Monday, September 12, 2011

The Piano

Last week there was some catastrophic flooding going on not too far from here.  The county right to the south of us got hit real bad and to our west there are lots of homes and businesses that were under water as well.  They've got some work ahead of them:  cleaning up, drying out and then rebuilding.  I know. Our family was in the same place once.

It was the summer of 1972 and my dad was about to complete an extensive remodeling project on our home.  The house was well over a hundred years old when we moved there in 1956 and it needed lots of work.  He started by working on the bedrooms upstairs then progressed  to the ground floor.   He tackled the bathroom first, then went on to the kitchen.  I still remember my mom preparing food in the garage where my dad had set up her appliances.   I'm not sure how long she cooked out there,  but it was probably for several weeks, especially considering how much had to be done.  My father had saved the living room for last, and he was just within days of finishing.  The wall paper had been replaced with new wood paneling, and where the linoleum once was,  there was now gold-shaded carpet.  All it needed was to be secured and the baseboards put in place.  What had been started so long ago was almost done.

It was Thursday, June 22nd.   I was in the dining room playing our old upright piano when I saw my mother walk through with a couple of lamps, heading towards the stairs.  We had attended a concert at church earlier that evening but there weren't many there.  It had been raining for several hours, and there was news of some possible flooding.  It was still coming down hard when we got home.   I got up off the piano bench and started carrying things upstairs, still not quite believing that all this hauling was necessary.  I didn't know it, but that would be the last time I would ever sit on that bench or play that old piano. Within an hour, water from the Allegany began to fill our neighborhood forcing us to make a hasty retreat for our neighbors who lived across the way.  They were lucky, they had the wonderful fortune of living on a hill.

Hurricane Agnes had hit with a vengeance.  After the waters receded and the damage was accessed, it would prove to be the costliest storm up to that time in U.S. history.  All I knew was that our little street in Weston's Mills was a mess.  As soon as they were able, the firemen came through and starting at the one end of Chestnut Street, turned their high-powered hoses on and began the task of forcing the several inches of mud out of each home.  The piles of water-logged couches, worthless appliances and anything else that couldn't be salvaged was piled up at the end of each driveway waiting for the trucks to come through and haul it all away.

There is a picture somewhere that shows our newly-laid carpet rolled up on top of the piano.  It was naturally longer than the old upright and one end is shown hanging over the side.  The part that hangs is wet and dirty, the rest is clean and dry.  Thanks to my father's quick thinking and the height of that instrument,  the carpet was saved.  Not too many days later he hauled it up to a friend's yard, spread it out and thoroughly cleaned it.  Several months later he laid it once again, but this time he tacked it down, securing it firmly into place. He had finally finished the job.

The hardest thing to remove from the house was the piano.  Naturally it was heavy, the old uprights were never easy to move.  But it was more than that.  It had a history.  It sat in my grandparents' home for many years,  having been purchased by my mother for her youngest brother and sister, both several years her junior.  My grandfather was crippled, unable to afford such a luxury.  But my mother saw the potential in both of them and somehow knew they needed this. My aunt told me recently that it could easily have been her salvation, keeping her occupied for hours and away from things that could have been potentially harmful.

For me, it was the first one I played and loved.  Whenever we went to see my grandparents, my favorite thing to do was sit at the piano, at first playing what I could by ear and eventually adding songs from my lesson books.  I had been taking lessons for awhile when the piano was moved from the little house in Farmer's Valley to our place in Weston's Mills.  There was no comparison between the ordinary upright I had been using to the instrument that now sat in the dining room.  It had the most wonderful touch and tone,  for me it was perfection and an absolute delight to play.  And I did, everyday.

My sister thinks it was my Uncle Glade who helped my dad push the piano to the end of the driveway.  I wasn't there, but I had touched it for one last time shortly after it was taken out of the house.  It's been almost forty years, and still that moment stands out more than any other.  I reached down as if to play a note, and the key broke away beneath my finger.  I had expected to hear something come out of it, but there was nothing.  No sound, just silence.  Later, my mother watched as the piano was wheeled away from the house to the trash pile. The two men had just a few more feet to go when suddenly music came out from deep within the belly of that old worn and weary piano.  One last time.  And it was at that moment my mother saw my father cry.

A few weeks after the flood, my mother asked me to go for a ride with her one evening.  We ended up at a home where there was a spinet piano for sale, and she wanted me to try it out.  I said it would do, and she wrote out a check for four-hundred dollars that same night.  It was the first major thing I remember her replacing for our home, for me.  At least I thought so at the time.  But maybe it was for all of us.  Because in the midst of what must have seemed insurmountable, she knew that we needed the music again.

The little spinet sat in the newly remodeled dining room for several years.  My sister Dawn has it in her home in Maryland now.  It's fine with me, as I was never particularly attached to it anyways.  It fulfilled its purpose.  It brought the music back and kept our home filled up with it for a long, long time.  As for me,  I've had several pianos since then including a couple spinets, some nice consoles and even a medium grand.  But I don't miss any of them.   It's only that old upright that graced our home until the rising waters silenced its song that still holds my heart. 

This is my young neighbor Stacy Lowe playing the piano at our house several summers before Hurricane Agnes.

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