June Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille


 

THE PIANO PLAYER
by Susan G. Butruille

My dad, Dr. R.J. (Griff) Greffenius, taught me how to play the piano. I remember the metronome's arm ticking back and forth on top of the upright piano Mother and Dad bought used when they married in 1935. Dad would sit beside me, counting with the metronome to make sure I got the rhythm right.

That was one thing about Dad. You had to get it right. To this day, if there's one thing I can get right when I play the piano, it's counting. Another thing I get right is the feel for the song. I didn't get that from Dad though. I got it from Mother. I learned how to feel the song from listening to Mother sing while Dad or I played.

The night I met the piano player, Mother and I weren't thinking about music. We were thinking about Dad. The doctors at the hospital had told us he would live only a few more days. We'd been with Dad all day, reading and talking to him, playing some of his favorite recorded music.

That night Mother and I needed a refuge from our vigil so we escaped to a quiet restaurant. We sat down, ordered wine, gazed at the menu, couldn't think of much to say. Our thoughts were back at the hospital. Slowly, the mellow notes of a piano filtered into our consciousness. We began to realize that whoever was playing the piano was reviewing Mother and Dad's life together, in the music they lived and loved and danced to.

We listened in silence to "Stardust."

"The piano player puts such feeling into that song," Mother said, breaking our silence. "I think we danced to it the first time we met." Her eyes glistened. "We met at a dance, you remember."

Mother smiled as her memory glided back in time to the small Colorado town where the pretty blond college coed danced with the tall, handsome forest ranger. "He wasn't a very good dancer then," Mother said as the piano player continued with strains of "Dancing in the Dark."

"Your dad didn't feel the music like I did," she said. "I learned how to dance from my dad, just by getting the rhythm of it. But your dad learned by counting: slow . . . slow . . . quick . . . quick . . ." So they learned to dance together -- Mother feeling it, Dad counting.

Now the piano player, without being asked, was playing all of Mother's requests. "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" . . . "Anniversary Waltz" . . . "A Cottage for Sale" . . . "The Man I Love" . . . "April in Paris" . . . Most of the songs were from the '30s, when Mother and Dad married, learned to dance together, started their family, and welcomed my brother, their first child. Some songs were from the '40s, when I was born.

Mother and Dad danced through their lives together, not always in rhythm. But any sour notes they shared never sounded on the dance floor. Wherever they lived, they were the most elegant dancers in town.

Mother and I finished our food and wine to the accompaniment of my parents' musical past. Soon it was time to leave. But first I had some unfinished business. I made my way to the bar where a man about my age sat at the piano. He was playing "Tenderly." As the tune ended he glanced in my direction. I explained about my dad, and told the piano player how much his music had meant to my mother and me.

"I'm so sorry," he said. I could tell he was a lot more comfortable playing the piano than offering sympathy to a stranger. He positioned his hands over the keys, ready to play another song. Then he turned to me.

"You know," he said, "sometimes you sit here and make the music, and you wonder if anyone's listening. If anyone cares."

He thought for a moment. "Tell your mother this one's especially for her." And he began to play again.

"Thanks for the memories . . ."

Thank you so much.

Mother and I drove back to the hospital. To say thanks to Dad. For the memories. For the music.

There's a post script to this story. Sometime after Dad died, I sent a copy of this story to the piano player, addressed to him in care of the restaurant. I soon received a letter -- not from him but from his mother. The piano player had died of a heart attack the month before. In her letter, his mother told me that her son had come home one night with a smile on his face. "I think I helped someone tonight," he told her. The news of his death deepened the loss I already was feeling. But I was glad I had thanked the piano player.


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