The piano sits in my parents’ living room, adorned by seasonal knick knacks, next to the wall displaying their 14 grandchildren’s pictures. They always refer to it as “your piano,” when talking to me, but I would never claim it as mine.
I started piano lessons at the age of eight. My parents had bought me a keyboard for my birthday and I began expressing interest in learning. I was the third of six kids, and it was no small sacrifice for them to pay the $7.50 a week for my lessons. At the time, we lived on the east side of Detroit and I attended St. Matthew’s Catholic School. Once a week, I would walk across the overpass that crossed I-94 to the apartment of my piano teacher. Mrs. Peckham was a woman from the church and she taught me piano for the next eight years. I believe an entire book could be written about her; even as a young child, I found the stories about her life to be fascinating. She was in her 80s when I met her and was “sharp as a tack” as my mother would say, and she always smelled like beets. She patiently sat beside me at her piano as I plunked along, practicing only on my keyboard at home.
Within months, my skills improved and the keyboard was no longer enough for me to practice on. And that is when my parents bought me the piano. They bought it used from another family for $400. I was only in third grade, but I was acutely aware of the huge price tag for my parents. Now, as an adult with three children and bills of my own, I am even more humbled by the fact that they bought it for me. A year or two after they bought the piano, my mother painstakingly took the piano apart, stripped it, and refinished it. It looked like brand new by the time she was done.
Even after we moved to a new house, my father would drive me back to our old neighborhood on Saturday mornings so that I could sit beside Mrs. Peckham and learn. She would patiently tap the sheet music, directing me to read the tempo instructions. At home, my father could often be heard instructing me, “Tempo, tempo!” And even after Mrs. Peckham moved, my father would drive me to her new apartment on Saturday mornings so that I could continue to sit beside her and learn.
I played recitals regularly, but I never really enjoyed it. What I have always enjoyed about playing, and still do, is being completely alone with the music; learning it, mastering it, hearing it, feeling it. It has always been a form of meditation for me. I never really cared if anyone ever heard me play. As I grew into a teenager, I cared less about playing; I rarely practiced anymore, and finally broke the news to my parents that I no longer wanted to take lessons. My mom was accepting, my dad was devastated, and I cannot remember Mrs. Peckham’s reaction; I suppose my parents took care of telling her for me. For years, the piano sat mostly untouched by me, except for at Christmas time. Sometime around the beginning of December, my 25-year-old book of Christmas sheet music always makes its way to the music stand and I play again.
As I have grown into an adult with my own children, our oldest the same age that I was when I started taking lessons, things have come full circle and I feel the desire to play again. I have purchased and learned new music for the first time in years. I would like to buy a piano for our house; I would like our boys to take lessons.
On more than one occasion, my parents have told me, “Take your piano home.” But I never will. The piano is a beautiful reminder of my parents’ hard work, sacrifice, and dedication to their children. It belongs in their home, to fill it with music by the many hands that long to plunk around on it.