Sunday, 20 July 2008

P = Piano

I never met my great-grandmother - Grandma Grant as she was known. She was by all reports a wonderful housekeeper, strict disciplinarian, and very organised and respected lady. Sadly I didn’t inherit that. But I did inherit her piano.

Her daughter, my maternal grandmother, was a very different personality. She was not interested in housework, sick often as a young woman and therefore struggled to raise her family. My mother tells of having to fend for herself as a child and look after her younger siblings when my grandmother was ill. She relied a lot on Grandma Grant for support.

But my grandmother was a social butterfly. When well, she loved to drink and smoke and go to dances. And she was a wonderful pianist. She would go to dances on a Saturday night, and play the piano all night. On Sunday she would be at church, playing the organ, for the love of the music rather than from any spiritual interest.

My memories of her are as an old woman in her 70s, living alone, largely housebound from wonky knees and illness. Occasionally in the summer we would collect her and bring her out to the farm. On those days I remember playing in the garden with my sister, or lying under the plum tree in the shade with a book, hearing the wonderful music my grandmother was making on the piano float and fly and twirl out the windows. She would play for hours. She did have a piano herself, but it was a poor one, badly tuned with a tinny tone. To a pianist like my mother, it would have given her little pleasure. I have to admit that I don’t know why, but Grandma Grant’s piano had gone to straight to my mother, and my sisters and I were all taught to play on it.

My older sister was a competent pianist, and my younger sister also learned to play. But I was the one who seemed to have the touch, who could sight read easily, and who enjoyed playing the classics. From age 6 when my mother started teaching me to play until I left home, I spent time every day on the piano. I was lucky (again). I had my mother’s enthusiasm, my grandmother’s talent, my great-grandmother’s piano.

I love that piano. It is simply beautiful. Walnut with decorative inlays, brass candlesticks (which need polishing). The keys are no longer ivory – after about 60 years they were so damaged and yellowed, some missing, that my mother gave in and had them replaced. The piano was my mother’s most prized possession. We were never allowed to put anything on the piano except sheet music. There are one or two small scratches, but generally the polish is unspoiled and the piano still gleams. But for me it is the tone of the piano that sets it apart. There is a mellow richness, a soft beauty of tone which is rare to find. I can safely say that of all the pianos I have played, I’ve only found one – an orchestral grand piano – that could honestly compare in tone to Grandma Grant’s piano.

Of course I might be biased. But I do have a very good ear.

The piano now sits in my lounge. It doesn’t really match the rest of my furnishings, which are contemporary in style, but it has a place of honour, and will not be moved. My mother gave me the piano when I first moved north, in my early 20s. We had been chatting about her favourite television programme. Someone had died on Coronation Street and the family had been fighting over her possessions. She said she hoped we wouldn’t do that. I said very honestly that I thought the only thing we might fight over would be the piano. “But that’s going to you of course,” she said. And she made immediate arrangements for me to get it before I crossed the Strait leaving the island forever.

In 1990 just before we went to live in Bangkok we made our Wills. They now badly need updating. Our parents are older, my dad gone already. We have assets now. I’d like to leave money to my favourite charity, maybe support a scholarship. But the main thing that stops me is the question “who will get the piano?” (This question is one of the sadnesses from not having my own children). It needs to be someone who would love it like me. My older sister’s daughters never really took up the piano. But my new tiny niece might. I think I’d like her to grow up with the piano in the corner, using it every day and caring for it, thinking of the women before her who played it and loved it.


  1. it was inexplicably painful to let our family piano--inexplicable mainly because I don't play piano beyond knowing where to find middle C--be given to a family friend a few years ago. it was nowhere near as old as yours, but the center of many memories. yes, my stepfather's instrument is a better one; yes, the Husband's parents have a nicer one ... but it's just not the same.

    sit with your niece and show her. start now.

  2. There's something about a grandmother who likes to "drink and smoke and go to dances" that's very endearing.

  3. What happened to the piano when you were traveling the world? Obviously, it was taken care of...

    Lovely. Wish I could hear you play.

  4. Unfortunately when I hear the words 'New Zealand' and 'piano' I shudder: did all those women have a little hole in their stocking?

  5. Lisa: I understand. (My niece is only 3 months old so I'll give her a few more years before she starts to play).

    Del: She was a character, no doubt.

    IB: It lived at my in-laws (live here in the same city) but was returned immediately on our return.

    I'd have to practice a bit before I could play something for you. Hope you like Beethoven?

    Mrs S: No, and we didn't have a silver fingertip either.

  6. Mali: Beethoven is fine, and I'll listen to anything.


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