When I was in the first grade, my mother enrolled me into piano lessons. The lady who taught lived in a new house in an addition of town that I always thought was really fancy. I had to walk to the lessons from the grade school—it was about 11 blocks, and being a country kid, I didn’t know where to go. So my mom and her good friend Mrs. Stevens, who lived a few houses from the piano teacher, made a deal that I would walk to the lessons with Mrs. Stevens’ son, Kraig.
Mom and Mrs. Stevens were best friends from the Home Demonstration club, and probably a slew of other clubs that the housewives participated in. She was a big, well-padded woman, generous with her hugs and loud and boisterous with the ladies. Her husband was (of course) tall and skinny as a rail. Kraig took after his dad. There was a little sister in the mix—I remember her as a Shirley Temple look-alike.
I didn’t know Kraig, and I was afraid of walking with this strange boy. He marched ahead of me, probably just as annoyed as I was afraid. I got to the piano teacher’s house, and Kraig kept marching on to whichever house was his.
We kept this ritual only for a little while and soon I figured out how to go to the piano teacher’s house without the surly Kraig. I raced through the primer music book. I was fascinated with the mechanics of music, in wonder when the strange glyphs became notes associated to keys on the piano.
Never one to sit and practice, I was good at piano until it got hard. When I had to practice, it all began to unravel. At the same time, the ritual of picking me up after piano lessons became less urgent for my parents. At first they were waiting for me after the lesson, curious as to what I had learned, anxious to hear all about it. Over time, the glitter wore off, and one night my mom was late picking me up. The teacher finally called and reminded her that I was waiting patiently.
The piano teacher’s husband was some sort of missionary, and they had been all over the world. They had masks from Africa, expressionless and severe. Glittering icons from Europe. Orthodox crosses from Russia. I was fascinated by the exotic and rare artifacts. As the weeks wore on, and my parents continued to be lax in their duties to pick me up, I became bolder and bolder, exploring the house, uncovering treasures from around the world.
My world was Montana, with a little Japan thrown in. I didn’t consider the saddles and lariats, the cowboy boots and sheep wagons exotic. Nor did I consider the Japanese serving dishes, urns and oriental paintings unusual. They were just things in the house.
My first music book was, “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.” I was thrilled when one of the songs was, “Hannah from Montana.”
You see, I had an Aunt Hano, who grew up in Montana. She had a sister, Ruth. Hano lived for a short period of time in a white house down by the Big Horn River. Almost every spring, the Big Horn would spill over its banks, engorged by the snow melt in the Big Horn Mountains, and flood the river valley. The song went like this:
There once was a lady named Hannah,
Who was in a flood in Montana.
She floated away,
Her sister they say,
Accompanied her on the piano.
Of course I thought the song had been written about my aunties. It had to have been. I remember Hano telling us about the flooding, and how she woke up one morning and stepped out of bed into six inches of water. I pictured in my mind the piano floating along-side of her, with Ruthie playing ragtime.
The music lessons became harder and harder. I couldn’t keep up by sight reading anymore, it required practice. My mom had eight kids, and she was chasing seven of them while I was supposed to be practicing. It didn’t happen.
And like any busy mom with active kids, she continued to be late picking me up from piano lessons. One night—it must have been winter because it was dark outside–as the teacher was working with another student and I waited for one of my parents to remember me, I opened a door to a room in the teacher’s basement. I had explored all the rooms that were accessible, now I was moving beyond the obvious.
As I quietly pushed the door open, I reached to my right and flipped on the light. I peered into the room. It was musty and full of books, boxes and papers. There was a shelf with more exotic paraphernalia on it. And then, catching my eye and my surprise was a skull, the eye sockets staring into my soul, the teeth set in a grimace, the temporal lobes indented.
I gasped in surprise and fear! My eyes as wide as the skull’s eyes, my heart exploding in my chest. I backed out, pulled the door behind me, and paused with my back to the door, waiting for my heart to stop pounding.
I crept up the stairs and waited by the door, quiet, subdued. I couldn’t tell my mother. I wasn’t supposed to be creeping around opening doors. I didn’t tell the teacher, but somehow she knew. I might have forgotten to shut off the light in my haste and fear. A few weeks later she took me to the room and told me about the Indonesian country where they had bought the skull at a market.
Piano wasn’t the only thing I learned from taking lessons. The world opened up to me, far beyond Hannah from Montana to countries and vistas beyond my wildest imaginations. I also learned to be careful opening closed doors.
I never got beyond Grade Two of John Thompson’s red piano music books and my goal of learning to play the piano by 50 has come and gone. I haven’t been in any floods and I haven’t been to Indonesia, either.