The year was 1959. I was 9 years old. The biggest event in my world was the completion of the house my parents built, which meant it was time for Mom to make the purchase she had talked about for months.
I remember accompanying her to the piano store in downtown Los Angeles. True to her style, my mother had done her homework and knew the brand and type of piano we were there to buy. It must have taken her a long time to save $975 for the French Provencal upright piano in fruitwood. I had seen her stash dollars into the tin in her closet, preparing for this day.
There were several reasons why my mother encouraged me to play the piano. She always wanted me to have the things that her parents couldn’t afford to give her. Mom loved all kinds of music, but thought the piano was the perfect instrument for a young girl.
I also think Evelyn Zeyp had something to do with it. Evelyn’s husband Rudy had worked with my dad and they remained friends after Rudy retired. The older couple visited us often on Sunday afternoons and invited us to dinner at their home several times. Evelyn gave me trinkets: costume jewelry, hankies and a tiny embroidered doll that I still have. “She’s very special,” my Mom used to say about Evelyn.
What I remember about Evelyn’s story is this: Evelyn met Rudy when she worked as a cashier at a movie theatre. After they married she became pregnant but suffered a miscarriage. She fell into a deep depression and was diagnosed as having a nervous breakdown. She was committed to a mental hospital and treated with shock therapy.
The electric shocks left Evelyn scarred. She had huge gaps in her memory. She said that when she came home from the hospital people pointed at her and said “nuts” and “cuckoo” so she stayed at home and rarely ventured out. She had forgotten a lot of things, but not how to play her piano. She pulled the drapes shut and played her piano every day for hours. She played for us when we visited her.
Mom told me I should learn to play the piano so that I had something that no one could ever take away from me. So, from the time I was 9 until I graduated from high school, I took lessons every Thursday afternoon. My instructor, Hal Pruden, had been a big band pianist and arranged music for Liberace’s TV show. He taught from his own unique arrangements of show tunes and popular songs. My mother loved to listen to me practice, no matter how badly I played.
My piano crossed the ocean twice, from Los Angeles to Honolulu and then from Honolulu to Portland. It was moved four times in Grants Pass before it settled into my last home there, which I sold in 2001. Impulsively, I agreed to sell my piano to a couple that wanted it for their granddaughter.
Saturday I was driving down Ninth Street on my way home from Rumiano’s and spotted a piano sitting in the middle of a driveway. There was a handmade “for sale” sign attached to it. Within an hour the piano was in my living room.
The friendly man from the Azores who sold me a piano proudly told me about his daughters who had learned to play on it. He smiled and his eyes sparkled as he talked about his girls, now grown. Frank decided it was time to let the piano go.
Saturday night I sat at the piano and tried to remember just one tune, but my fingers couldn’t find their way. I started to panic. What if I couldn’t play anymore? Then Rick brought out a book of sheet music. We played together for about an hour, Rick on his ukulele and me on the new old piano. Evelyn was right. I could never forget how to play. And Mom’s gift from 50 years ago is something no one will ever be able to take away.