11 December, 2005

The Heirloom Piano

The piano now sitting in my living room is 86 years old, and spans four generations of my father's family. To understand its significance to me, you need to know a little background first...

My father's grandfather and great uncle emigrated from Germany to America in 1909. We have their immigration papers, but cannot trace the family back any further than that. They settled in a German-American community in Iowa and married German women. Of the next generation, my grandfather and great-aunt Gertrude (called "Grangra" by my generation) are important to this story. Orphaned at a young age, my father was raised by Grangra (his aunt), who played the role of paternal grandmother for my generation. My father died when I was 11 years old, and Grangra died a year later.

Grangra was a very fine amateur pianist. Even as a child, she showed great musical ability. Being a good German, her father (my great grandfather)loved his polkas and Grangra happily played them for him. There was one he particularly liked, and he challenged his young daughter to learn it. He told her that if she could learn that difficult polka, he would buy her a piano.

Well, she learned it. And he held true to his promise. But he didn't just buy any old piano. He gave his daugther the best money could buy: a brand new Mason & Hamlin grand piano. Everybody knows Steinway, but ask a piano tuner or technician about Mason & Hamlin pianos before the Great Depression and watch him start to drool. Apparently the family had some money back then!

Not surprisingly, Grangra insisted that my father study piano when he lived with her. He showed a natural ability for it, especially for playing "by ear." The teacher taught him for awhile, but then threw her hands up in disgust saying, "He reads it once--making mistakes, then always plays it by ear, forever making the same uncorrectable mistakes!" But he retained some basic skills; he taught me how to read notes, and I remember hearing him plinking out tunes on our $60 upright piano in preparation for his sermons when I was a child.

We travelled from our East Coast home to visit Grangra in San Diego two times that I was old enough to remember, the last time in 1984. She was a vivacious woman who loved to travel, and I have wonderful memories of her gourmet cooking and her loving doting on all of us. I was always proud to show her my developing piano skills, and loved playing her beautiful piano. The last time we visited her she had been diagnosed with cancer and was throwing a "family reunion" for fear that she may not live much longer. Surprisingly, she went into remission and it was my father who passed away first.

The piano was willed to my mother with the stipulation that it was to be given to me. When I was 13, we moved to San Diego and I had the largest room in our new house so that we could fit the piano in my bedroom. I slept for years within almost arms' reach of my piano!

But soon I was bouncing around the country attending college and eventually set up my own housekeeping. I was never in a situation that would have tolerated a piano, and it languished for 10 years in my mother's or aunt's house.

Now it is finally here with me. The same keys that were stroked by my beloved father and Grangra now sit in my living room in Arizona. The world-class musical instrument that once shared a home with the paternal grandfather I never knew is now in my home. And my great grandfather's gift to his beloved daughter is the most amazing gift his great grandaughter has ever received.

More, later.