Sunday, January 11, 2009

A few notes on Dot's piano

In the vast span of the forty-three years which have defined my life to this moment, there are amazing instances of what I like to think of as 'overlap'. I find it utterly fascinating to consider the stunning array of physical items we pick up, unlock, tie, wrap, drink from, strum, stir, hammer, shuffle, wash, dry, throw, untangle, iron, repair, fold, spindle, and mutilate in the course of a lifetime. It's intriguing to me that there may be a plastic fork in a landfill somewhere that I used to eat coleslaw in 1978, completely shrouded from the eyes of man, buried in the absolute obscurity of obsolescence. For a few brief moments when I was 13, it was incredibly useful to me, it was my fork, and it was the perfect tool to address my immediate need. Then it went into the trash can and I went back to watching the original Battlestar Galactica (during its initial run), struggling with my algebra homework, totally relegating this only recently useful item to complete forgetfulness. But, somewhere amid the coleslaw forks and shoelaces and oscillating floor fans, there are inevitably the truly important items, those whose purpose in our lives is measured by the deeper significance of what they touched in us, rather than the mundane definition of their intended purpose.

There was a strange and difficult season of my life not too many years in the past when I found myself displaced and suddenly trying to cram the myriad bits and pieces that comprised the mesh of my existence into cardboard cartons and Rubbermaid tubs. "From here on out, I want to travel light," I demonstratively told my brother. The plan seemed drenched in Spartan practicality--don't drag anything along that didn't stir instant emotional connection, and anything I was undecided on could be moved into my parents' basement (which looked remarkably like the closing warehouse scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark). The concept held true for a short span of time, but was ultimately shot to pieces in the reality that I am incurably sentimental, unashamedly enamored of those elements of the past which have come to encapsulate the best awareness of life, reflections of moments when everything seemed right and there was nothing negative to distract or dilute the pristine pleasure of the moment. And so, as my hitherto iron resolve gradually disintegrated amid the happiness I was finding as a husband and step dad, I slammed the volitional brakes on, spun the wheel of my focus back to every inanimate object which had ever blessed my younger years, and soon began to pull every morsel of nostalgic essence back onto my plate.

It was in the midst of this season of sentimental accumulation that I wound up with my Aunt Dot's piano prominently displayed in the living room. The very sound of that description seems always overwhelmingly insipid - your aunt's piano - but it stands against the wall that abuts our garage like a defiant sentinel forbidding the past to run away. That it is so large and cumbersome, and that so much sweat and strain were utilized bringing it here, somehow makes it more invaluable than I could have ever imagined. Moving it or removing it are not easy options, and its own leaden steadfastness reminds me each day of what an important marker it is in my life. Proverbs 22:28 says, 'Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your forefathers'. That seems incredibly appropriate in regard to this massive musical instrument. It has come to serve as a delineating factor which speaks of the past, both my short one and the much longer ones of all those others associated with it, not the least of whom is my Aunt Dot.

Dot was one of the great, constant factors of my life, in her own right as immobile in my memory as that gargantuan set of 88 keys. She was my mom's sister, and the two of them were lifelong best friends as well as incredibly close siblings. No matter how many years passed, they remained two giddy schoolgirls at heart, lovingly described by Dot's husband, my Uncle Jack, as the Famous Chaney Sisters. Long before either had married, the Chaney girls had formed their lifelong bond in their tiny hometown in the throes of the Great Depression. Dot was the elder, and she left home at an early age to marry the dashing Jack, a recent Bible school graduate and circuit evangelist who had meandered east from Iowa and caught the eye of the young girl. I've seen pictures of him from that era, and it was obvious he modeled much of his physical charm after Clark Gable, right down to the distinctly-trimmed mustache. In an exceptionally short span of time, they married and departed on a whirlwind journey, crisscrossing the country, preaching the gospel, and touching lives at every turn. As the years passed, three sons filled their home with rambunctious activity, and it became a truly challenging chore to keep up with the Jones's. As Jack preached, Dot was always at his side, playing piano and organ, accompanying him as he strummed acoustic guitar. Their life was the gospel, and music, and the two elements overlapped inextricably, exactly as it should be.

