Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Never too late

When my father was in his early 40s, he wanted to learn to play the piano. At this point in his life, he was a farmer who got out of bed each morning at 5 a.m. to milk the cows: 30 tan and black Jerseys and one huge black and white Holstein. A quick breakfast, and then Dad went on to plough fields, cut hay, mend fences, repair tractors and attend to the never-ending chores that always stood waiting. Supper was at 5 in the afternoon. Afterwards, Dad headed back to the barn to milk the cows once again. His workday didn't end until well into the evening, and then wife and children demanded attention and the last of his energy. He didn't have much time, if any, for himself, and I wonder if this yearning to play piano stemmed from a longing to create a cocoon of solitude and even pleasure, just for himself. 

  Dad loved music, as did I. One of our shared pleasures involved hauling out the straw-coloured portable RCA record player on a Sunday afternoon, when my siblings were outside playing, and my mother was visiting her neighbour friends. Dad and I would choose one of our few records - Beethoven's 6th Symphony, or Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture – take it out of the tattered sleeve, wipe it clean and put it on the turntable. Neither of us spoke while the music, scratched and tinny, still managed to find wings to our hearts.

An old upright piano stood against one wall in the front room of our yellow brick farmhouse. This room doubled as my bedroom. The piano was a Canadian make, Mason and Ritch. Although the mahogany cabinet was chipped and stained, the touch was light and the action responsive. A revolving mahogany stool, burnished to a smooth finish from years of players' bottoms, came with the piano. My mother had bought the piano at a local auction on her way home after a nursing shift. She bid $24 on it. A John Deere dealer upped the bid to $26. One of the farmers turned on him. “You're going to bid against our nurse?” he challenged. The dealer turned away, and Mom got the piano and stool for $28, plus an offer from one of the farmers to transport the newly acquired instrument to our home that afternoon.

I had been taking piano lessons with Sister Mary Lalemont at the convent in Mount Forest, next to the church. My practising, sporadic as it was, had been done in a neighbour's cold and musty parlour, so naturally I was delighted to have my very own piano close at hand. By the time I was 14, I had fallen in love with the piano and practised my Royal Conservatory pieces faithfully every day.

I remember it was a Sunday afternoon, the quiet time in our noisy household. My father appeared in the doorway to my room. He was dressed in his dark green work pants, a tan-striped shirt, and a brown cardigan. His thick dark brown hair was starting to sprout grey. It was early spring, and the inside of the single-paned windows were still covered in sheets of heavy opaque plastic to guard against the cold. Dad stood there, awkward and silent. Then, “Will you teach me to play?” he asked. I gave him a puzzled look. “I would like to learn to play the piano,” he said with simple dignity and no further explanation.

Well, he was my father, and fathers were to be obeyed. “Okay,” I said, my voice shaded with doubt. Dad sat down on the stool while I stood at his right shoulder. He put his large rough hands in his lap, laced fingers together and slowly twiddled his thumbs. These were hands most at home milking a cow, coaxing the last of the warm, creamy milk from her udder. These were hands stained with small black creases of machine oil from hours spent fiddling with equipment. Hands roughened from the early farm years, sowing fields by hand, reaching into the home-made jute sling that held the oats or barley, and with a wide sweep of the arm, scattering the seeds over the freshly ploughed black earth. These were hands that occasionally were drenched in the blood of slaughtered chickens or rabbits. Hands that held a rosary more comfortably than a book. Hands that from time to time fell on us in anger, and at other times, handed us overflowing vanilla ice cream cones.

Dad looked at me expectantly. I had no idea where or how to begin. I took a deep breath. “Put your right hand on the keys,” I ordered. Dad obediently placed his paw on the keyboard. I moved his hand so that his thumb fell on middle C. His hand felt heavy as lead, his long gnarly fingers sliding half-on, half-off the black keys.

You have to round your fingers.” I demonstrated with my own hand an octave higher. Dad tried to shape his hand into a curve, holding his fingers in clawlike tension. The veins on the back of his hand stood out like miniature rivers.

Let's try to play some notes,” I said, and slowly played three notes in sequence: C, D, E. “Now you try.”

Dad hit a jarring C with his thumb, wobbled on the D with his index finger and crashed into both E and F together with his third finger. “Let's try again,” I said, somehow finding the patience of a tree. Dad concentrated intently, the tip of his tongue sticking out of his mouth the way it always did when he applied intense focus and effort at something.

After several long minutes of countless repetitions, he finally managed a passable run up the three notes. The way back down was less smooth as his fingers kept knocking against each other. The keys bounced under his hand. I wondered how we were ever going to get the left hand going, let alone play with two hands. Finally, Dad dropped his shoulders, stood up and stretched. “I think that's enough,” he said. He gave me a pensive smile, squeezed my shoulder and left the room. I sat down, feeling the warmth his bum had left on the stool. I began to play through my pieces, a Mozart sonatina and Solfegietto by C.P.E Bach. After half an hour, I too stood up, stretched, crossed the front hall and wandered into the adjoining living room.

Dad was slumped in the Danish teak and orange naughahyde armchair, eyes closed, chin on his chest, sound asleep. His hands were folded over his belly, fingers laced, the thumbs quiet against one another. He did not ask me for another lesson, and I did not offer one. While it was never too late to start piano, it was also never too early to stop.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mary Lou,

    What a great writer you are. This made me sad. My Dad had a similar yearning for art. He didn't take lessons, but just ploughed ahead. As a grown up I think his work is great. Sadly my house is so filled with paintings, I barely had room to take the one painting I did when we split up my parents' things.
    Your Dad probably just wanted to bond with you. And he certainly did that.