I love Granddaddy’s and Grandma’s apartment. The walls are knotty pine and the floors are made of a different wood; they shine under Grandma’s braided rugs. There’s a booth curving around a table in one corner. It makes me think of the ice cream shop where we sometimes go for milkshakes. This booth is where Granddaddy, Grandma and I eat supper. Sometimes we have jelly doughnuts or apple turnovers for dessert; Grandma is very fond of apple turnovers and so I am I. There’s an odd, glass-less window between the bedroom and the “front room,” as Grandma calls it. I call it the living room. Grandma has curtains on this weird window and I can remember, dimly, my aunt holding me in her arms on one side as Grandma pulled the curtains apart on the other, crying “PEEK-A-BOO!” We all dissolved with laughter. A fancy ashtray with a curved handle that’s either a ram or a goat – some horned, leaping animal – stands on a tall, thin pedestal beside my grandfather’s worn leather recliner, but no one ever smokes here.
Many wonders exist in this cozy place, but one of the prettiest is Grandma’s organ.
It’s made of polished wood, with curved legs. It stands gracefully against the front room wall, under shelves of family mementos and photographs.
Grandma knows how to play it. She has a piano down home in the country, but it was too big to bring to the apartment. When Granddaddy went to work at the shipyard during the War, my grandmother had to leave her piano behind. So, he bought her this organ one Christmas.
He knew how much she loved to play.
One afternoon she says, “I will teach you.”
I am nervous and excited at the same time – I have never touched this organ.
Grandma opens the top. She lowers the little stand that holds a book. She has a booklet of hymns and one of Christmas songs; she places the Christmas book on the stand.
“Watch and listen,” she says, her blue eyes soft and bright. “This is my favorite.”
She plays “Silent Night.”
She sings, and I know the song. I sing some of the words with her:
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.
“Now it’s your turn,” she says.”See these numbers? That’s what you play with your right hand. These circles with letters are the chords – you play the buttons with your left hand.”
She takes my hands in her own.
5,6,5,3 – Si – i -lent night
5,6,5,3 – ho – o -ly night
She puts my fingers on the right keys, pressing the white “C” major button until we switch – gracious! – to “G” and “F.”
I am very slow – it seems a lot to do at one time.
But Grandma guides me, and soon I have played a song.
A whole song.
“Now try it on your own,” she says.
I labor. My keys and my chords are not exactly in sync, but I play. I am playing the song by myself!
Grandma sings behind me. Her voice carries me on.
She hugs me when I finish; I smell her Avon Cachet cream, light and clean.
Her eyes glisten with tears, but she’s smiling.
It was the first of many lessons I’d learn from my grandmother. In those days before I started school, I thought the white major buttons sounded like a wedding; all the minor and diminished buttons sounded like something in haunted houses.
Pretty much the theme music of life – celebrations and dark, mysterious moments. Sometimes I would play the buttons by themselves, listening to the happiness and strangeness of the chords.
I made my own stories out of these sounds.
I realized, decades later, the legacy my grandmother left me: There was always a song of hope and faith in the heart to carry me through the darkest times. That being a wife and mother often meant sacrifice. She was the quintessential teacher, without being formally trained – my foray into the music she loved followed the perfect I do, we do, you do pattern. She guided my fingers on the keys, my feet on the path, my heart on the things that matter most.
Above all, she believed in me.
There’s no greater gift to a child.
When I was in the sixth grade, I was invited to attend a summer program for gifted students in writing, drama, and photography.
My father couldn’t afford the fee.
Grandma paid it. “Children need to have a chance to do things that matter to them,” she said, with a startling ferocity.
Much later I learned that she wanted to take piano lessons when she was in her early teens and that her family couldn’t afford them during the Depression. A young minister’s wife, however, taught my grandmother how to play.
In everything I do, she’s still there behind me, singing, urging me on, never far away. She is gone, yet she isn’t; her song sings in my soul, in time with the beating of my heart. I am who I am because of her.
Today my youngest son – a college student and music minister – plays her piano and sings the old songs. Her organ stands in my foyer – the first thing that people see when they come to my home.
Her legacy lives, from generation to generation.
I often think how thrilled she’d be to hear my boy’s beautiful playing and singing. “Oh, how my Grandma would love to hear this,” I tell him.
Even as I say the words, I know she knows.