The Story of a piano

Family History

Like most other people born in the 1930s, my parents grew up poor. My mother came from a low-income family with five children. Her mother was physically disabled and spent most of her latter years bedridden, leaving my mother’s older sisters to run the household and take on parental responsibilities their mother was unable to fulfill.

The family did not have much, certainly not enough for anything as frivolous as a musical instrument, but what they lacked in material wealth they made up for spiritually. Like most folks from their community, the church, a close-knit family, food and music was at the heart of everything.

As a music lover my mom made a promise to herself then that when she started a family all her children would learn to play an instrument. In 1975 when my eldest sister was eight years old and money allowed, she and my dad made good on that promise and purchased a dark wood, Ibach upright piano from a store in Wynberg.

Back then a thousand rand was a fortune for someone on a teacher’s salary but my mom was determined. That was to become the instrument that we would all learn to play on.

Both my parents and my older sisters have great singing voices and we would sing in three-part harmony whilst doing the dishes in the days before television. Even after the TV arrived the singing continued. We all learned our musical chops in church.

We made our way methodically through the Anglican songbook until with pride we could hold our own from the first few chords with only intermittent glances at the hymn sheets, something we did just to impress my dad, who of course, knew all the words by heart.

Musical influences

My mother had a fan-crush on Mario Lanza and our non-liturgical diet consisted of crooners like Astaire, Sinatra and Kelly from old black and white movie musicals, every piece of musical theatre from early Hans Christian Anderson to the Sound of Music and several well used versions of the Reader’s Digest Songbook packed with standards and show tunes.

We were also faithful radio heads and being a 70s baby, disco, Motown and rhythm and blues were my regular menu items. An appreciation of jazz was to come later, an unintended gift from my eldest sister, and in it’s wake the addiction that was 80s pop.

My father’s mother, who lived with us when I was little, used to tolerate endless hours of me listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’ (an early favourite) and Dione Warwick (from her Bacharach days) on a blue and silver, 45” suitcase-style, fold-out turn table, which my parents bought me when I was 5. This was the musical backdrop to marathon card games during which she endured unadulterated cheating on my part and endless but creative reworkings of the rules of rummy.

These were to be my earliest love affairs with music and ‘creative’ writing.

As promised my sisters both learned the piano as well as the tenor recorder and flute and in fairness are far more accomplished musicians than I am. I took to the piano but ‘dropped out’ of formalised teaching early, in preference for learning at my sisters’ feet (or hands) and ‘doing my own thing’ which was how my writing started. I already knew then that singing was in my DNA.

Both my sisters eventually married and moved away. The upright stayed behind and me along with it. Then began the long hours of storytelling together. After university, I moved out of home and the upright came with me spanning a period of roughly 20 years during which we continued to write together.

About a year ago I renovated my home and now with fewer walls left to host a conspicuous upright, it sadly had to return to my parent’s home. She now occupies pride of place in the family room next to the kitchen, a familiar friend in the city of memories that is the story of my family.

I am unashamedly her citizen.
She gave me these stories.