Last Things: My Sister's PianoJames V. Schall, S.J. - 07/11/08
My sister Norma Jean has a Baldwin Grand Piano. She acquired it when she and her husband were living in Phoenix in about 1982. It has since moved to Texas, Wisconsin, Oregon, and twice in Southern California. For ten years before Phoenix, she had a console type piano. Before that, ever since I can remember, she had an upright piano that belonged to our mother. My mother died in 1937, when Jeannie was about six years old. Aunt Fran, my mother’s next older sister—my mother had thirteen siblings—told Jeannie that when she was younger, my mother was the only one in the large family who could play the piano. Her parents used to love to hear her play, which she did at family occasions like Christmas and family reunions. This would have been in the big farmhouse outside of Pocahontas, in Iowa.
I can vaguely remember this piano. My mother had taken it with her when she married our father. I was old enough to recall her playing in the house on Main Street in Knoxville, also in Iowa, not long before she died. While I am something of a klutz with regard to music, I was given piano lessons while my mother was still alive. I often have wondered, had she lived, whether I would have learned to play. But my sister Jeannie as she grew up inherited the piano. We all knew it was hers. She learned to play. One of our Schall cousins recalled Jeannie playing when she was quite young. She became better and better as the years went by. She minored in music in college at San Jose State.
When, some five years after my mother’s death, my father remarried a lovely widow with two daughters my own age, I recall often that Jeannie would play in the big front room in the Robinson Street house in Knoxville. She, with our new stepsister, Jeanne Louise, would sing together at Christmas and indeed often. I can still hear them laughing and singing together. Christmas to me means, in terms of memory, Jeanie playing the songs of that season on that piano that had belonged to our mother. Sounds somehow can make things more real than sight. I recall my father sometimes singing, but never realized till now when I think about it that what he sang was probably from the piano that mother played.
When our family moved to San Jose in California in 1945, the piano was boxed and shipped with the other household goods. In a way, the piano still gives me nightmares. When the truck arrived, it backed into the narrow driveway of the McKendrie Street house. My father, brothers, some neighbors, and the truck driver came to the point of unloading the heavy piano. They used a sort of steel track on which to slide the boxed piano down to the ground from the truck. I was stationed next to the house with some bushes alongside.
As the piano came down, it began to tip off the railings in my direction. I could not hold it up. Fortunately, it fell against the bushes and house, thereby saving Schall at an early age from being smashed by his sister’s piano. It taught me a first principle: “You can never be too careful unloading pianos.” If I close my eyes, I can still see the piano tipping over my way. Every human life, I suppose, includes a near miss or two. We call it luck or providence, not that luck does not fall under providence in a sound philosophy.