Sunday, December 25, 2011

40 Years On, So That's What That Was All About (Aug. 20, 2009)

Current mood: peaceful

Sometimes it takes decades to figure out a problem, but then, bingo, there it is. Today, one of those long lost questions from childhood finally worked itself out in my head.

My mother and my Grandmother Strickland never really got along that well, but I never knew why. My mother never wanted to talk about it, and my grandmother rarely had anything to say beyond “I don’t know what I ever did to her.” Apparently it had not always been this way. During my parents’ courtship and early years of marriage, they got along fine. Only when I came along, the first grandchild on that side, did a rift develop, and even then not right away.

Grandma lived downstairs in the two-bedroom first floor, we lived upstairs in a one-bedroom apartment, until I was almost six. For well over three of them I was an only child. We moved to the house in the country when Kid #3 came along. It was in those couple of years between Sister #1 and Sister #2’s arrival that things broke down between the women of the house, and only today, with my mother gone two years and Grandma gone 31, did I finally figure out why.

Grandma’s favorite hobby was playing her old upright piano. It had once been a player piano, a Hobart M. Cable model, and while the bellows and tubes had long ago ceased to work, as a piano it played fine. Grandma played two handed quite well and had a decent enough voice for a 75-year-old to impress this little tyke, at least. I spent all my time downstairs. In fact, I was always with Grandma, rolling out pizza dough, weeding the garden, watching TV, poring over the newspaper, and of course, playing the piano.

Note especially those last two. Grandma had a large, upholstered chair with a thick back to it that I could crawl up on and look over her shoulder as she read the paper. Because of her developing cataracts, she used a large magnifying glass, and it was there, positioning myself just so, such that I could see the words she was reading, that I learned to read. I was not yet four years old.

It was at the piano, though, where the real love developed. Seated on the wide piano bench, her elbow often brushing the top of my head, I watched her fingers and listened to the music. Somehow I had an ear for music, but whether it was there from birth or developed by that piano, I cannot know. What mattered is that I figured out how to play the piano, by ear, by the time I was four years old.

Today I remembered the song “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” a song from World War I, and found it on YouTube. Grandma very often played it, and when she got done, I picked out the melody with one hand. It’s not a simple tune, even for an adult. Many nine-year-olds cannot figure out “Silent Night”, and here I was, not half that, working out something far more complex. It had to be among the first songs I ever learned, if not the first. She had to have learned it from a John McCormack 78, now long lost [note to self: Victrola 64694]. Playing it, the memory came back clear as day from over 45 years ago. There it was, the same rhythm, the same key, she sang it as he sang it on that 78.

And so it came to be that I found myself far more attracted to Grandma than Mom, and for sure Mom knew it, and resented it. Grandma had stolen her baby boy.

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