The Piano Man
What goes around comes around
When my father-in-law passed away suddenly, his Steinway grand piano sat unplayed. My mother-in-law Sheila was tone deaf, so she used the piano’s broad ebony surface to display a panoply of framed photographs. There were photos of children and grandchildren — weddings, graduations and school photos. And there were photos representing the accomplishments of her long and full life — one having the Order of Canada pinned on her lapel by the Governor General; another with her husband when he was a provincial cabinet minister, and they met the pope; others with her honorary degrees; and many with friends and her McGill students, several of whom became life-long friends.
When she died, no family member wanted the piano — who has a space big enough for a grand piano? — and I knew it would be a challenge to find a good home for an instrument that is almost one hundred years old.
I called the Steinway dealer in Montreal, and they were not interested. Sight unseen, they said a piano that was that old would have to have to be completely rebuilt. They were potentially interested in the piano for its body and offered a low ball price. This was a sad fate for a piano lovingly cared for by only one family.
I got in touch with a local piano store and restoration shop. The owner was interested and came over to examine the piano. He confirmed that, like those of us of a considerable age, many parts were stiff and old and would have to be changed. He offered an equally low ball price.
Next, I called a man whose business card I found inside the piano. I thought perhaps my father-in-law had used this man’s services at one point. I reached the piano man at his home in Joliette, a town about seventy-five kilometres northeast of Montreal, and told him I had found his card in the piano. He was pleasant and took the time to give me some information.
“Mrs. Goldberg,” the piano man called me, “I have so much work in my shop here I would not be interested in coming to Montreal to look at your piano. I restore pianos for museums and conservatories, and my hands are full. Besides, you have to understand, the traffic driving into Montreal makes me angry, so I avoid it.” He gave me the name of someone called Spike to get in touch with in Montreal.
Within an hour, the piano man called me back. “Mrs. Goldbloom,” he got my name right this time, “I have been thinking…”
He said he now recalled the piano. After our first conversation, he realized he had come to my parents-in-law’s home several times to tune it and replace some parts.
“The first time I came in the late 80s was to change the felts on the hammers. I used alcohol to soften the felts, and I did not notice, but a few drops fell on your mother-in-law’s white wall-to-wall carpet, leaving burns.”
He went on to tell me that Sheila had called him about this when she discovered it. She told him she would call the carpet man and get back to him. A few weeks later, she confirmed that the carpet was fixed. “We all make mistakes,” she said to the piano man.
“I was so relieved because I had no money in those days to fix the carpet. I have felt guilty about it ever since,” he told me. “She was a very kind lady.”
He proceeded to give me more information about who might be interested in the piano and the types of interventions that would be required. A professional or classical pianist would only be interested if the piano was completely rebuilt, a job that required over six hundred hours to change twelve thousand parts.
He concluded the conversation by saying he was willing to come to Montreal and tune the piano for free and maybe lubricate some parts because he had always felt so bad about the carpet. I thanked him for his time, told him he needn’t feel guilty, and that he had repaid his debt with all the information he had provided me.
The next day he contacted me again. “Alice, I have been thinking….” We were on a first-name basis by this time. He said he was interested in buying the piano and completely rebuilding it. He wanted to come to Montreal the next day.
So the piano man came to Montreal and made us a fair offer. I am happy the grande dame will be restored to her full glory and will live to be played again.
The piano man’s recollections of Sheila’s kindness and empathy the first and subsequent times he came to their home — yes, he recalled his many visits over four decades — spoke to me. His memory had captured Sheila perfectly.
My mother-in-law was a woman of many accomplishments, yet she had no pretensions. She connected with people, was a great listener, and in the thirty-five years I knew her, I never experienced a moment of mother-in-law frustration. Kind, empathetic, wise and thoughtful, I felt I had a special relationship with her. But everyone who knew Sheila felt that way about their relationship with her. You could count on her to call or show up when you needed her. You could call her anytime to discuss a problem, and she always had good advice. At her funeral, her granddaughter said she possessed an emotional sixth sense — an emotional superpower — and knew the nature of the problem or the sticky points in a relational dynamic before anyone spoke it out.
Our family used to joke that she needed only fifteen minutes with someone, and then they were comfortable divulging their life story.
Sheila knew our stories, and we trusted her with them.
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