When I was 9, I told my mom I couldn’t find my piano books. They were under my bed. It was all a sneaky little ploy to get out of my piano lesson that afternoon – because I absolutely hated piano lessons. This was not one of my finer moments, and in fact, my mother will be appalled that I even put it in print, since this bold-faced deceit caused her one of her hardest days of parenting. Knowing this little bit of family lore, you may be surprised to learn that I recently bought and refinished a 100-year-old piano for my home. I’m still asking myself why, and here is what I’ve come up with.

When I think about growing up with a piano in the house, lots of memories flood my mind: lifting the squeaky piano bench to reveal the worn hand-me-down piano books; getting a sticker when I “passed” a song; hearing chords plunked out reverberating throughout the house; proudly watching my sister in her piano recitals (I never made it that far), usually broken out in a rash from nerves.

But perhaps the most poignant memory is my family gathering around the piano every Christmas Eve after church and singing Christmas carols. Sometimes we’d throw in a flute or a squeaky clarinet performance, whatever the instrument of the year was, but always the piano. My uncle first, and then my older sister at the keys, would accompany my sister, mom, grandma and I as we sang the familiar tunes of “Jingle Bells” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” I’m sure the men were there as well, but my family is very female-dominated, my dad is tone deaf, and let’s face it, my grandpa was probably asleep in his recliner.

 

 
McKinney Online - Making Musical Memories in McKinney

Looking at this picture (at left) of my family by the piano, late ‘80s judging from the shoulder pad height, reminds me that lots of things have changed. The fashion, my little sister’s braces and where we all live, now in three different states. But some things haven’t changed. The songs we sing, for one. I guess that’s why we hold on to traditions, because in a world where everything changes, it’s these precious family traditions that can ground and root us.

This picture is particularly precious to me because my grandma is currently battling dementia at age 93. It warms my heart to remember her as she stood behind me at the piano all those years, belting out Christmas carols in her warbling soprano. And when she didn’t know the words (or she wasn’t able to read them as easily), she didn’t miss a beat with her loud “loo loo looooooos” instead. In this picture she still has her red hair and her cherished costume jewelry, her vanity preserved for the ages.

It was this memory that came to surface when I spotted the piano for sale on a local online garage sale site for $100. The excitement of the hunt is in my genes — I love a good bargain!

I quickly learned that moving a piano is no easy task. When I committed to picking it up that very night, I was thinking, “Hey, my neighbor has a truck, I lift weights, we’re golden.” Not so. It was a mad dash to coordinate a U-Haul, loading ramps and three wonderful friends who, of course, had nothing better to do with their Friday evening than move a very heavy piano.

It was my own history I was reliving as I rolled this piano into my house, but what of the history of the piece itself? The previous owners told me it was from 1941, but the man who tuned it for us looked it up by serial number and discovered it was actually crafted by hand in Chicago in 1913, making the piano 101 years old. That year, Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as 28th U.S. president, the National Woman’s Party was formed, and the very first toy was put into a Cracker Jack box. I love to think about the history that this piano must have seen: How many hands have played it? How many homes has it adorned? It’s true that they don’t make them like they used to, and I hope to add to the already substantial legacy of this piano.

Do I expect my kids to become concert pianists? No. Maybe they won’t even make it through fourth grade lessons, like their mother. But now they know it’s here, ready and waiting. Relaying the message that, in this family, the ability to read music or sing with a choir is valued just as highly as being able to kick a soccer ball. And perhaps someday one of my kids will take over the joyful task of accompanying us during family Christmas carols.

 

About the author: Katie Soyka is a McKinney-based photographer and writer. Contact her at katie.elizabeth.soyka@gmail.com.