“In 1836 Heinrich Englehard Steinway built his first piano in the kitchen of his home in Seesen, Germany which is commonly referred to as the “Kitchen” piano. The piano is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
When I inherited Terrill’s Steinway piano, it first went to Alan Day who fixed the sound board, restrung it, then tuned it. When Terrill was dying, he told my father and Uncle Brad, who is not my uncle but acts like one, that he wanted me to have it. He could have given it to better piano players, like Seth Briggs, the son of my 8th grade science teacher, who played the piano as the pre-show entertainment at the Bijou movie theater, one of the last big screens in Vermont at the time. Everybody in town knew Seth and the old timey rag songs he played— the first few notes of “The Entertainer” each night signaling the movie was about to begin. When I was a teenager, Terrill sometimes invited Seth over to play and once my parents called from one of his dinner parties to say come on down, Seth is here. Of course Seth Briggs could play “The Entertainer” far better than I could with my Level 3 piano book and bumbling fingers.
“Keep going,” my mother always called from the other room when I fumbled, stopped, groaning in frustration.
“In 1857, a piano was created with a lavishly carved case and legs. This piano, Serial #1225, is believed to be the first ever Steinway Art Case piano.”
Terrill’s Steinway was over a hundred years old, made in 1880. Alan Day told us you could tell the general period it was made because the piano was supported by fat rolly legs and they dropped that design somewhere in the thirties and yes, when I looked at the only other Steinway I knew – the one in the high school auditorium, what Alan said was confirmed. That piano must have been younger than mine because it had smooth little chicken legs. The kind of skinny that made you wonder how it could hold up all that weight and I knew it weighed a lot because we had to call a special moving company to move the piano once from Terrill’s house to Alan’s workshop and then from Alan’s to my parents’ house and then later to my house with my own family.
“Between 1941 and 1953, STEINWAY & SONS parachuted an estimated 3,000 specially designed upright pianos known as “Victory Verticals” to American soldiers fighting abroad in World War II. The soldiers would gather around the STEINWAY and sing popular American tunes reminding them of home. This not only united them but lifted their spirits during the war.”
Three years after he repaired the piano and some months after his battle with cancer, Alan Day gave me a special herbal concoction to help rejuvenate my body after my own battle and the healing toxicity of six months of chemotherapy that went with it. The juice was dark brown and tasted like old socks and forest floor. I don’t know if it made me hike faster but I imagined it could. I hoped so anyway because I was through with having cancer and was ready to move around more so I drank a capful every day for the next three months.
“At the 58th Street side of the basement is the renowned Steinway “piano bank” where piano professionals come to select instruments they will use in concerts, in recordings, and on tour. As one accomplished concert pianist put it, “There isn’t a first class piano player in the world who does not expect to visit the Steinway Hall concert basement before a New York performance. It is a piano mecca – sort of the center of the piano universe.”
When my parents got married they were going to have a double wedding ceremony with my mother’s brother and all get married together down at the VFW. My mom came from a family of seven kids and this wasn’t just an economical decision. They liked to party. But my parents also wanted something all their own and so Terrill, a Justice of the Peace and a side judge too, married them in his front parlor next to my piano a few days before the big party.
When I was younger I marveled at that word parlor because parlors were reserved for things like Jane Austen novels and Terrill had one in his cold old Victorian house in the center of town where he lived with his aging parents, Ada and Erwin, who everybody called EW. Ada and EW lived downstairs, while Terrill lived upstairs and they were witnesses at my parents’ nuptials. I imagined Terrill did not spend much time in the parlor, favoring the kitchen with its Glenwood stove and black and white checked floor which reminded me of something more like the servant’s quarters but was where Terrill cooked elaborate dinners for everyone. Later I learned that Ada was the first woman to vote in our town.
“There are 12,116 individual parts that make up a Steinway grand piano.”
When my husband and I got married, we didn’t want a big wedding. “Torches at midnight” I repeated to my mother throughout my twenties, preparing her for the sort of low key event I envisioned. I also knew that I might like to get married next to Terrill’s piano the way my parents had, though the living room of their New England Cape was decidedly less grand than the parlor at Terrill’s with its high ceilings and fancy molding. Luckily, this idea was agreeable to my husband who also did not like to be the center of attention. My parents didn’t seem to know what all the fuss was about committing everlastingly to each other next to this piano, fifteen years after Terrill had passed away and thirty-seven years after that day in the parlor with EW and Ada standing witness.
You guys, I must have said to them, you’ve been together all these years. It seems like a nice blessing. Another blessing: the pictures in my mind first of Old Grandpa Ted, who had not attended Terrill’s piano’s first wedding, lifting a glass of champagne to toast us at ours as he sat in his wheelchair with Terrill’s piano lit with candles of varying height behind. And then later, Uncle Brad with his own toast.
“1936: Diaphragmatic Soundboard Design – 1936 Patent #2051663The quality of tonal resonance is directly linked to the quality of the Soundboard. The soundboard is considered the soul of the piano. The Steinway Diaphragmatic Soundboard permits a free and even response throughout the scale. It is thicker in the center and tapered as it approaches the inner rim of the grand piano. This construction not only permits the tone to travel more freely but also displaces a greater amount of air, factors that create a richer and more lasting tone.”
It took six years after that and a renovation project at our house that freed up more space for my parents to insist—with a firmness that meant business—we move the piano from their house to ours. Either that or sell it; it was okay by them, they made clear. They figured it was worth seventy thousand or so though they still quibbled over whether all those years ago Alan Day had said the value would decrease unless they sent it to Steinway for the soundboard repairs. They do remember that Alan said, this is the kind of piano that people like me hope to buy cheap and keep in their backroom and work on over the years and then sell it toward their retirement.
The value is not the money, I told my parents though they knew this. I always tell my husband my parents say they are okay with selling Terrill’s piano because they do not want me to feel guilty if I actually did. Or wanted to. But I will never sell it. It is not a question of guilt. It is a question of story. I will not throw those stories away like that. Babe, my husband says gently. Where are we going to put it? It was true, though we had more room with the renovation we did not have that much more room. Right here, I say, navigating around the oversized chimney that dominates the main room of the house. The chimney, a signature of the Cape Cod architect the previous owners adored, was what the builder called a waste of brick. So, also not a great use of space. We’ll put the piano right here, I say, in the center.
Darcie Abbene is the Managing and Nonfiction Editor at The Green Mountains Review. She has work in Tupelo Quarterly, Whitefish Review, and forthcoming in Teachers and Writers Magazine. She writes book reviews for Necessary Fiction, Split Rock Review and Kirkus Reviews. Darcie is working on a novel and a collection of essays on teaching and just graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program.