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88 Little Keys

By Tim Hayes

She couldn’t have been older than second or third grade when it magically appeared in their house.  Made of dark wood, with gleaming gold pedals and a playing surface of shining white, just waiting for her.  Only her.

So she clambered up on to the padded seat, marveling at this gift, so unexpected, so wonderful, placed her hands on the keys, and started to play.  Very simple, rudimentary melodies at that point, but in time this little girl – my mother – would make music on that piano that filled our home, our lives, with memories to treasure.

A George Steck upright model, with a “birdcage” system of hammers and strings inside the body, that piano served as the centerpiece of some great family sing-a-longs when all of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents on my mom’s side would come over on a Sunday afternoon.  Mom would be on piano, Uncle Ed would bring his banjo, and the rest of us would sing our heads off together.  Neighbors be damned, we were having fun making music.

“The Impossible Dream,” “Mississippi Mud,” “Shine On Harvest Moon,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” – we knew them all.  In fact, I think I was the only kid in my class who understood the joke when Jane Jetson sang, “Won’t You Fly Home, Bill Spacely?” on “The Jetsons,” because the old standard, “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” always remained in our family repertoire.

My mom is a great lady, very petite, with smallish hands.  How she was able to play some of those chords and songs, where the notes were pretty far apart, baffled and amazed me.  If she wasn’t exactly breaking the laws of physics, she sure was giving them a hell of a stretch.

As kids, we would tinker around on the keys, trying to figure out that catchy Charlie Brown Christmas song.  I’d work on the lower notes, the rhythm, while my sister pecked out the melody.  We got it going pretty good a couple of times.  Eventually, my sister began taking piano lessons and became quite accomplished herself.

In time, as we left for college and careers, the piano stayed in its designated spot along the wall in the dining room for many years.  Not sure how much Mom played it while we were off building our lives, marrying our spouses, populating the family with kids of our own, but I hope it was more often than not.

After a few years, it made more sense for the piano to move to my sister’s house.  But a few years after that, it came to my house, where my daughters could learn to play in preparation for their music degrees in college.  It remains in our family room today, where it still gets played fairly frequently.

The keys may not shine quite so white, the body looking a bit weathered, the pedals worn from years of being pressed.  But it still makes the same magical sound it did when that eight-year-old girl discovered it, the gift of a lifetime, a lifetime ago.

When I think of everything that piano has seen and been a part of over the past almost seven decades, it’s impressive.  All of the family history, the highs and the lows.  The endless hours of practicing.  Dozens of toddlers smashing the keys to make that big crazy sound.  The women of our family, playing, when the house was empty, just for the sheer joy of creating and experiencing music for herself.

And, mostly, when all of us – this wild, wonderful, extended Italian family – would crowd into that tiny dining room to sing old songs at the top of our lungs.  As a family.  You can’t buy that kind of love, a love that has bonded each of us ever since.  All it takes is 88 little keys.

Wont you come home again, Bill Bailey?  The piano’s right here.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes