by Chris Cormier Hayes
Editor’s Note: My sister, Chris, who teaches writing at Simmons University and tutors writing at Cape Cod Community College recently penned this piece, which I am thrilled to present in this space. PC
I would have said it was impossible for a used piano to bring joy during the Covid pandemic, but when I look back over the last 12 months, I know it’s true. My grandmother’s baby grand piano connects me to those I loved who are gone. It gives me a sense of self as I relearn an old skill and brings me comfort at night to play when the house is quiet and my husband, Lindsay, sleeps.
My grandfather, René, bought my grandmother, Angeline, a second-hand baby grand piano in 1930. They lived in Leominster, a city hit hard by the depression, where he was a pharmacist in the small drugstore they owned. He spent $2000 on the piano, a small fortune then, hoping I’m sure, to bring music and happiness to their meager lives. He didn’t know he would die a few years later. My grandmother could have sold it and used the money to raise four young children alone, but she kept it tuned, played it herself, and taught my mom to play. And even though he couldn’t know it, the instrument became a lasting sign of his love.
My family grew up on the other side of town with a spinet piano on which each of my siblings and I took lessons. When I was 15, my grandmother died, and the baby grand moved to our home and became the focal point of our living room, too big for the corner from which it diagonally jutted. We had to squeeze by the piano bench to get to the dining room, but it stayed where it was and my mom had it tuned twice a year and refinished it to its original beauty.
My dad loved playing it. We sang along with Perry Como’s version of Don’t Blame Me and Hoagie Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People. He never minded when he hit wrong notes and improvised, throwing in jazz trills whenever he pleased. He was a writer and loved melancholy minor chords, just as he loved certain words. When you write, words are your music. When you play the piano, chords are your language. He would call me over, play a few mournful bars, and pause over the keys. And I understood. Just by listening, I learned how life can be sad and beautiful at the same time. When we all grew up and moved out of the house, he serenaded my mom at night with plaintive songs while she was upstairs in bed. My mom played the piano, too. She only played when she thought she was alone in the house and her classical songs were different than dad’s. She played without mistakes, softly and tentatively. She played as she lived. They both did. The baby grand continued to be an instrument of love.
When my mom died in 2017, 17 years after my dad, my siblings and I spent many weekends cleaning out our childhood home. Before one of my many trips to Leominster, Lindsay smiled when he said,
When you’re packing up the house, please don’t bring home the piano.
We had a piano already: a glossy black upright that gleamed in our living room.
I replied. Even though I coveted Mémère’s baby grand, I assumed one of my siblings would want it more. And then, no one did. And the piano was ours.
It was carried up to the loft of our new home on the Cape by four strong men. I had it tuned and restored, and as the pandemic became a reality in March 2020, I began piano lessons again, but this time, remotely. And then, it happened. I recognized certain minor chords and played them over and over, imagining my dad’s hands on the keys, my mom listening upstairs, my grandparent’s struggles lighter. And I felt the connection of the generations while the baby grand gave voice to the sadness and beauty of the world. I continue to serenade Lindsay at night, with plaintive songs while he’s downstairs in bed. And my grandfather’s gift remains an instrument of love.