Yesterday our grand piano was delivered, the piece around which we designed our newly remodeled living room. The journey to get here has been a long one, with many years of dreaming followed by several months of research, listening, playing, comparing and finally landing on what seemed like the perfect fit for us. Our new piano is actually 40 years old; it provided a whole life of enjoyment for someone in Japan before being shipped here to be lovingly restored and then brought into our home. It holds stories, it has history, and that feels perfect.
I grew up playing the piano, taking lessons from the time I was eight into high school. Our piano was a rather plain old upright that my mom had “antiqued” in the 70’s when it was popular. I never loved the look of it, but the inner workings had also been redone, so it actually played fairly well. I think most of my siblings took lessons at some point, but I continued the longest.
For me, music was an escape from the rest of my world where I felt unseen, awkward, and insecure. Something in the melodic combination of notes and rhythms engaged my heart in ways I didn’t experience anywhere else; it was one of the few realms where I felt like I could be associated with beauty. While my young heart longed to create that beautiful music, over time it became acquainted with shame and performance, and it became more and more difficult to enjoy my practice. When it became one more place to judge myself as not measuring up or being good enough, I quit.
While I stopped my practice of piano, my love for it didn’t go away, it just hid out for quite a few years. As a newly married bride, I convinced Chris that $100 was a really good deal for an antique upright piano we found in the classified ads of our local newspaper. The circa 1896 piano had beautiful lines with ornately carved legs and inset panels. That piano moved with us around the country for 10 years, before the strings began to break and we were told it couldn’t be tuned. I remember the day the rather unfeeling piano technician told me the only thing it was good for was to be chopped up as firewood. I could accept the “failed technology”, but not the discarding of something that held so much history for me; a tenuous re-connection to that young girl’s heart. We broke up the insides, but carefully saved all the wood from the case, hoping to see it re-purposed someday.
With no piano, and three kids rapidly approaching the piano lesson age, my mom graciously offered to give me the old upright I learned on. I wasn’t excited, still stinging from the loss of my beautiful instrument, but I reluctantly agreed because an ugly piano was better than no piano. That was 15 years ago. There were moments over those years that I allowed my heart to dream, where I accessed that desire I’d hidden away as a young girl and again as a young woman. In my dreams, it was worth holding out for the beauty of a gleaming black grand piano if I were going to allow myself to hope for what I really wanted.
Dreams and hopes are difficult for me to hold onto, they feel self-indulgent, ridiculous. So I kept burying that dream again, dismissing it as impractical, too expensive…besides, I wasn’t even playing, so why did I care? Funny how the things we dismiss keep coming back around until we finally get the message. Katie has been studying piano for the past five years with a wonderful music teacher who has cultivated in her a passion and commitment to playing that echoed my early experiences. Here’s the kicker: she has all her students play a solo piece and a duet for their recitals, and she encourages parents who play to do the duets with their children. Katie was so excited about the prospect of me playing with her that I had to set aside my old fears of messing up and not being good enough. And the thing is, I actually began to love playing again. I loved that it was a way to connect with Katie, and I loved that it re-connected me to those traces of long-buried beauty and desire in my heart. And all that was happening on our old ugly piano. Somewhere along the way, I’d let go of my judgements and just allowed myself to enjoy the music.
I think I needed to rest in what was and allow those old shame-inducing experiences be replaced with the simple love for creating melody again. From that place, dreaming was entirely different, the word “ridiculous” was no longer clanging in my head. And so I am back where I began: the six month process of creating space in our newly remodeled home for a grand piano. I asked my sister Ruth, who has young kids, if she’d like to be the next recipient of the “family piano.” She has more energy than I do, and no lingering attachments to previous pianos; she is planning on giving it a new paint job and two new kids eager to begin discovering its magic. As Katie played it for a final time, Ben and Sadie listened with growing anticipation, eager for their own turn at the keyboard. As I ran a dust cloth one final time over the wood, I stopped to study the scratches more carefully. Carved in the script of a young hand were two sets of initials: JSM and REM, Janet and Ruth, how fitting. I don’t remember carving my initials there, I can’t imagine daring to do that! But that wasn’t the point. The point I didn’t miss was to honor the history and relationships and goodness contained in that instrument, the continuation of a family story begun decades before.
Our new piano hold those stories, I am sure of it, and I look forward to adding those of my family to its history. And right next to our new piano are pieces of the old one I saved all these years: our builder is a master craftsman who saw possibilities when I showed him the dusty old pieces. The mantel on our fireplace is now supported by decorative corbels from the legs, the front with its inset panels is being crafted into a bench for the front entry, a built-in desk in the kitchen is framed with small scrolls salvaged from its frame. The “redemption” of those pieces of wood I couldn’t bear to part with is probably one of my favorite things about our whole remodel, along with our new (old) grand piano. I love how the old is there to welcome the new.
In the barely 24 hours it’s been here, there has been much delight. Today I pulled my worn, blue Psalter Hymnal down from the shelf, looking to play some familiar hymns. I opened the cover and was greeted with the familiar, spidery script of my grandmother’s hand. She’d written a note to me, reminding me of my past and her hope for my future. I sat down and played her favorite hymn, and I’m pretty sure she heard it and smiled. So did I.