By the time I came on the scene in the mid '60's, they had settled at a small church in Joppa, Maryland, just a stone's throw from the outskirts of Baltimore. Their sons were grown by this time, creating the odd situation whereby my first cousins were practically old enough to be my father. With just Dot and Jack living in the parsonage, visiting them was a wonderful experience, especially to a four-year-old. For some reason, I remember being there at about that age, reading a Jerry Lewis comic book in which he was delivering pastrami sandwiches and wound up on a rocket by mistake, and I remember looking at a full page ad on the inside of the back cover which showed famous movie monster kits by Aurora. But I mainly remember just being in the house itself. There were many wonderful aspects to that house, so different from my parents' one story bungalow in the suburbs, in the western part of the state. Dot and Jack's house enthralled me by the mere fact that it was two stories. One of the earliest memories I have is of standing at the top of the stairwell, which was surrounded with a balcony, dropping plastic figures of David and the soldiers of ancient Israel down the steep slope to crush some unseen foe. But for all the fun I found upstairs, the room which hopelessly captured my interest was the living room, not so much due to the room itself, but due to the one amazing element it contained which I had never laid eyes or fingers on before--the piano.

It sat against the wall, silently powerful. I vaguely remember sheet music piled on it--Dot always seemed to have mountains of hymnals and individual songs. In the direct center of the piano, behind the music stand, there sat a small, decorative clock which was made to look like a fireplace. In the opening of the hearth were miniature plastic logs, and an ingenious mechanism which rotated a colored cellophane disc to simulate the roaring blaze. High above the piano, on the wall behind, hung a neon-bright painting by a friend of my aunt and uncle's named Jim Reeser. It depicted a sharp, clean view of a lazy meadow with a millpond and stone-encased housing for a spinning waterwheel. To sit there and stare up was somehow amazing, transporting. Making the entire scene all the more magical and heartwarming was the presence of their beloved collie dog, Brownie, who would curl up on the floor and rest his ancient chin on stiffened paws. I would sit there for hours, doing the kind of loud, dumb things annoying four-year-olds do on pianos, but none of the adults ever criticized or shooed me away. There was too much talking, too much laughing, too much love in that house for anyone to ever make me feel that I needed to do anything more than dabble happily. I remember my brother teaching me to play 'Chopsticks', my first real flirt with music a full five years before I would first pick up a guitar and begin a lifelong love affair with that instrument.

Many years passed, and Dot and Jack wound up at a church in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania suburb of Camp Hill. Life had changed infinitely--my brother was in college in Virginia, I was now a teenager, and Brownie was long gone. But Jack was still preaching, and still playing guitar, and I remember him singing in his distinctive voice, 'I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God'. Dot was still playing piano, and so it went, and I would occasionally tinker on the keys when we visited them, but I was now a guitar man, and the wonderful old instrument of my childhood seemed to have faded somewhat. As I drifted deeper into the selfishness of teenage angst, I thought less of those faded days, and gradually seemed to be drifting away even from myself. And then my Uncle Jack died. With stunning suddenness, the world changed forever, and the years I had almost disdainfully plastic-wrapped somewhere in the back of my mind became a cloudy vapor I clutched at desperately, hoping to find substance that appeared to have vanished. Hardly missing a beat, Dot plunged deep into the waters of ministering to others, in this case, to widows like herself, and ended up forging a powerful outreach to widows and widowers which she flourished in for more than 14 years.

