Sunday, June 15, 2008

On a Happy Note

The interesting thing about reading other blogs is how much they jar your own memories. I often find myself laughing along, then thinking, “You know, that reminds me of the time….”.

I try not to fill up a blog’s comment section with too much of that, although it’s tempting. Writer’s feel a need to reach out and touch…and sometimes admit how that common thread of humanity weaves us all together. At least we know we aren’t alone in the need to babble to ourselves…then share.

Yesterday I read a story by Ken Armstrong which brought childhood screaming back so vividly I thought it would be a good Father’s Day tribute. Dad’s been gone for 12 years now but as his first born, I have more memories of him than my siblings. Okay, maybe I just retained more because we shared the same warped sense of humor.

I learned to play the piano when I was eight. Before then the piano, an upright honky-tonk style, resided next door at Grandma’s. It had been purchased used when my Dad was a child. He’d taken to it better than his sister and enjoyed entertaining us before Sunday dinners. He had the gift I desired most and didn’t possess: he could play by ear. He “bought” the piano from Grandma when it was decided I should take lessons.

I thought lessons would be fun. Like the silly duets I did with Dad. My teacher, however, was Grandma’s eccentric older female cousin, Annie. Ms. Annie’s I.Q. was stuck at brilliant, as was her husband’s…although he walked that fine line between genius and insanity. Every Thursday my little sister and I would go there for half hour lessons. Me first, struggling to learn the notes, trying to re-wire my brain so my fingers, eyes, sheet music and keys would work in sync. And work it was. Then came Sis. She had Dad’s gift. Oh how I hated sitting there, listening to her play, knowing she was cheating. You see to encourage us Ms. Annie would play a new piece for us first, so we’d know how it was suppose to sound when we mastered it. Sis would nod, stumbling around the keyboard on purpose but making just enough progress to encourage the teacher. Then we’d go home and she’d play the entire damn thing, note for perfect note. She never practiced. I struggled daily to make those notes and my fingers do something other than annoy each other.

The reason I didn’t quit was because of Dad.

It wasn’t just the hopes of gaining the “parental pride” thing. Dad knew how frustrating it was for me, the kid who thought she had to be perfect. So he’d encourage me until steam was coming out of my ears. Then he'd slide me over so we could play together. We’d go between silly duets on the keyboard to us singing while he played. I was probably the only kid my age who knew all the words to “Bill Bailey”. He’d smile as I walked down the hall, then launch into an even better version of whatever it was I’d been trying to play.

And so I continued on, for four years. I plugged away while Ms. Annie gleefully informed me that we were the direct descendants of Ben Franklin. I kept playing even when Ms. Annie’s husband would wander in and stand behind me in a pith helmet, singing at the top of his lungs. Off key. I wanted to shoo him away but she liked his deranged buzzing. After the second song, she’d huff “Scat!” and with a smile and a bow, he’d wander back out to his garden. I mastered the art of reading sheet music and when I was free of Ms. Annie, whose next project for me was organ lessons, I went to the library. Ben Franklin had one child [no relation to us] and several illegitimate ones as well, who were no kin either. Having found a new sense of power, I suggested my brother have a different teacher. Mom's first words to my brother's teacher were, “He’s got his father’s gift, you know.” Bro cheated too, but at least his teacher would call him on it from time to time.

Dad played a beautiful piece called “Ruby”, the theme from some long forgotten film. Although I hated lessons, I still loved the piano because now I purchased sheet music I wanted. I’d play while Mom cooked Sunday dinner. One day I found the sheet music to “Ruby” in the bench. I practiced for weeks, before Dad got home. One Sunday, as Mom cooked and Dad read the newspaper, I played it. He waited until I was done, then walked into the room, beaming. I just knew he was going to sit down and show me how it was really done, with all his usual flourishes. He looked at me and said he was proud of me because I had accomplished the one thing none of them had…I could read sheet music. I wouldn’t have traded that beam of parental pride for the world.

Yes, I ended up with the piano. Dad said I had earned it learning to play the hard way. Sometimes it’s just a large piece of furniture to dust. Today, I have an over whelming urge to sit down and play “Bill Bailey”…and sing loud enough for Dad to hear all the way to his current heavenly residence.


Rachel Fox said...

Go on then! If I can hear your memories from here...who knows how far the sounds and the good intentions will go!

Ken Armstrong said...

"...I'll do the cookin', honey, I'll pay the rent... Lord knows I've done you wrong... remember that rainy ev'ning I throwed you out, with nothing but a fine tooth comb..."