The Keys to My Heart

My fitful, torrid, and now steadfast affair with an ivory-clad lover.
The Keys to My Heart
AH, YOUNG LOVE: The author with her first piano, a Kohler and Campbell spinet, before a recital in 1956.

My husband sometimes smokes a cigar after dinner on our side porch while I entertain my lover in the living room. John has tolerated and even encouraged this relationship since we were in our thirties. It’s hard to compete with a sophisticated old flame, now 79, who is fluent in Italian, Spanish, German, French, and Russian; knows Cole Porter and George Gershwin; and always wears a tux. Born of German immigrant stock during the Depression in New York City and transplanted to Texas in 1978, this elegant charmer came to my attention by way of a Dallas Morning News classified ad in 1980. The voice, the touch, the wide, toothy grin made my heart race. What would it take to get this beguiling character into my life? All the money Doubleday paid me for my first book? And what would the children think?

There had been pianos in my life before I moved this seductive ebony 1932 Steinway Model M into our home one September thirty years ago, but none so handsome or responsive. I warned the children that in case of fire, they should get themselves out quickly, because Mommy would be in the living room shoving the piano through the front windows.

I probably first noticed pianos as a preschool child at the First Baptist Church in my hometown, Texarkana. Every Sunday school room had one, for marching us little Christian soldiers in and out of various activities. I didn’t know that Schubert’s “Marche militaire” and the triumphal march from Aida weren’t Baptist tunes until high school. Our neighbors, the Prud’hommes, allowed me to plink around on their seldom-played parlor grand with the cracked and yellowed ivory keys, until my parents finally relented and bought me a Kohler and Campbell spinet when I was five. Our relationship was sensuous from the beginning. The smell of new piano keys still transports me to my earliest childhood. In piano showrooms even now, I always hope that the salesperson will get a phone call and leave me alone for a good sniff.

You might think that with this sort of early obsession I would be extraordinarily accomplished. I began lessons so young that my feet, dangling far above the pedals, had to be propped on a large box. Mrs. Gibson, my teacher, who looked a lot like George Washington, led me from “Here we go, up a row, to a birthday party” to the more exotic “From a Wigwam,” the last piece in John Thompson’s Teaching Little Fingers to Play, with some alacrity. Playing my first sharp on a black key in a little piece called “Paper Ships” was so intoxicating that I played the same three lines incessantly. To this day, my older brother has flashbacks of this insipid melody.

My parents had no formal music training. They knew thirties and forties hit-parade tunes and loved the bounciest Baptist hymns. My father’s aspirations for my piano playing mainly included two pieces: Malotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer” and the pop standard “September Song.” My mother selected my piano teachers based not on their conservatory training but on their proximity. “Can she walk to lessons?” was the determining factor. I had to bid Mrs. Gibson goodbye when we moved closer to my parents’ newspaper office. The new teacher within walking distance was Edward Walters, who, as luck would have it, had trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston. Mr. Walters, who had surely dreamed of a concert career, instead had to listen to me lie about my practice chart and plod through “In a Spanish Garden” on his Baldwin grand. He never struck fear in my heart the way I think fine music teachers must. In fact, during my adolescent years, he became my favorite confidant, hearing me dither, no doubt, over whether I should cut my bangs or just get a perm. He caved in to my whining about Beethoven sonatinas and allowed me to play “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel, and Eddie Fisher’s “Dungaree Doll” instead. I did reach an intermediate level of playing with him. I am a competent sight reader, because people who lie about their practicing have to be. By eighth grade, music lessons gave way to all the things the Tiger Mom forbids: cheerleader practice, crushes on boys, sleepovers, and school plays. I never stopped loving the piano; I just didn’t do my scales.

When I left for college, my very practical mother, without consulting me, sold my little spinet, perhaps to pay my tuition. Finding a writing desk in its place during the Thanksgiving holiday so outraged me that I registered for a private piano class at the University of Texas at Austin the following semester. I’d show her. I locked myself in those dungeon-like practice rooms in the basement of the Littlefield House, on campus, and exhibited a zeal for my lessons that would have astounded Mr. Walters. I relearned rudimentary music theory, met polyrhythms, and finally played pieces with serious names like “prelude” and “fugue.” My college teacher said I had some musicality, but we both knew I lacked the early rigor that underlies fine piano technique. At the end of a year, I recognized I wasn’t up to college-level juried recitals, so I gave up the lessons and played whatever was in the piano bench at the sorority house.

But my affair with the piano was not over. It simply lay dormant while I dallied with keyboards of another kind. I had an exhausting fling with a sexy Italian Olivetti portable, followed by a more sedate relationship with an IBM Selectric, whose only appeal was an ability to absolve me of my typos. I poured my heart into them, yet neither figured ultimately in my dreams. Serious longings for a piano resurfaced when my first child was born. I thought having a piano as an intellectual companion to fill the long hours when babies do nothing but sleep would give me back a piece of the girl I

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