The Piano Man
She knew his story
The Steinway grand piano sat silent after my father-in-law died suddenly. The sheet music—a favourite Gershwin piece—lay undisturbed on the music stand just as he had left it.
My mother-in-law, Sheila, lacked musical talent, so she decorated the piano’s glossy ebony surface with a large array of photographs. Silver-framed portraits of children and grandchildren stood proudly in rows. School events, graduation ceremonies, sunny vacations, happy weddings. There were photographs of her own long career and accomplishments. Honours bestowed mingled with important milestones, travels, and cherished moments with friends and colleagues who posed with the diminutive woman, her broad smile and wrinkly face so familiar to me. The images captured a lifetime of interlocking connections to so many other lives.
When Sheila died at the age of ninety-six, after a descent into the hell that is dementia, it struck me that my generation was next in line. To avoid this existential rumination, I immersed myself in all the practical matters I could help the family with. There was an accumulation of books, papers, letters, more photographs, and furniture—the things she loved and cherished reduced to silent objects and whatnots—all to contend with.
First, I had to decide what to do with the piano, which nobody in the family wanted. Who has space for a grand? I knew it would be a challenge to find a good home for an instrument that’s almost a century old.
I contacted the Steinway dealer in Montreal, but they weren’t interested. Without seeing it, they said a piano that old would have to be rebuilt entirely. They did express potential interest in its ebony wood frame and made a lowball offer. It seemed a sad fate for a piano so lovingly cared for by my father-in-law.
I reached out to a local piano store and restoration shop, and the owner promptly came over to examine the instrument. He confirmed that, like those of us who have reached a certain age, the piano had many stiff and old parts. Replacements were in order. He offered an equally lowball figure.
Next, I telephoned a man whose yellowed business card for piano-tuning services I discovered inside the piano. I assumed my father-in-law had used his services at one point. I reached the piano man at his home in Joliette, a town about seventy-five kilometres northeast of Montreal. I explained I had found his card and why I was calling. He was pleasant and took the time to give me some information.
“Mrs. Goldberg,” the piano man replied with the barest hint of a French accent, “I have so much work in my shop here that I would not be interested in coming to Montreal to look at your piano. I restore pianos for museums and music 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 said, getting my name right this time. “I have been thinking….”
He realized he knew the piano I was calling him about after we had hung up the first time.
“I have tuned and replaced parts on that piano several times over many years. The first time was in the late 1980s when I changed the felts on the hammers. I used alcohol to soften the felts, and I didn’t notice, but drops fell on your mother-in-law’s white wall-to-wall carpet, leaving burns.”
My mother-in-law called him when she discovered it. She told him she would contact the carpet man and inquire how expensive it would be to repair the carpet and get back to him. A few weeks later, she confirmed that the carpet had been fixed. “We all make mistakes. Don’t worry about it,” was how she put it, the piano man said.
“I was so relieved because I had no money in those days to fix an expensive carpet. I’ve felt guilty about it ever since,” the piano man confided. “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 required. The piano would have to be rebuilt to attract the attention of a professional or classical pianist. It was a job that required a significant investment and over six hundred hours to change twelve thousand parts. It was the same information the others had relayed to me, delivered with a little more care and a lot more detail.
He said he would come to Montreal to tune the piano free of charge and maybe lubricate some parts because he had always felt bad about damaging the carpet.
“It’ll be easier to sell if it’s tuned,” he stated.
He continued the conversation for several minutes and shared other recollections about Sheila and his impressions of the gracious woman he had gotten to know over his many visits.
I thanked him for his time. “You needn’t feel guilty. You’ve repaid your debt with all the information,” I said as I hung up.
The next day, he contacted me again. “Alice, I have been thinking.” We were on a first-name basis now. He was interested in buying the piano and completely rebuilding it. He wanted to come to Montreal the next day.
So the piano man braved the anger-inducing traffic and drove to Montreal. And after examining the Steinway, he made a fair offer. He wanted to restore the grande dame to her full glory. She will play again.
The piano man’s recollections of my mother-in-law’s kindness and empathy captured her perfectly. She was a woman with many remarkable accomplishments, yet she had no pretensions. She was an astute judge of character and connected with people of all ages and stations because she was a great listener. At the end of her life, with her mind ravaged by dementia and all her filters gone, she remained the same.
At times, she wasn’t happy with a caregiver, not out of dislike or disrespect for the person, but rather due to her distress over losing her fiercely prized independence. Other times, she was upset because someone had telephoned seeking her advice on a problematic situation at work or with a child-related matter, and she no longer had advice. Despite my attempts to reassure her that her topsy-turvey world made sense, she never appeared convinced.
I always thought that I had a special relationship with her. But I soon realized that everyone who knew my mother-in-law felt they had a special relationship with her. She was kind, empathetic, wise, and thoughtful with everyone. They knew they could count on her to be there for them. At her funeral, her granddaughter said that her grandmother possessed a sixth sense, an emotional superpower that enabled her to anticipate a person’s problem or the sticky points in a relational dynamic before the person had even articulated it.
Our family used to joke that she needed only fifteen minutes with someone for them to confide their life story.
I was certain she knew the piano man’s whole life story.
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