Joco Opinion

Ellen Murphy: A family’s history lives on, locked behind 88 keys

This piano is he Forrest Gump of our house: It heard every discussion, appraised every boyfriend, performed every holiday and endured every grandchild’s sticky pounding.
This piano is he Forrest Gump of our house: It heard every discussion, appraised every boyfriend, performed every holiday and endured every grandchild’s sticky pounding. SUBMITTED PHOTO

When we were kids, Dad took us for walks through Reservoir Hill in Tulsa, Okla., close to our neighborhood. For some reason, he knew there was an empty house with a piano in it up there, and he just walked through the garden gates and went in so we could play it. This never seemed strange to us, and for years we referred to it as the ghost house.

Now the only thing left in the house I called home from age 9 is a 100-year-old piano. It started out life as a player and was converted sometime before 1960 to a regular keyboard. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been in an empty old house with only a piano in it, but if you haven’t, you should find such a thing and stay put until you get the heebie-jeebies.

Then have someone play it. Not you, because you should be standing in another room, preferably on another floor, when this someone jangles the keys. And this someone could be physically present in the house or, better, the possessor of ghostly fingers.

Despite her minimalist approach to furnishings, Mom decided to use the little bit of money she received after her dear grandmother died, to buy a piano for her family. By 1960, she had five daughters, and in a few years, she would have seven. She found a piano she could afford in a second-hand store somewhere in west Tulsa and had it delivered to the house on north Main Street.

It is made from dark-brown stained hard woods and veneers, and was built by the Aeolian Company in New York, which is most assuredly the first thing that attracted replanted New Yorker Mom to it. Centered in faded gold paint over the middle octave are the words STROUD Duo-Art-Pianola. It’s called an upright grand, to distinguish it from a regular upright or spinet, or a concert grand. It weighs more than 700 pounds, is 41/2 feet tall, and it’s got features on it that once you’ve been roommates with it you can never forget.

The top is hinged, so you can stand on the bench and open it and look in. And hide something, which was a much-practiced opportunity in the house with seven girls. There is an access plate down low, over the very useless pedals, which can be opened and crawled in, if you are that kind of girl. There are the double sliding doors which, when parted, allow you to watch the hammers dancing back and forth as you play.

When it was moved into the “new” house in 1967, its resting place was the very first room inside the door, which was a front porch when the house was built in 1924. We can only surmise that the moving crew made the decision, and no one challenged them (and surprisingly, it didn’t fall right through the floor). It’s sat just across from the front door against the wall for 48 years. In 1972, I split off from my lifelong roommate, sister Kris, and inhabited the rest of that front room as my own, so the piano was my furniture during high school and on every school break until 1981.

The Forrest Gump of our house, it heard every discussion, appraised every boyfriend, performed every holiday and endured every grandchild’s sticky pounding. If you peered in the front window, the piano stared back at you. Oldest sister Mary Jo painted the hammers dayglo hippie colors in the 1960s, which they still are. Yes, it is the coolest thing you ever saw.

I advertised the piano as free on the awful medium of you-know-who’s-list because there’s really no way to find a value for something like it. Oddly, or maybe fittingly, it drew the most bizarre people (ALL of whom own pickup trucks). One wanted to know whether anyone had died in the house near the piano. He never got a straight answer. Obviously not a good fit.

With Dad’s death last May, and then Mom’s in January, we’ve now got a ghost house of our own, our boisterous family’s soundtrack sealed up in that old player, the sole resident left at home.

Freelance columnist Ellen Murphy writes in this space once a month.

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