There was a time in this country when every home included three things: green shag carpet, an RCA record player and an ashtray. In the late ’60s you could add something else to that list: an upright piano.
And pretty much every child took piano lessons. Money was tight in most households; no matter — parents found a way for piano lessons. That was the case with me and my four siblings. Mom’s major at KU was music education and she played the organ at St. Patrick’s, for weddings and for many music programs at the junior college. And in May 1969, the upright piano got an upgrade: Dad bought mom a baby grand piano — a Kimball.
So naturally it took its place in the center of our home, in the living room, which overlooked the backyard and the lake where we lived.
Many days I would come home from school and before I opened the front door I could hear mom playing away. Her playlist was largely classical — Mozart and Bach — sonatas and minuets in B flat minor. Often we would join her around the piano. On St. Patrick’s Day we would “sing” “Oh Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Libations, I recall, were liberally served.
Music was a central part of our upbringing. Our town put on summer theater and my older sister Kate was in the cast for “The Sound of Music.” It was a red letter day. Rodgers and Hammerstein were like family members; the melodies from Music Man and Oklahoma are branded in my cerebral cortex.
Musicians were cool, thanks in part to The Monkees and The Beatles. But there were other artists who found air time in our home. In 1974, my older sister bought Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get.” The song “Rocky Mountain Way” got heavy rotation on the RCA.
For the most part, Larry and Mona were disconnected from all that was happening to anyone under the age of like, 50, but I do remember my dad declaring off limits The Rolling Stone’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
And the thread that connected us all was the piano. My older sister took lessons at the Dominican convent across the street; for me — the go-to instructor was Mrs. George Tregallis. “She had perfect, ‘Mad Men-esque’ hair, glasses,” my classmate and fellow piano devotee, Marty Murphy, reminded me. “A pretty lady, maybe in her late 60s. I remember getting to play Herb Alpert’s ‘Tijuana Taxi.’ Man, were we cool.”
Mrs. T’s home was a mile from ours and most weeks I rode my bike there. Her place was akin to a museum piece. A brick ranch, with a two-step entrance, manicured lawn, grandfather clock that chimed every 15 minutes and upright piano. Just moving the piano bench through the thick shag required considerable effort. I didn’t practice much but she wasn’t prone to guilt trips; she knew Larry and Ramona and understood that I was taking plenty of tours already.
So of course the piano, lessons and, yes, recitals continued with our children. Our sons loved navigating the Toon Shop catacombs, deep below the Prairie Village piano showroom, which was akin to exploring caves with musical misadventures blasting through the paper thin walls. Through the years the music changed, but the instrument did not.
Recently I read where piano stores are closing, just as the Toon Shop has. One news story quoted a piano store owner this way: “People are interested in things that don’t take much effort, so the idea of sitting and playing an hour a day to learn piano is not what kids want to do.” He noted that “having all the notes laid out in front of you spatially is really an important way to learn music.”
Mom passed away 12 years ago, but that Kimball remains. And 47 years removed from its first arrival, another Keenan took her place on the bench. In January, Maggie played “Pride and Prejudice” for an assembled audience of three — Lori, me and my dad. And all of us took a trip back in time to a much simpler era when those 88 keys, and the loving, devoted woman who sat before them, shaped our lives.
Freelance columnist Matthew Keenan writes on the first and third Wednesday of the month. His book “Call Me Dad, Not Dude, the sequel” is sold at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Visit his blog at matthewkeenan.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.