Then, in the awful aftermath of 9/11, Dot suffered a stroke. The woman who had been the go-getter, the preacher of the gospel, the piano player and comforter of the sorrowful, was stricken flat on her back. The endless energy seemed to have drained out of her like melting snow, and when I visited her in the nursing home, I saw a tired and depleted shadow of the woman who had been a loving and caring fixture of my childhood, my mother's best friend, a light of hope and happiness to hundreds of people. The old twinkle was still there in her exhausted eyes, and she could still laugh with the same playful mirth, forcing itself out through lips rendered stiff through illness. Shortly before my wife and I married, I took her to meet Dot, and felt a sadness that she couldn't experience my aunt as the joyous woman I had known all my life, but I saw the gleam in Dot's eyes and knew she approved, and that made my new-found love all the more special.

Dot left us to walk into the Lord's presence on a cold day in November of 2005. We went to the funeral in a penetrating, stinging rain, and stood at her graveside, between where my uncle Jack and my grandparents lay, and my mother clutched my father's arm, and I looked in her eyes and knew that her best friend was gone. We went home, and life went on, and there was a gigantic void. Her house sat empty, vacant, damp rooms stuffed with thousands of pictures from trips her and Jack had taken to the Holy Land, the piles of sheet music, Jim Reeser's painting on the wall, and the beloved piano, mute and grim, somehow empty without her touch on its keys. As her sons began the painful scrutiny of deciding who to give what to, I uncharacteristically jumped in and told them I would be honored if I could have two items--the piano, and Reeser's mill scene. No one else in the family really played piano, and I knew that I couldn't bear to see it sold or packed away.

My long-suffering best friend, Mike, rode beside me in a rented Penske truck on a Friday in April of 2006 as we followed my parents to Camp Hill. We entered Dot and Jack's house for the final time, reverential, like opening some ancient tomb, and the memories that flooded over me as we swung open the front door were powerful enough to eclipse even the palpable must. We loaded the piano on a dolly, struggled and fought it onto the truck, and drove to my house. Under my father's direction, we navigated it through my cluttered garage and stumbled up the step into my living room. It was like moving a Volkswagen. And so it was transported to its resting place, where it resides now, and for the first time in years, I sat down and struck the keys. All my life it had been slightly out of tune, and years in an unheated house hadn't helped. Everything I played reminded me of the silent movie-esque piano from The Beatles' Rocky Raccoon. The soundboard is probably shot, so it may never be able to survive an attempt at tuning, but I don't really mind. I have sat for hours and played mildly sour renditions of my favorite piano songs -- Allentown, Martha My Dear, Scott Joplin rags, bits of Tori Amos stuff-- much in the droning, sustain-drenched inflection of George Winston. The sound is new, and immensely old, and almost too powerful for words.

Sometimes I sit at the piano when I'm alone in the house and let my fingers drift aimlessly across the keys, like I did in 1969. One of my cats, Jack, inexplicably finds it soothing and mesmerizing, and he crawls under the bench, just inches from my feet. I hear the slightly discordant clusters of notes, not unlike the ones I pounded out in Joppa a lifetime ago, and suddenly Jack is Brownie the dog, quietly, faithfully listening to each note, peaceful and snug, just like me. Until the day that I'm actually able to hang Jim Reeser's millpond scene on the wall above, all I need to do is close my eyes as I play, and my mind focuses easily on the winding stream, and the russet reeds, and the stark, clean stone walls of the mill set against the blaze of autumnal maples and wispy evergreens. I can almost hear the gentle lullaby of the motor in the long-vanished fireplace clock spinning, and the Aurora monster kits and Jerry Lewis flying to the moon with pastrami sandwiches flit through my brain. I imagine that I hear Uncle Jack laughing in the background, shooting the breeze with my dad about boxing or the book of Exodus, and the famous Chaney sisters are giggling in the kitchen while my brother reads a book on the sofa. Then I open my eyes and find that they're all gone, and a drowsy cat is looking up at me with questioning eyes, and my own eyes are moist as I run them across the yellowed ivory, listening intently as the last, flat notes drift somewhere forever........

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