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My Piano: A Companion & Keepsake for Life

September 14, 2018 Barbara Ballinger

Some people may view my 5’7”, 560-pound 1936 Steinway mahogany Medium Grand piano as a beautiful instrument—which it is, sort of like admiring a favorite painting. I see it as so much more.

 

It has long been the connection that keeps my late father’s memory alive. He is the one who bought it for my mother in May 1955, shortly before their 13th wedding anniversary. They went to Steinway’s famous Manhattan showroom on West 57th street, an iconic place for piano lovers to see dozens of possibilities and purchased it. Once it was ensconced in my childhood home and I started taking lessons at about age nine, my father would tell me, “You must practice at least one hour a day.” I resented the 60 minutes—extremely long to a child but in retrospect I’m glad he did. Today I love to sit down and play the Steinway that I proudly own.  

Which brings me to a recent dilemma. At my age or for anyone past 50, maybe 60 or even older, we think about decluttering and downsizing. It happened to me as I experienced close friends and family members dying. It made me start to realize what the atavistic adages say, “people matter, things don’t,” or “you can’t take it with you.” Perhaps it’s really a clarion call to purge the multitude of possessions in our lives, many unimportant. However easy it may be for me to dump papers, even snow globes and some books, I could never part with my Steinway. It’s that trusted companion that I cannot fathom living without.  

The piano I inherited has proved to be my steady partner through thick and thin, along with oil portraits of my two daughters, each painted when just 3 years old. And I long ago decided that all would always move with me no matter how much I downsized. The paintings have easily found spaces on walls. Finding room for the piano has proved a tougher challenge. Not all houses, let alone condos or apartments, have room for a Medium Grand and the accompanying two seats. 

When I bought my current home—the first I purchased as a newly divorced female eight years ago, I searched for a house in a walkable location in my village, with bedrooms to accommodate my two grown daughters and aging mother. But at the top of my wish list was a living room that could comfortably fit the piano. The house I chose had a wonderful bay where the piano could nestle in perfectly. Light would stream through but not so much to damage its glistening golden case with intricate detailing along its sides. 

Even before I unpacked, I found a piano tuner who would give the instrument a checkup. How was the sound board? Did the strings and hammers make it through the 1,000-mile move? The tuner also insisted that I buy a humidifier that he would attach to avoid parts drying out. He played it, then I did. In that moment, the sound of music made the house instantly come alive as my home. 

Fortunately, I know much about the piano’s history because Steinway & Sons keeps detailed records by assigning each of its pianos a serial number. When I had it moved this last time, I called the company at its Long Island City, N.Y., headquarters and asked for an appraisal. Not only did my contact provide that but also a rich history.

I was told it is a New York Medium Grand Model M, Sheraton, was completed on June 16, 1936 and retailed when first crafted for $1,100. It was sold to a private customer on Central Park West in New York City. I quickly looked up the building and learned that it was built in 1928 and designed by Jacob M. Felson. The building’s online description cited its “magnificent classic apartments,” probably similar to the one that the “Wonderful Mrs. Maisel” lived in. I could easily imagine the first owners moving the Medium Grand into their relatively new home’s living room that was appointed most likely with detailed molding, gleaming hardwood floors and maybe a log-burning fireplace. I also pictured evenings when all the family and friends would gather for recitals. 

For some reason and at some point, the owners sold it back to Steinway. I often wondered why they gave up such a beautiful instrument? Maybe. the owners died, nobody in the family played or they moved to a smaller apartment or even abroad? So many possibilities and sadly I’ll never learn why. But I do remember the day when it arrived and settled into the curve of a large bay window in our suburban New York home. My mother needlepointed floral seats in soft green and rose hues, which more than 63 years later still look new. 

And in its spot, the piano waited for my mom to play and for me to take weekly lessons. I practiced daily for the expected hour—always classics, never show tunes, according to my strict teacher’s lessons. I resented my dad’s instructions to practice and once not being able to go off to a party until I had completed my exercises. I continued playing into high school and think I did so for a total of eight years. As I grew older I was happy I had practiced regularly since I was always able to come home from college and my marital home, sit down and play favorite Chopin, Bach and Tchaikovsky pieces. 

When my two daughters were old enough to take lessons, my parents generously offered to send the piano to my then Chicago home. I carefully selected a moving company that had experience, and the company took apart the legs and wrapped them and the case in quilts. Since it couldn’t fit in the front passenger elevator of our 1929 building, it was taken up the back-freight elevator, which was larger. There it sat in our 30-foot living room in its next place of honor. Even as Alzheimer’s stole his memory, my father remembered his piano lovingly. He once called up and was so upset, saying, “Someone has stolen our piano,” I gently explained, “No, daddy, you gave it to me for the girls to learn to play?” I don’t think he remembered, but I think I temporarily allayed his concerns. 

Like my father, I insisted the girls keep at their lessons, perhaps, a parental lesson I should have tempered to avoid being an early Jewish version of Tiger Mom but didn’t. I, too, felt if they kept at their lessons they would be able to return to play whenever they wanted. And when I completed the larger of two dollhouses for my daughters, I carefully selected a beautiful brown Medium Grand grand for the living room of the four-story New York-style townhouse, one piece of sheet music opened. 

There was one setback. Temporarily my heart sank when a fire roared through our building in 1996, the day of our 25th anniversary. A neighbor living directly above us had used their air conditioning to clean their apartment and something had gone awry. Firemen don’t care about objects when there’s a fire and doused the contents of rooms—piano, rugs, antique quilts and more. Smoke also caused damage, and the piano needed $10,000 worth of work to become playable. The insurance company offered to buy me a new piano, but I explained that it was a family heirloom and insisted that it be repaired. No other piano would suffice. I contacted the local Steinway office, which moved my piano to its workshop. I think they made it sound better, though my mother disagrees. 

When we moved back to St. Louis, the piano came along, and again was placed in an honored place in that new home. But the marriage didn’t fare as well and when I sold the house and moved into an apartment while deciding where to go long term, the piano came along. I placed it in what would have been the dining area, so I didn’t have to store it. Eating at my large table was far less important since I had a counter in the kitchen. 

With the last move I made to my current home closer to my New York City roots, the piano was shipped back East. I occasionally sit down and play a favorite show tune and promise I will take lessons when I am able to cut back on my work. But friends who visit and play love doing so. Most admire the seats. My older grandson, now 4 years old, has just started showing interest in making sounds on the keys when he visits. 

When my mother suggested a few years back that I sell it since it had escalated in value, I quickly dismissed her idea. “I would never do that. Daddy would know and be too upset,” I replied in a probably overly critical tone. And why would I? Its worth can’t be measured in dollars. It has too great a hold on my heart.  I’ve been entrusted to pass it on to the next familial generations to treasure as deeply as I have—and continue to do.

Question: What is one possession you could never part with? Please post your comments below. 

 

 



1 comment

  • Joanne

    Sep 16, 2018

    What a wonderful blog. My piano – a baby grand Knabe inherited from my grandmother – is at the top of my list of possessions with which I cannot part. When asked where I might move were I to downsize, I invariably answer “anywhere that has enough room for the piano!”


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