Piano Dad

He was given no choice. My grandparents forced him to take piano lessons. And my dad hated it.

But then something clicked. His spirit and soul connected with the spirit and soul of that giant stringed instrument. His fingers figured out how to tickle the ivories, and his ears learned how steal any tune he heard, and send it through his heart and onto the keyboard. And he went from piano pouter to piano child prodigy.

My dad had a happy-go-lucky, jocular personality. And he could charm anyone. His motto all his life was, “Make someone smile at least once a day.”

And he could do that with a piano. Whenever he would spot a lonely old upright or grand, sitting dusty and forgotten in some corner, whether it be in a bar, a restaurant, or somebody’s home, he’d meander over inconspicuously, casually wipe the dust off with his hands, then sit down and start tapping out a slow, hesitant tune.

And then gradually, as his fingers found their rhythm, and as his soul resonated with the great musical beast before him, that tune would build. Before long he’d be in full form, pounding out old standbys, with improvised riffs and harmonies lifting the atmosphere.

A crowd would draw near, and he’d take requests. If he couldn’t remember the tune, he’d ask the requester to hum or sing a few lines. Then his ear would catch it and transform it to the ivories, and you’d swear he’d been playing that song all his life.

A few years before I was born, he was laid off from his job as a machinist. He had kids to clothe, mouths to feed, and bills to pay. So he walked into a bar in Los Angeles and asked what they’d pay him to play their piano.

They allowed him to play for tips.

Night after night the tip jar overflowed, as large crowds were drawn to the bar. He became so popular, it seemed perhaps my dad had discovered a new profession.

But one wassailing evening, after he’d finished burning up the keys, a couple of goons paid him a visit. They asked to see his union card. But he didn’t belong to the local musician’s union. So they gave him the unmistakable message that if he did not join quickly, his fingers would be fixed so that he’d never play a piano again.

Dad said, “to hell with it.” Aerojet was hiring machinists, and they wanted him. He refused to join that damned musician’s union. Instead his fingers returned to metal, and let the ivories be.

My mom and dad divorced when I was two. So when I grew up, he was that charming, funny guy who showed up once-in-awhile and took me to fun places like Disneyland. I loved him, and always felt glad to see him come, and sad to see him go.

When I was eleven years old I attended Cottonwood Elementary school. It was way out in the sticks, and was the last one-room school in Riverside County, California. This old schoolhouse, built in 1897, had a lonely, dusty old piano languishing in the corner. Our schoolteacher didn’t know how to play it, so our music lessons consisted of singing songs A Cappella.

Cottonwood Elementary, where I attended Sixth Grade.

Every morning our 27 little lungs, from first to sixth grade, belted out tunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, such as The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, and Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.

One day I stepped inside the schoolhouse while on recess, and there was my dad, paying me a surprise visit. And with him were my brother and sisters, whom he’d pulled out of classes at their high school. He had to do this on the sly, as a surprise visit, because he was behind in child support. My mother had no idea he was in town.

After a few minutes of hugs and jokes, Dad spotted the piano. And true to form, he quietly gravitated toward it, casually wiped the dust with his hands, and started to play, sitting all alone at the keyboard. And his smile quota for the whole year must have been satisfied in that moment, with the beaming look that appeared on my schoolteacher’s face.

Before long my entire class, and my brother and sisters, were all singing songs from Oklahoma!, as Dad hammered out the tunes on the keyboard. He didn’t know all the songs, but we’d just start singing and he’d catch on quick. His fingers danced. The harmonies were lively and full. And our glee at finally being able to sing with that old piano, gave our faces ear-to-ear smiles.

The walls of that old schoolhouse were in danger of being shaken down, with the music we made that day, and I had never felt more proud of my dad than at that moment.

When Dad got into his late sixties, he realized that arthritis was robbing him of his ability to play. And he knew how much his kids loved to hear his music.

So he paid a professional studio to record him, playing his favorite tunes on their grand piano. He was only allowed one long take, from first tune to last. If his arthritic fingers caused him to screw up, too bad. He had to improvise a riff to cover for the error, and move on.

Fortunately, he could still force his stiff old digits to manipulate the keyboard for the duration. And soon, each of us kids got a CD of 30 piano tunes, courtesy of our maestro father.

My dad has been gone for seven years now. But sometimes when I miss him I play that CD. Thanks Dad, for such a wonderful gift.

And now I have a gift for him, on this Father’s Day. I want to help him fill his daily quota of making at least one person smile.

So for your listening pleasure (on the chance that you may like it), here is my dad’s rendition of Home on the Range:

Categories: Family

69 replies »

  1. It’s a struggle to understand our parents after they divorce and can’t seem to stay united in our favor. I’m very glad you have good memories – especially that one great memory – in spite of the conflicts that may have prevented a relationship you and your father might have longed for.

    I love that he had the idea of getting the CD made! I’m so glad you shared it with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. When I was growing up, I always wished they’d get back together. But after a few years of adulthood I understood the split better. My mother was difficult to live with, and my dad was a philanderer. They would have been better off never marrying each other, or anyone else, in the first place.

      That CD was a great idea of my dad’s, and it helps evoke memories that I’ll treasure the rest of my life.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. i’m touched by this sweet
    musical, father tribute, Tippy!
    how wonderful having him
    in your life, albeit part time.
    that’s an upbringing i can relate to.
    may the sweet notes of his memory
    play on 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well you did it, you made me speechless.

    Ok not totally speechless, but…this is a very touching tribute post about your Dad! Its wonderful that you have so many great memories of him! Thank you for sharing him with us, and I love his motto! 🙂

    Gifts from the heart, like the CD he gave you, have got to be the best gifts of all! Gifts that can’t be bought in the store, that have such a personal connection, melt my heart. I have a special CD that was given to me by a dear friend, one that they made. Its a treasure.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. That was great, Tippy. Your dad was quite the musical talent! The way he tickles the ivories, the little flourishes and improvisation, reminded me of a friend who played everything by ear. Take home lesson: Gifts are meant to be shared, to put smiles on faces and make memories. Well done, a lovely tribute to your dad. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks. It was always a thrill to hear my dad play. It takes a special talent to play by ear, and we appreciated him sharing his talent with us. The CD was a very thoughtful gift, but he was always thinking of his kids. And now the CD helps us to think back on him.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great story.

    I am currently trying to build some of these memories in my kids minds that they can enjoy in years to come.

    The best that I can say for my own father was at least he did the least he could do.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. All smiles. He was very much a talent. What a wonderful gift he gave you in that CD. Sorry you lost him.

    Has my memory showed up? Have I read this story before minus playing the music for us?

    Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love this part: “He didn’t know all the songs, but we’d just start singing and he’d catch on quick. His fingers danced. The harmonies were lively and full.”Beautiful to listen to. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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