This column was published Sunday, May 19, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.
When I hear the music, I close my eyes and see my 30-something mother, leaning into DeBussy’s Clair de Lune on her piano in our blonde brick trimmed with avocado green house in a Wichita neighborhood actually called Pleasant Valley. Hazel eyes behind gold wire frame glasses focused like laser beams on the notes, staffs and clefs, lifting whichever hand from the keys least necessary to prevent the flow of the melody for the split-second needed to turn the page of the music.
It’s nighttime in my memory. Clair de Lune, French for moonlight. She’s had this piano half her life.
Mom was just a toddler on the farm in Rooks County, when her mother’s father struck oil in the bottom ground north of the Saline River between Plainville and Hays. Geology and good fortune delivered the family from the fate which befell many of their Kansas neighbors in the basin of the Dust Bowl.
The oil provided a ledger sheet line of freedom and flexibility most folks just dreamed about in the dirty 30s and it gave Mom’s parents the ability to tangibly encourage their daughter’s gifts. So much so, that as she approached 16, her parents presented her, not with a new 1952 Packard convertible, but with a road trip to Kansas City.
Top floor of the Jenkins Music Company downtown. The elevator doors open, revealing a shining sea of pianos. Fifty or 60 pianos spread across the showroom floor, high above Paris of the Plains. Her parents nudge her toward them. Choose the one you like, and it’s yours.
Like a kid in a candy store, my soon-to-be 16-year old mom tickled a little boogie woogie on this one, a smattering of Bach (tempo rubato) over there, and because she worshiped Judy Garland, a few crescendoed bars of Over the Rainbow here. Mom settled on a Steinway Model D baby grand piano. High gloss polished ebony with a mirror-like sheen. Ivory keys manufactured during an era when society just assumed that’s what elephants were for.
Ensconced in the corner of her parents’ rural Rooks County living room and there it would remain until my father graduated from K-State. We built a ranch house across a pasture from Mom’s folks and moved the piano into another living room corner. When my parents sold the farm and we moved to Wichita, the piano was carefully cocooned in packing blankets and shipped three hours southeast.
Because that’s what they did in the 70s, a couple of our neighbors came over to lend a hand. After wrestling it into the house, both neighbors struggled to keep their respective corners of the piano aloft. Brand new to these parts, desperate to keep the ‘pleasant’ in Pleasant Valley, Pop jury-rigged something for his corner, slid over and rescued the neighbors.
There was nothing ‘baby’ about this behemoth.
A piano bench chock full of sheet music. Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, the works. My sister was proficient at Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. She would pound out the steady bass register chords with her left hand and finger the melody/harmonica part with her right. My piano-playing skills never escalated above the first half-dozen notes of Bennie and the Jets (all the same – one chord x 6). No one in the family could match Mom’s musical chops.
The piano survived one more move before my folks went their separate ways. On her own, my mother preferred smaller domiciles, so hard choices were made, and her beloved Kansas baby grand transitioned from an instrument that brought happiness and joy to a memory. Mom told me recently she cried when she sold that piano and still misses it.
She’s a Garland purist, so deep is her devotion that when she learned of the upcoming biopic featuring Renee Zellweger as Judy, Mom responded with her generation’s equivalent of “meh.” Then there’s her eldest son. I can’t wait for this summer’s Elton John biopic. Taron Egerton as the Rocket Man burning out his fuse up there alone.
Mom’s all Judy Garland, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Her kids are all Neil Young, Elton John and Stevie Nicks. We come by it naturally.
Mom will turn 84 this summer. Born with an ear and a heart for music, in the middle of a hot Kansas summer wheat harvest on the High Plains. Somewhere behind the moon, beyond the rain, where the clouds were far behind her, in the midst of a Great Depression. Mom lives these days and moonlit nights with most of her life behind her. I hope the memory of her baby grand brings her as much contentment as playing it did.