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Miscellany

Player piano

My mother’s mother is feisty and stoic, a sixth-generation Oregonian who has always called the land on which she lives home. Her hair is straight, a light brown that’s well faded into soft gray. She has small blue eyes and large, wonderful hands that nurse the ill and the injured and play the piano with quickness and grace.

Some of my earliest memories are centered around the piano at Grandma Carol’s house. She would play for my sisters and I as we huddled around her on the piano bench, belting out Christmas carols or Disney songs. Her Wurlitzer is a player piano, and when Grandma would move on to clean or cook, we would take over. Small doors over the keys slid open, and a lever above our knees revealed a set of pedals, which we would lay on top of a folded towel.

Grandma keeps her piano rolls above the band-aids and the rubbing alcohol in the hallway cupboard. I can smell the inside of that cupboard now, reassuring in its odor of latex and medicine. We would drag a chair over to the shelf to choose a song, maybe Tiny Bubbles or The Sound of Music medley. Grandma would help install the roll, sliding it out of its red box and tightening the roll of paper as we listened to the squeaking noises it made. “Listen!” she would say. “Can you hear the birds?”

Then she clicked the roll into place and hooked the tab over the smooth roller beneath it, and the music began. My sister Erika especially loved to play, gripping the underside of the keyboard frame and pumping the pedals up and down as fast as her legs would allow. We watched the roll, small holes cut into the paper telling the piano which notes to play, the phantom keys jumping up and down as the music rose. Printed words on the right-hand side helped us sing along. When Erika’s legs ached and the roll had been played through, someone flipped the metal lever back, and she slowly pedaled to rewind the roll so that Grandma could return the birds and the music to the narrow red box.

My grandma instilled in us a love of music, which she inherited from her father Norman. I don’t remember him, but I have a photo of me as a toddler sitting next to him on a piano bench, watching his talented hands run up and down the keys. We have recordings of his organ music, and his electric organ sits in my grandma’s basement. Music runs through the family tree: Grandma’s sister Maxine is a talented pianist, playing for her church and weddings and funerals and teaching children to play, too. My mom loves to trot out her jaunty rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” every Christmas, and my sister Erika teaches herself pop songs and owns her own piano, which is just about to come out of temporary storage at Grandma Carol’s house. Sometimes I catch myself singing a note of alarm, maybe when I’ve narrowly saved something from falling off the kitchen counter. As soon as I hear the sound escape my lips, I know it’s in the key of Grandma Carol.