Artist: Steinway & Sons
Title: Piano Bench
Provenance: Gifted (along with piano) to EAH’s mother in the 1950s by her father and then gifted to EAH by her father in 2017, after her mother’s death.
When my mother was a child—I’m fuzzy on exactly when—my grandfather bought her a baby grand Steinway piano. I don’t know at what point this was in my mother’s evolution as a pianist, but I do know that she eventually became an accomplished musician. Over the years I recall her mentioning something about an offer to join a professional group of some sort, but her conservative parents were shocked and somewhat horrified at the idea, which she never even really took seriously.
When I was a kid, living the itinerant life of a journalist’s daughter, her enormous piano came with us wherever we went. This was ridiculous, I suppose, but I can’t imagine it any other way, for it was a vital part of our home identity and my mother’s identity. Some of my earliest memories are going with her to her chamber music group rehearsals. She loved music; it was a constant through her whole life. When us girls got old enough, we each took music lessons: My eldest sister played the piano (kind of/for a while), following in my mom’s steps. My middle sister played the flute. And I played the violin. She was our live-in tutor, accompanying us as we practiced, and playing along at recitals.
Before I took up the violin, I was fascinated with my mom’s piano. She showed me where to find middle C and how to play a simple, one-hand version of the happy birthday song. But mostly I remember her playing. I would sit with awe as my mom’s hands flitted gracefully yet powerfully over the shiny black-and-white keys. Claude Debussy’s haunting melodies wafted around our apartments. She also played a lot of Gershwin, whose bolder sounds were fun to dance to.
As I got older, and our lives got more complicated, my mom played her piano less, but it was always—always—a fixture in our lives. It was the centerpiece around which she’d set up a room. I remember trying to teach myself how to play Christmas carols on the piano in one of our living rooms, the same spot where I’d practice violin, using the piano as a tuning guide. I remember when the piano was wedged into a corner of another living room, and a musically inclined group of high school friends would come over and have fun with the beautiful old piano.
Finally, one Christmas in my twenties, my mom succumbed to peer pressure and played for us after a long hiatus. My now-husband, who had never heard her play, was stunned at her talent. She really had a gift, which I guess explains my grandfather’s giving of such a gift to a child. We pressured my mom to play for us again when we were visiting my parents for my son’s first Thanksgiving. I sat down next to her afterward, with my son on my lap, who happily tap-tap-tapped on the keys. There’s a picture of this, and I love it.
When my parents were planning their retirement, they finally conceded that they didn’t need this massive piano encumbering them anymore. Plus they could get good money for it perhaps. On the contrary, they had trouble selling it, and it didn’t finally happen until about a year after my mom’s death.
When my dad sold it, there was no mention of the bench, so I asked if I could keep it as a memento. The bench opens up, and my mom always stored her sheet music in there. To this day, it’s filled with sheet music that I can’t bring myself to get rid of. Maybe one of my kids will play piano and make use of it? Or maybe I should send it to my dear aunt (my mom’s sister), who is also a rather accomplished pianist?
For now, the poor thing is being used as an entryway bench that does double duty hiding shoes that spill over from our shoe rack. Our cats love to sleep on it, coating the lovely pink velvet with their fur, and it’s a constant battle to keep the fur away. My mom was a cat lover, though, and I know she’d understand.