Sunday, February 6, 2011

Piano (Wo)Man

Next week, I’m saying good-bye to the Wurlitzer piano I’ve had for 30 years. I haven’t actually played the piano in at least a decade (except for a few stabs at Christmas carols, and occasionally to help a friend rehearse for church choir), but nevertheless, I feel sad to see it go. Why? Memories, of course.
I’m sure you recall the Billy Joel song: “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in. There’s an old man sitting next to me, makin’ love to his tonic and gin. He says, son, can you play me a memory? I’m not really sure how it goes. But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes.”
Well, okay, I never was much of a Billy Joel fan (my “pop” tastes range from Snatam Kaur to the Gyuto Monks of Tibet to Willie Nelson) but there’s something about that “Piano Man” song. Especially the line, “Can you play me a memory?”
            Truth is, though I insisted on buying the piano (used, of course!) when we lived in a fifth-floor walk-up in Washington Heights, New York, the instrument only had a few good years before motherhood and a full-time job distracted me. As a result the piano was rather needlessly hauled up five flights of stairs and then hauled down again and trucked out to New Jersey when we moved to the “suburbs.” The day the piano came to New Jersey in a pickup truck one of our friend/haulers jumped into the back and played a tune in front of the house. In fact, he may have been doing a Billy Joel imitation!
Once it arrived in my living room, the piano fell victim to my children’s creativity, misbehavior, and exuberance. One day, while I was chatting on the phone, my then-three year old son took a wooden spoon and whacked off the tip of every ivory key. On another occasion, my middle son—then about three as well—decided to scratch pictures in the piano’s lovely mahogany frame.  (He also pounded so passionately on the keys that he snapped several hammers.) Though all three of my kids took piano lessons for a time, the instrument gradually faded from use; now it’s employed mainly for displaying pictures and collecting dust. With its broken keys, it’s lost its raison d’etre. 
            A few weeks ago, an elderly friend prematurely lost her son, and she offered me his piano. How could I say no to such a generous gift? Not only was I touched that she thought of me, but it occurred to me that maybe this is just what I need to get me playing the piano again. I have no little kids to distract me now, and I doubt very much that anyone will take to the new piano with a large dining utensil or a scratchy pen. The beautiful new Baldwin will be an opportunity to start over. (I'll donate the Wurlitzer to some worthy cause, but mostly likely its glory days are over.)
             I'll miss my broken down Wurlitzer. But I’ll never forget the day my son happily whacked its keys, I’ll always remember the crashing notes that the three boys played on that instrument (they all moved on from piano to sax, trumpet and guitar), and I’ll never forget the sweat, tears and curses of the dear friends who hauled that creature up--and down--five flights of stairs.
            Yes, the piano will soon be gone…like the sandbox, the swing set, and the tricycles. But the memories play on.

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