Saturday, April 4, 2009

What I Once Celebrated

The Sunday Scribblings prompt this week is "Celebration."

I was twenty years old, newly (and blissfully) married, but living in Medford, Massachusetts, far from my California home. Otto had his first academic position at Tufts College (now Tufts University). The customs of the Boston area were as strange to me as those of a foreign country. Frankly, I was homesick. We spent evenings listening to my little radio or tootling away on our two little Bakelite tonettes.

Now, in 1941, I finally owned a piano and it was right here in Medford. I was no longer a deprived pianist. Of course I was still the nominal owner of my beloved Baldwin studio upright, but it was thousands of miles away in my parents' California home. The only trouble with my new acquisition (which was very upright - and tall - as well as scarred, black, dusty and out of tune) was that it was at the very back of Mr. Allen's cavernous second-hand store, pedal deep in equally dusty rugs, kettles, chipped dishes and battered tin cups. But it had cost only five dollars, a sum that fit into Otto's and my carefully calculated budget!

Otto came that evening to Mr. Allen's store and was as pleased as I was to own a piano, even one in a back corner of Mr. Allen's store. There remained one very important question. How would we get it home and up the five flights of stairs to our one-room walk-up apartment?

Mr. Allen did not deliver, of course, but he said he had friends with a truck. If we came by at noon the next day they would be there.

When we met we were honest with them. We told them the potential problems of delivering to a fifth-floor walk-up. They agreed to do it the next day for ten dollars - twice as much as the cost of the piano itself.

We had pictured them laboring up the stairs as in an old Laurel and Hardy movie, but, when they arrived, the foreman - I guess he was the foreman - surveyed the roof of the apartment building from where he stood on the street.

"No problem," he told his assistant.

"Just go up and remove a window."

My sheer white curtains were thrust to one side and Assistant removed one of the tall double-hung windows from its frame.

I'll admit that I don't remember how the movers looped the heavy rope around the brick chimney that was the vent for all the apartments in the stack of which ours was topmost. The next thing I remember is the piano dangling far above the street on one end of aforesaid rope while moving slowly upward as the movers cranked a pulley at the rope's other end. Our piano swiveled dangerously close to the walls and windows of downstairs neighbors. Once it slipped with a little jerk in its improvised rope cradle so that it arrived slightly askew at the level of our window.

Meanwhile our landlord stood on the street wringing his hands. We would hear more about it from him later.

Otto helped the movers coax the piano through the window and finally to the floor. The three men moved the piano manually to the spot we had cleared against the wall. There it loomed, tall and black, dominating the small room.

Since we had arrived in the Boston area, a war had started. We had been as shocked as the rest of the nation, albeit from a slightly different perspective, that of conscientious objectors to war. In this little article, I won't try to deal with those difficult days. This is about my piano, the black monster now looming in our apartment living-dining-sleeping room.

The landlord never forgave us for not getting his permission before using the chimney to hoist the piano. He was sure it had weakened the chimney. (Now, 68 years later, we, as property owners and occasional landlord to renters, have some sympathy for his position).

He expressed his enmity in lots of petty ways. He became an air-raid warden for our block. When Otto, still grading papers but with an eye on the clock, had not doused our lights half a minute before the first well-publicized air-raid drill and well before the sirens sounded, our landlord threw the switch cutting off electricity to the entire building. Afterwards he reported to the authorities that we had not conformed to the new laws with respect to air-raid warnings.

Another time he called the police when a group of students, dressed in tuxedos after some formal event, decided to serenade Otto from just across the street in Brooks Park. Otto was a popular teacher, almost as young as some of his students. We had entertained them in our apartment, and I had baked packets of goodies for them at Christmas. We were still enjoying the impromptu concert while, unbeknownst to us, Mr. Danson called the police. According to Mr. Danson, a riot - fomented by us - was taking place. By the time the police arrived, we had already invited the students up for refreshments and I was making hot chocolate and wondering what to serve with it. (Would soda crackers sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon and run under the broiler taste like cookies?) The situation was easily explained to the police, but Mr. Danson's enmity rankled.

The piano proved be our chief entertainment that winter. Our budget did not cover things such as movies and concerts or the cost of streetcar and/or train to downtown Boston to attend them. No, I did not play the piano. It was still too out-of -tune for that. We still depended on our tonettes for instrumental music. Our leisure time was spent trying to make the black monster usable.

We first blew dust from its innards with a powerful blower borrowed from the university. We had to replace the felt hammers, which were moth-eaten and worn. Buying the new hammers was an added expense, and increased our feeling of investment in the piano. Otto constructed a tuning tool. Then we spent endless evenings isolating piano strings from one another and striving for an even-tempered scale (one that can be played equally well in any key). We didn't have even a tuning fork, but depended on AC hum, that slight buzz from all electrical appliances, to orient us to A above middle C. Fortunately, we each have an accurate sense of pitch.

