my grandmother and she would play her best parlor song on this piano, with its front walnut lattice-work backed by black silk, the original ivory keys. This was a short Victorian waltz called “Sweet Little Birdie Come Meet Me,” with which she had demurely courted my grandfather when he came to visit her, sitting on a striped satin chair in a snowy white cravat, his top hat on his knee.
She was happy when she played for me, when we were alone together. I remember that she would become nervous when my mother and aunts would gather behind her and urge her to play. Once on display, her hands gnarled, she stumbled through the notes, singing in her quavering grandmother voice: “Sweet Little Birdie Come Meet Me…. Down by the Shady Lane…”
Now I was to have the Knabe, and the memories that came with it. As my mother rolled out our itinerary, my father rolled his eyes and groaned.
The sheer magnitude of what she had in mind was exhausting for him.
He sat in his chair in the study, looking at her, while she paced back and forth, expostulating.
“Time for Jen to take piano lessons. This will help her be more well-rounded. Surely you don’t want anyone else to have the piano…”
Surely not, we all thought, looking at our father, who rarely put up much of a fight.
A day was set, the green two-tone Nash Rambler station wagon with the luggage rack on top washed, the u-haul rented. The u-haul was hooked up. Everyone got ready.
To endure the journey, that is to say, to block out the inevitable escalating exchange of unpleasantries between our parents, my brother and I had to prepare ourselves.
I would bring my guitar and a huge sketch-pad and pencils. My brother would pack his colored pencils and rubber dinosaur collection, so that he could draw submarines, and re-enact primal survival battles between the T-Rex and the Brontosaurus.
In addition to being head maestro for the trip, dictating what each of us would pack– all “wash n’ wear,” she insisted– my mother had spent hours in the kitchen, so that a cold lunch of fried chicken and potato salad rode shotgun in a wicker picnic basket.
We set out, winding our way across Colorado to LaVeda Pass high in the Sangre de Cristos, down to Taos, across a stretch of desert and into Santa Fe. It always seemed that the minute we crossed over the Colorado border the terrain would be transformed; where there had been forests and creeks, mountains with their noses in clouds, suddenly, there was the desert, spreading richly away from the eye in golden light. I liked to think that I could smell curing ristras of chile on the wind.
The leg from Santa Fe to Albuquerque always seemed the longest, and we didn’t stop. We chugged inconspicuously along in 90 degree heat under the vast sky in our chariot, the two tone Nash Rambler station wagon pulling the orange and white u-haul. We meandered through Albuquerque late in the day, and finally, pulled up in the driveway of my grandmother’s apartment.
The family vultures were waiting. My aunts had come for the ceremonial unlocking and plundering of Granny’s garage, where four generations of life in the Southwest, much of it spent bringing Victorian culture to the railroad town of Old Albuquerque, was all stored.
Everyone trooped in, swooping down and gathering up drapes, Persian rugs, carefully pulling out boxes marked “Limoges” and “Havilland” out of the corners. Photographs spilled out of boxes: elegant and tattered photos that hadn’t been properly stored, of my grandmother as a girl, my great-grandmother in her wedding dress. I managed to sequester these.
“I want that Martha Washington tea set,” my mother said, glaring at both of my aunts.
“You always get your way, Helen,” Aunt Winifred said. ” Why don’t we just let you have it all.”
My cousin Holley had come as well, my Aunt Ruth’s beautiful newly married daughter. Holley’s eyes fell on a box marked “depression-ware.”
“I’ll take this,” she exulted.
We fought our way to the back of the garage and took the cover off the Knabe to admire it. Then we re-covered it and somehow it was scooted and pushed to the improvised plywood ramp into the u-haul. Our entire family got behind it, grunting, groaning, swearing.
My father was doubled over with exertion. He collected himself and climbed in and secured the piano with wide canvas straps. We carefully stowed the Martha Washington tea set next to it.
This was a one day trip with a possible night in a motel if we got too tired. On the way home, in the fading Southwestern light, I drew Arabian horses clustered on bluffs, with delicate, dished faces and ears pointed forward. I forever had trouble with the legs: I typically drew a horse with one foreleg curled, and it was always too long. I would turn over my sketch and write on the back, more comfortable with words than with a sketching pencil.
