The familiar voice on my answering machine began with an apology. The reason, his voice continued, was that his wife had taken ill a year ago. He lost her in March. Now there was no one around to play the piano, but he wanted to keep it tuned in her honor.
I thought of Julia with sadness. She had not been in good health for years, but the last time I was at their home, she shared a bit of happiness with me. She and Ralph had just celebrated sixty years of marriage. Cards from their friends and family decorated a table near the piano. I wished then that I had known about their anniversary, for I would have liked to send a card. Now, once more, I wished that I had known about her last illness. Again, I would have liked to send a card. I called Mr. Dagenais immediately and we scheduled a tuning appointment.
He met me at the door as he had every time I arrived. We exchanged a few pleasantries. I expressed my condolences at his loss and mentioned their 60th anniversary. Soon I sat down at the piano and began to work. Except for knowing that Julia was not sitting quietly in another part of the house, the service call was just like my previous calls to their home.
When I finished, I asked briefly about his plans for the harpsichord which sat across the room. He thought one of his daughters might be interested in the harpsichord. The children already had pianos. This one was played only when his grown children were home for a visit. He regretted that he had never learned to play a keyboard instrument, but was proud that all three children had received piano lessons.
“It’s never too late to learn,” I suggested with a smile.
“For me, it probably is.”
At that point he handed me a paper he had been holding. “I want to give this to you,” he said. “It’s a poem Julia wrote. You know, she was only six years old when her mother died.”
MY MOTHER’S PIANO (used with permission)
By Julia Dagenais
- Huddled beneath that keyboard
- I peered out through Corinthian columns—
- A priestess surveying with pity
- The silent world outside my singing sanctuary.
- Above my head sounds ripples and crashed
- From her fingers.
- Beside me the firm feet pressed a pattern
- From the worn-bright brass.
- Long after the music stopped
- I, a weeping votary,
- Washed the cracked and yellowed keys
- And polished the rosewood varnish.
- Still smooth and shiny in protected places,
- It was mostly rough and crazed by time.
- Before I could quite name the notes
- She summoned with such mastery,
- The song was over and a stillness struck
- That muffled all melody.
- What did I learn then from the flashing hands
- And the doomed figure swaying on the claw-foot stool?
- That a woman should sing;
- That joy should flow in beauty
- From her fingers and her feet;
- That the rising chord re-echoes
- When the hands and lips are stilled.
Six and sixty. The heartbreak of a six-year old girl became sixty years of devotion to her family. Julia’s determination to pass on a love of music through her verse is a tribute to all families, their pianos, and their music. Her words speak of life and death, of joy and sorrow, and of a song that we endeavor to pass on to the next generation. For those of us who dedicate our lives to the service of instruments beloved by others, Julia’s words remind us what it’s all about.