Last summer, when I sold my Mom’s condo and got rid of most of the furnishings, I moved the old Gulbranson upright piano to our cottage by the lake. It was the piano that I learned to play on and it had been part of our family for my whole life. There was no way I was going to let it go. It fit tidily, if somewhat tightly, in our tiny living room, and it still startles me each time I come around the corner and see it’s stalwart elegance. “Oh, you’re here,” I want to say, “You’re still here!”
The piano was bought by my grandmother, Annie Rutherford, in the late 1920’s, from the money that she had saved from selling the farm in Quebec. I don’t know whether it was a testament to her belief in the importance of music or her dedication to providing a respectable upbringing for her three children.
She herself had learned to play in the convent school in St. Malachi and she probably practiced on the organ that was still in the front parlor of the family farm every summer when we went to visit in the 40’s and 50’s. I don’t ever remember hearing my grandmother play the piano, although the Gulbranson was in our house all the time I was growing up. In fact, until last summer, when I acquired an old photo of my grandmother and read the inscription on the back, I didn’t even remember that my grandmother played the piano. The photo was taken in the early 1900’s and someone had written on the back, “Annie Rutherford who played the piano at our wedding.” My mother, whose memory is fading, does remember that her mother was a reputable player.
I do know that my grandmother didn’t sing. For years, from my infancy until I turned 16, I sat next to her every Sunday in the next to the last row in the Rumford Baptist Church and I can testify that she never sang a note. Perhaps she sang when she was younger. But the fact that I never heard her play nor sing doesn’t mean that she wasn’t a lover of music. Perhaps she bought the piano so that the house would have music in it, even though she wasn’t the one who made it.
If my grandmother’s love of music led her to purchase the piano at a time when the Depression was having its impact on their lives and my grandfather was a day laborer in the paper mill, I also believe that her vision of the better life she wanted for her children had to have played a part. My grandparents, after all, left their family and sold their own farm to cross the border into Maine so that their children could get a good education and not be stuck on the dairy farm. My grandmother’s determination that my mother would go to college prompted her to send for and even complete the application forms to Farmington Normal School for my mother.
I don’t really know the story of how the Rutherford family came to Quebec from Ireland, but I did hear the stories of how they were held in esteem in their small farming village. My great-grandfather, Annie’s father, was one of the few people in that town who could read and, as the stories go anyway, during World War I, the villagers would congregate at the Rutherford home to hear my grandfather read from the newspaper. My great-grandmother was the town mid-wife and embalmer, seeing people in at the beginning of their lives and out at the end. They saw themselves as having a certain responsibility toward the world, and, if my industrious grandmother is any example, felt an obligation to bring some culture and class to what had to be a fairly subsistence-level existence. After all there was the organ. And the piano.
So it was probably both the musical appreciation and her notions of the cultured life that prompted her to purchase the Gulbranson from Hansen’s music store down on Congress Street. She took in boarders, taught sewing in night school, and sold corsets in order that my mother could take piano lessons. My grandmother had, before her marriage, been a maid for a wealthy family in Newton, Massachusetts, and all the girls in that family played the piano. My mother would do the same.
My first recollection of the piano is one of those memories that I carry around more because of seeing the family photograph than because I really remember the occasion. In the photograph, my toddler self is sitting on the piano bench and turning my head coyly to look into the camera. There are two pieces of sheet music on the piano in front of me: “I’ll Be Loving You” and “Always.” The titles are a message to my father, who, although I am nearly two, has never seen me. He is in the Navy in the South Pacific and the photo was sent to him and returned with him when he came back from the war.
My relationship with the piano, though, was not always a happy one. We had our more trying days when my mother decided that I, at seven, was old enough to follow in her footsteps and learn to play. I began taking lessons that lasted for about five years and my most vivid memory of the piano for most of those years is the never-ending battle between my mother and me as to whether I was going to practice or go outside and play. My mother inevitably was the victor and I spent many unhappy hours scowling at the John Thompson music books.
I never really held it against the piano, though, for, while I preferred hide and seek with my friends to playing its scales, it provided many happy memories with my mother or father at the keyboard. My mother read music and played all the old sheet music that we stored in the piano bench. Whenever the impulse grabbed her, she would sit down and start playing and, inevitably, before long, several members of the family would be gathered behind her, looking over her shoulder at the words and singing along. My father played too, although he had never learned to read music. He had his own style, playing, as we used to say, “by ear” – creating his own chords and bellowing out the melody in his deep, strong, fine voice. We weren’t as apt to gather around and sing when my father played, since his music was a little more unpredictable, but it was joyous and filled the house.
In my rebellious teenage years, the piano became a weapon. Whenever my mother and I got into an irresolvable difference of opinion, I would march in, sit down on the wide bench, and literally bang out, usually as loud as I possibly could, Fur Elise or Estrellita – over and over again until my mother begged me to stop.
When my daughter was young, and visiting her grandmother, she loved to climb up and play its keys. I never had the heart for enforcing practicing – and could never afford a piano – so she didn’t learn to play, settling for the saxophone and flute instead. My grandson, Galileo, now six, also used to play the keys of the now almost eighty-year old Gulbranson when he visited my mom’s, his great-grandmother’s, condo. Last summer, when Galileo came to visit us at the lake, he found time daily, between Monopoly games, to sit at the relocated piano and learn “Chopsticks” with his fifteen-year old sitter.
The Gulbranson has moved five times to four different homes since it joined our family. It moved with us to the house my father built when he came back from the war, back to my grandmother’s house when we moved in with her again, and from the paper mill town to the Maine coast when I was in high school. It moved into the condo with my Mom after my Dad died. It has witnessed all the changes in our family, the comings and goings, the births and the deaths. It is the one piece of furniture that has been part of my life since I was born.
I stopped playing the piano after I left home, and except for the occasional five minutes here and there when I was visiting my mom, I never really played that or any other piano for over forty years. Last summer, after I walked around my Mom’s empty condo and dropped off a few treasures to her in the Assisted Living facility, I went back to the lake to situate the piano in its latest home. Then I pulled out her old sheet music and my John Thompson’s and sat down to see whether the Gulbranson and I could still make music together.
It is amazing to me how the things that we learn when we are young can stay buried in our minds without ever surfacing for such a long time. I won’t say that I played well enough to recreate any of the annual recitals that the piano and I prepared endlessly for in those early days, but my fingers didn’t forget. Haltingly at first, and then smoothly enough so that my partner sitting down on the dock could at least recognize the song, “I’ll Be Loving You” floated across the lake.