Meanwhile my brother drew the enraged t-rex plucking a pterodactyl right out of the sky. His dinosaurs were beautiful, brightly colored, their maws scarlet. When he drew, my mother would ooo and aaa. When I drew, she would scrutinize what I had done, frowning, and take the pencil out of my hand, appropriating my sketch: “No dear. This is the way to do it.”
She would train her green eyes on my father, who was concentrating on keeping us on the road. She would murmur some hurtful insult. I would react. I would draw her fire away from my father and let her come at me.
If she had been drinking, she would say something like: “Hold your tongue, you little trollop.”
Hence, I think I was all of sixteen when I first called her a bitch. I fell in love with that word; I loved the effect it had.
If I learned to play, would some of this dissipate? We steamed over La Veda Pass once more, steep drop-offs of clustered conifers on both sides, the errant eagle flapping away to the horizon.
Despite the bickering and numerous bathroom stops, we made it back to Fort Collins safely. The Rambler hadn’t broken down; we hadn’t had to pull off the road and prop up the hood with steam billowing from the radiator, one of us waving a bandana on the roadside.
I don’t remember how we got the Knabe in the house but I remember the day the piano tuner came.
He stood, bent over from many moons of peering inside pianos and ping ping ping, ratcheting up the strings, ears ringing. He smoothed his mustache, looking at the piano where it had been braced against the east wall of our living room.
“I don’t even know if I can tune this,” he said. “It’s so old. And look: it’s warped.”
We peered inside. It did appear that the slats of some of the keys were bent. But this was the Knabe that had escaped the fate of most vintage pianos: no Apache arrows had pierced the silk behind the lattice work on its way across the desert in the back of a wagon. I told myself that it was simply a bit worn.
“You know,” I said. “I don’t mind if it isn’t perfect.”
My mother looked at me.
“I really don’t mind. It will make beautiful music, and I don’t know how to play it yet anyway.”
My mother beamed at the piano tuner. “She starts lessons next week,” she said, taking a long drag from her cigarette and sipping her scotch.
“She has all of the other talents in the family: I think she’ll pick it right up.” No turning back the clock or getting out of all of this now.
I wanted my mother to pick me up after a day at high school and drive me to my piano lessons, but she thought I should walk. So it was that I set out on Tuesday afternoons from Fort Collins High School at Pitkin and 287, cutting across the lawn. I walked as fast as I could, carrying my books and music, to Laurel Street and then to Sherwood and then half a block north to my teacher’s house.
I would sit with my instructor, a seventy year old retired music teacher, in the living room of her small house that was redolent with the surfeit of her lily of the valley cologne. Her husband, a retired professor of engineering, tall, stately and bearded, would be away, or tinkering in his basement workshop.
Somehow, a few months into my lessons, I caught on to the Adagio movement of the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata, striving to make it my own. When I played it soothed my mother, and we were both immersed in music.
By the tenth or so lesson, Mary Parshall knew something of the things happening in my family and would make us both tea. We would sit in the quietude of the dining room and talk.
“Would you like me to play something for you,” she asked one afternoon.
“Please,” I said.
She went to the piano, a Steinway filling up the whole room. She raised the top, and sat down, placing her gnarled fingers on the keys.
I was stunned when she then dramatically lifted her hands, gathering up the resounding first chords of a Rachmaninoff prelude. She attacked the music with a look of bliss on her face. She swayed back and forth in the momentum of the opening bars, giving herself completely to the great effort required to so much as attempt this piece. The occasional stumble with those arthritic fingers was a small thing in the face of such glorious sound.
As the last notes faded away, she turned to me.
“Now, my dear, your turn. Play the Brahms for me.”
After I had mastered the Adagio of the Moonlight Sonata and the Schubert Serenade, she had patiently taught me the Brahms Waltz in Ab Major.
She would sit next to me, turning on the metronome, tapping her foot.
“If you play this well, from the heart,” she had said, “One day a young man will hear you; he will fall in love with you, and propose.”
Of course this possibility encouraged me. I played the piece from the heart, as she had instructed me, when no one was around, when my Mother had absented herself from our house and I had the 1800’s newly tuned upright Knabe with the original ivory keys to myself.
Forty- five years later, writing at daybreak, several marriage proposals at my back, whispered, impassioned words torn away by the wind, the piano long gone, they have all come back, angels all, standing behind me with gilded, folded wings, urging me on.