It was a month or two after we bought the piano before I could sit down and enjoy playing it. In my next letter to my mother I asked that she send some of my sheet music. The only music we had with us was a small songbook with old familiar tunes. I think it was a remnant of the grammar school days of either Otto or myself.

Yes, I enjoyed playing the piano, but its appearance still disturbed me. One thing that had attracted me to this apartment (apart from the fact that it was available in this crowded city) was that it was pretty. The walls were papered in a good imitation of rice paper. The woodwork was white and shining. The tall windows of the living/bedroom looked out on the tall treetops of Brooke's Park - green when I first saw them, now a dramatic tracery of black branches against the sky. I had sent to California for the matted watercolors that I had displayed at a student exhibit at Stanford, and they were thumb-tacked to the walls, the white mats echoing the apartment's woodwork. I had hung sheer white curtains at the windows and had bought a remnant of chartreuse shantung to hang on the remaining few feet to the corners of the front wall. The blond table that I had carried home on the streetcar from Malden was part of the light and bright decor that I had envisioned. Although I had never spent more than two or three dollars a month (saved out of my dollar-a-day food and household budget), I was proud of what I had achieved.

In this airy aerie, the piano loomed big and black, taking up more than half of the longest wall.

No, my impulsive purchase of the piano had not been a mistake. I was getting too much enjoyment from it to call it that. But something had to be done to improve its appearance.

So I painted it white.

Believe it or not, it seemed to shrink! It now blended harmoniously (pun intended) with the rest of the room. With a chartreuse vase (a wedding gift) on top of it, it even seemed to be a decorating asset.

After that the piano was pure pleasure, the scene of sing-alongs and Christmas caroling, of much of my practicing of Clementi's Sonatinas, the only sheet music that had arrived from California.

Our budget did not cover the cost of flowers, and we had no garden from which to pick them. One day, a relatively new acquaintance, Alex deBretteville, X-ray scientist (at MIT's rad lab, where some friends from our Stanford days were working), invited us to accompany himself and his wife on a picnic. We gladly accepted. With only our bicycles, we rarely got farther into the country than The Fens, admittedly beautiful woodland setting in this great urban area. It was where we had caught the tiny belligerent trout that delighted in biting off bits of the tails of the goldfish with which it shared Otto's fishbowl.

The little lake to which the deBretteville's drove us was an idyllic setting for a picnic, the springtime day warm, the water surrounded with weeping willows and lilacs in full bloom. The lilacs' fragrance was almost overpowering.

On the shore was a rowboat.

"Let's go for a sail before lunch," Alex suggested. The water was calm; the view of lilacs exactly doubled except where faint ripples from our oars caused reflections to undulate in lazy waves.

We spread the lunch on an army blanket that insulated us from the spring ground, still a bit cold and wet. After the lunch, which I don't remember except for my famous (among our friends) potato salad, Alex's wife suggested that we pick some of the lilacs to take home with us.

We did so enthusiastically. We tore off branches heavily laden with the fragrant blossoms. We filled every inch of the deBretteville's car with flowers then rode home half-stupefied by the intoxicating scent. It was on the way home, however, that we found out a horrifying truth: what we had done was to trespass on private property, use a privately owned rowboat and help ourselves to lilacs that someone else had planted. We realized this when Alex said off-handedly, "It's a good thing the estate owners didn't decide to come to the lake today."

What had we thought? Probably that Alex owned lake, rowboat and all. We knew him be an heir to the Crocker sugar fortune. Perhaps it was that fact that made him feel entitled to do whatever he pleased.

We filled every vase in our apartment with lilacs, including the chartreuse vase on top of our now-loved, white, tuned piano, then opened the windows to the view of new green leaves in the tops of the trees in Brooke's Park. I played (from memory) Paderewski's Minuet in celebration.


Rinkly Rimes said...

What joyous memories! And I can actually see (but not hear) the white piano!

Maggie May said...

Reminds me of the black piano we had when I was a child. It was much loved. I learnt to play for a year or so, but I was able to plough through Chopin & similar pieces that I loved.(Later in life)
I can imagine what my parents would have said about painting it white!

I did have a miniature piano while my children were small and it was still fairly heavy. I can remember one day I was on my own & decided to move the piano from the back of the house to the front...... all by myself. It took me for ever. I decided I didn't like it in the new situation, so moved it back. When my husband came home from work, he wanted to know what I had done all day! I felt very tired. Wonder if that is why I have back problems?
Could have blogged about this.

anthonynorth said...

