The old upright piano was in the living room from my earliest recollection until the day my father died. He must have brought it sometime in the early ‘50s, soon after he’d gotten married.
Dad would spend hours playing Brahms, Schumann, Clementi, Chopin. At the end, he would always start playing an old Russian folk song called “Two Guitars” and stare wistfully into space. It’s my belief that this was a song that he used to play, during his childhood, as a duet with his violin-playing brother, who died an untimely death in the late ’40s.
When I was eight years old or so, Dad started teaching me to play the piano. At first, I really enjoyed it. But it soon became clear to me that I had no say in what I played – I’d have to play what he wanted me to play. And if I played something incorrectly or made an insufficient effort, he’d yell: “You idiot! You moron! Wrong! WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!” By the time I was 12, I told Dad I didn’t want to take lessons anymore, although I never stopped playing, on and off. Dad tried to teach my brother too, but my brother, who was more outspoken in criticizing our parents, only lasted six months or so with Dad as a teacher.
Anyway, that same year, when I was 12, the Beatles came to America. I would often go to the piano and try to play the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, Motown. This drove my father nuts. “That’s not music! THAT’S JUST BANGING!” he’d say. He’d take to locking the piano with a key he had, just so that I wouldn’t play it when he was in the house. And the worst of it was that my father definitely didn’t believe in the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There was only one TV in the house, and it, too, was in the living room. Many was the time that I’d have to wait what seemed like an eternity until my father finished practicing piano for the night, until I could watch one of my favorite TV programs. It’s probably thanks to him that I never really grew to like classical music, with the possible exception of Bach and Handel — and it took my wife, years later, to make me appreciate them.
I moved out of the house, then moved back, then moved out again, then moved back again, then moved out for good, but the piano was always there. The unsteady piano bench, with its wobbly legs, finally went the way of all wood, but the piano itself remained. In the early days he’d call piano tuners periodically, but when he got older, especially after my mother died, he let things go, and the piano’s sound became tinny. Still, he practiced every day.
Finally, in 2004, he died. One day, while going to Dad’s Co-op City apartment to clean up, I met a young pre-adolescent girl and her mother in the hallway. I told them Dad had died. “I knew it,” the girl said. “I haven’t hearing him playing his piano for a long time. I used to hear him every day! I knew all his songs!” I was a little thrown off – I don’t know if you can call a Bach fugue a “song” – but it soon occurred to me that he hadn’t changed these “songs” in 35 years. Once, a friend had tried to give him some new sheet music – I remember “Mussogursky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was one of them – and Dad tried to make a go of it, but he soon fell back on the tried and true. The pieces he played regularly were likely the same ones he’d played back in the East Bronx, during his childhood in the 1930s.
My brother’s son Joseph, a rock musician in his 20s, wanted the piano. He had, my brother told me, written many of his own songs on this piano. The movers soon came, and the piano was wheeled away after 25 or so years in Marble Hill and 35 years in Co-op City, gone to a new life.
Raanan Geberer is a community newspaper editor in Brooklyn who is now in a Master of Arts in Teaching program. He grew up in the Bronx, went to SUNY and once lived in Washington Heights, although he now lives in Chelsea’s Penn South co-op with his wife Rhea and cat Celeste.