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.