I love the way you centred the piano around so many snippets of life here.

Anonymous said...

there is a name that popped up in my head for you Granny Smith!
beautiful treatment of the prompt :D

I'd be happy if you check mine too. which is nothin compared to this

linda may said...

Granny, what a lovely story from you memory, you are such a clever lady. My sister had a piano when I was young and we spent many good fun times around it laughing and enjoying it.

GreenishLady said...

I love this celebration of those times in your life. You draw it so well, it feels like I've been in that apartment, and was out on that lake along with you... and gathering lilacs, too! Wonderful celebration.

bunnygirl said...

I love this story, and all the memories you share. Thank you!

A Girl Named Me said...

I love reading your stories, Granny. They conjure up so many images in my own mind and remind me of things in my own past that I have not considered for years.

I appreciate you and your writing.


gautami tripathy said...

Your reflections tell me so much, teach me so much. You are awesome, an inspiration for the likes of us...

SS: The Red Tent

Tumblewords: said...

A delightful story - running the scale of emotion. Don't swiped lilacs smell the very best? Grin. I've known a sprig or two of that type.

Linda Jacobs said...

What a pleasure to read this account of your younger days! You are such a good writer! Thank you for this delightful trip into your past!

Thomma Lyn said...

A friend, Bunnygirl, pointed me to your blog, and I'm so glad she did! You have a delightful blog, and I loved your story about the piano.

I can so relate. I would be lost without my piano.

Mine is a spinet, but when I was a child, my parents had one of those tall black upright pianos, much as you describe. Oh, the pianos I have loved! :)

Momma said...

I celebrate your wonderful memories. Thansk for sharing them!

rosey said...

So many of your memories involve music. Unfortunately my pianoforte skills extend no further than chopsticks!

Devil Mood said...

What a lovely story! I'm surprised you managed to paint the piano, I thought it wouldn't really work,if it was varnished or something, but I'm not an expert.
It was fun to read about your slightly illicit celebration!

Greyscale Territory said...

What wonderful memories! So often I have been mesmerised by your life stories! I have only just realised that I have not visited for awhile! Shame on me! I must rectify that!

Happy Easter!

Winifred said...

I'm always amazed at the detail of your memories. The stories are lovely and you recreate the events and places so vividly that I can almost smell the lilacs.

Have a lovely Easter.

Lucy said...

i know you were in Mass. but something about your well written memories of your piano brought immediately to mind, one of my favorite novels.. a tree grows in Brooklyn. Your words made me feel I was back in time, back in your apt. listening to you play your special white piano while inhaling lilacs Your vivid memories are so magical Gran, thanks so much for sharing them!

Tammy said...

What a delightful memory! You both are very creative and probably fun to hang with. XXOO

2cats said...

Your memory of that much beloved piano reminded me of my mom. She always played and I sang along. Silly little songs that we would make up as we went along.
Thank you for bringing back a memory.

Jennifer Hicks said...

thanks for the stroll down memory lane. my memories of pianos are mixed. my mom paid for YEARS of lessons, and I diligently earned my Grade 8 Royal Conservatory certificate. But it was always such an effort. A HUGGGGE effort....

Jay said...

" ... depended on AC hum, that slight buzz from all electrical appliances, to orient us to A above middle C."

I had no idea you could do that!! Is it always that pitch? Wow!

I love that you painted the piano white. It was clearly the only thing to be done.

As to the lilac trip, let's just say I have done things in my past that turned out to be not such a good idea and leave it at that. LOL! We learn. And these things remind us in the future of the better way to behave.

Larraine said...

What a wonderful story! I can smell those flowers, that hot cocoa, even the soda crackers sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon! I hope you enjoyed that piano. I took piano lessons as a child. My mother did her best to get me to stick to it, but I gave it up. Can't remember even how to begin now.

MichaelO said...

What a lovely story, Granny! It contrasts how different our material expectations are today with hard earned simple pleasures of the past. I can so relate with the idea of having a proper instrument to play! I can assure you my 3 things on a desert island list would not include a flat screen television! Thanks for sharing your wonderfully vivid memory!

Life with Kaishon said...

This was so lovely! I loved everything about it. I love your memories of your early marriage. I love your description of your apartment. It sounds lovely. I could almost smell the lilacs and hear the piano playing by the end of the post. What a blessing it was to read this today! An absolute blessing!

Life with Kaishon said...

Do you have pictures of your apartment? I would love to see it! Was it hard to paint a piano?

A page of rain said...

What a lovely story! I loved that you painted the piano white. My boyfriend owns a piano that lives in his parents house. So many pianos that are 'fostered' out!

Kristin said...

This is a new one on me, sister. Great story!!