The first time I ever touched a grand piano was about 1964.
My piano teacher, Mrs. Evelyn Clites, waited in a straight-backed chair in an outer vestibule. The floor was tiled in tiny black and white squares. Ebony and ivory.
Heaving a big sigh, squaring my thin shoulders and tightening my grip on the unwieldy stack of music books. I opened the massive wooden door, feeling a rush of cold air as I entered the dark auditorium alone. It was an old theater with wooden seats and floor and the smell of wood chips with a top note of camphor. The sharp tap of my footfalls sounded as loud as my thudding heart felt. My path down the aisle to that dimly lit stage seemed to grow longer with each step. I was thirteen.
Too soon, I arrived and walked up onto the big stage. A tall woman sat in a camel-back parsons chair with cabriolet legs, her back to me, gray hair pulled tight into a disciplined bun. I forced my reluctant feet to move. I saw her hands first, tapered fingers beautiful, at rest in her lap. I stood at semi-attention waiting for instructions, watching for a word from her bright red lips.
“Mary Beth Jones, I trust? Here for your Guild audition?” There was a smile in her low, resonant voice, a layer of down to cushion the steel.
“Yes, ma’am,” I stammered.
“May I have your program, please?” she asked, reaching out for my books and the program list. “You may go to the piano now.”
The concert grand piano sat in a circle of light mid-stage. I sat on the upholstered leather bench, so different from the plain wooden familiar to me. I sat with my hands in my lap, knowing without a doubt that I could not possibly remember a single note of any of the ten pieces on my program which I had worked so hard to memorize. The judge could request me to play any of the ten, in any order, or in the case of a sonata, for example, just the second movement. Her choice.
In the seconds before she spoke, I looked at the keyboard. The spotlight enhanced the luminosity of the ivory keys and deepened the blackness of the ebony ones. When the judge requested the Clementi sonatina, I focused, took a deep breath, resettled myself on the bench, placed my hands on the keyboard and paused, internalizing how naturally my hands curved into the warm feel of those keys.
And then there was a blur of joy. I knew the Clementi so well, had so often tapped it out on my knees under my desk while at school, and loved its clarity and speed. But I had never before heard it like it sounded that day, the rumble of bass and flute tones of treble. The great piano’s magical long strings drew me in and called forth my best effort.
After that day, I returned to that same auditorium once a year with a ten piece program until the final year which coincided with high school graduation in 1969. That year the program was fifteen pieces. It included one of Bach’s Three-Part Inventions, which I admire but still find so difficult, pus Beethoven’s incomparable Moonlight Sonata, which holds me in its sway now, as then.
About a year ago, Buck started asking me, “What is something you have always wanted to have or to do?” Each time when he popped that question, I felt a little put off, because I felt as though I should have a ready answer, but didn’t.
Then about six months ago, we had driven downtown to run some errands and have lunch, when Buck pulled over to the curb at a parking meter right in front of Reynalds Music House, a venerable dark cave filled with extraordinary pianos. “Let’s go see what they’ve got,” Buck said. We had talked about buying a baby grand for the new portion of the house once it was completed. Even before Hurricane Ivan, we were looking at about ten months of construction.
We looked at pianos, rejecting the digitals and disklaviers and the tiniest of the baby grands. I felt queasy. This was too serious for me. There was nothing casual about this shopping expedition. “Oh, yes, this one is very nice. Oh, well, of course, that one is fabulous.” I would run my fingers lightly over the keys,, not applying enough pressure to make a sound.
What happened next was vintage Buck. While I was wandering about, acting miscellaneous, he ferreted out the store owner, Joyce Parras, determined that they were both Pensacola natives and grew up just down the lane from each other, then began asking questions, like, “Well, now, Joyce, do you have any pianos here you’re particularly proud of?” And, just like that, the game was afoot. He and Joyce, two old pros, began a verbal dance.
A unique piano was in the store, looking for a home. I didn’t know yet that my initials were figuratively carved in it with a big heart around them.
We kept waiting on our house plans to be completed. Time passed. Two weeks before we went on a trip to Scotland, Buck brought up the subject of pianos again, wondering aloud whether “that” piano really was the deal of the century, as Joyce had promised. It was bigger than we had planned on, and at the moment we didn’t have a place for it. We looked at each other for a long moment. We know each other so well.
“I need to play it and see,” I said.
Reynalds has an awning designed to look like a keyboard. It shades the large display windows. Joyce was out for a few days when we returned, but Buck talked to her son and partner, Nilo, while I played several of the pianos. The were all lovely and sounded great. But when I played a portion of the first movement of Moonlight Sonata on the Yamaha C-6, an unexpected rush of covetousness took hold of me. I know my ear lobes must have turned red, as they always do when I’m in the grip of some strong emotion. But I kept my powder dry while we were still in the store.
Buck asked Nilo to have Joyce call us when she returned next week and we would talk some further about it.
“Well?” he asked me when we were back in the car. I couldn’t help grinning. “I guess it’s true, after all. Size really does matter! Wow. What a phenomenal instrument. I could hear a concert hall in that sound.”
Once home, Buck began to figure. He asked me to get the piano’s exact dimensions from the Yamaha website. Then he got out his Fat Boy steel measuring tape and went to work measuring our small house up one side and down the other. I just stood back. I have seen him do this sort of thing before and I knew it for what it is: pure genius at work.
“We can do it,” he announced. “Come look.” Whereupon he laid out the most amazing scheme to move his late mother’s beloved old Baldwin Acrosonic spinet around the corner into our bedroom, rearranging that room’s contents, and slip the grand into a reorganized space in the living room.
Joyce called later in the week, she and Buck made the deal and we flew off to Scotland. Reynalds Music House is in the heart of downtown Pensacola, on Garden Street one building away from Palafox Boulevard, She and their staff put steel shutters over those big display windows ahead of Hurricane Ivan’s landfall (which happened while we were out of the country). My piano and the others didn’t get a drop of rain on them. Just to be sure, Nilo cinched tarps over them all before the storm hit.
Many wonderful pianos in this community were drowned during the storm, their sound boards soaked, and others were broken by falling objects. My own Black Beauty was delivered Wednesday, the movers placing it right in the spot Buck had measured for it. The night before it was delivered I don’t think I slept a wink.
Its shiny black shape and stunning sound has added yet another persona to our high tech hunting lodge: sleek Manhattan pad. And with its arrival, something shifted in the tectonic plates and our cottage became Home. Yes, we’ll still add to it. The plans are progressing again. Our decision has been made: we’ll stay right here until the project is built. Our stored stuff in North Carolina can stay safely where it is. We have much more than a full cup at this very moment.
As for Buck, he knew the dream that was in my heart, so deep only his love could see it, gently bring it to the surface, weave the strands together and make it come true for me. And that he did.
Here’s the sexy beast . . .