The Piano

A year and a half ago, I opened a pop-up gallery in Chatham and after my first show was hung, fantasized about hosting concerts in the gallery space I loved so well. The events came together as if pre-planned. Writers, painters and musicians stepped through my door, eager to share their talents, and the Campbells generously loaned their 1929 Chickering piano, no longer played by their daughter Izzy. I remember the night it was brought in, drawing back the cover, tears flowing as I plinked out a few notes. Was this really happening? That gorgeous instrument drew musicians in for the shear pleasure of playing it. It was a time of expansion and joy, bringing the community to my work, my table, and I felt whole and blessed.

The gallery closed as planned and although sad, knew I didn’t want to continue in the same way. A week later, my Mom, who I loved more than anyone on this planet, developed pneumonia which very quickly stole her ability to breath. Rather than being intubated, she courageously chose to let go. I signed the DNR, and my brother Chris and I held her as she struggled with her last breaths. The immense grief experienced was further weighted by a series of losses, each one taking me deeper into an already dark cave. 

For months I sat in solitude, trying to heal and find the light again. On good days, the memory of the gallery concerts reminded me the darkness was not permanent and some day, joy would return. In the mean time, I toyed with the idea of hosting exhibitions and concerts in my upstairs studio and invited musicians to assess the sound. It was gorgeous, the gambrel roof providing a resonate chamber for strings, but was likely too loud for piano. Although well-received by the musicians, I feared the events might feel small rather than intimate, so I put the idea to rest and moved my office back into the space.

This spring, in an effort to help clear the energy of the past, I began selling unused items on-line. One day as I was posting, a piano showed up in my feed. It was a 1927 Chickering. OK, it wasn’t a 1929 as I’d had in the gallery, but my Mother was born in 1927, so I felt compelled to inquire. I should point out, beyond a few lessons as a 9-year-old, I don’t play the piano, wasn’t shopping for one and had no reason to inquire. Except it simply felt good. The piano was still available and I asked my friend Bob, a pianist who played in the gallery, to come with me to try it out. A series of wacky emails followed with the seller (not the owner) whose name isn’t, but sounds like Tina Theresa Piccolino, to determine if the piano would be seen at the owner’s house or the seller’s, and I was given an address in Millerton, about an hour’s drive from my house. And by the way, would I be taking it with me if I liked it and would I mind if the legs weren’t on it?  I assured her that the move would need to involve an actual piano mover and also urged that the legs were important to assess the sound, but knew there was a chance Bob would be playing on the floor, and just hoped it wasn’t a thick shag.

As we pulled into the drive, there was the piano -- on the back of a flatbed trailer hooked to a large diesel truck parked on the lawn. They said because I had insisted on the legs, they had transported the piano upright from the owner’s house in Connecticut and that’s why they thought I should agree to cash and carry. Laughing, young Bob hopped up on the trailer, opened the top and took it for a test drive. For nearly 30 minutes, with a broad grin, Bob serenaded us, the surrounding forest and fortunate cyclists passing on the nearby rail-trail. He expressed enthusiasm while playing and we quizzed the seller about its history, the obvious restoration and its lack of tuning. Very little was known and no paperwork could be found for either the tuning or restoration. Although the work all seemed to be well done, Bob thought it should sound better than what was said to have been a recent December tuning. So I walked away with the understanding “many others” were in line behind me.

Yet I couldn’t leave it. Every time I thought of the piano, something stirred, something closing in on happy. Bob expressed he liked playing it and I had to admit, it felt good just to be next to it. I asked if I could come back and bring a professional piano tuner with me to check it out. I was told another buyer was bringing their tuner early the next day. Again, with no real pony in the race, I suggested they proceed with that buyer and wished them luck. Not surprisingly, that other buyer’s piano tuner had an emergency and couldn’t make it, and I made arrangements to come with mine. The owner of the piano also clarified the latest tuning had been in December of 2017, and it had apparently been transported to Maine for a concert at their daughter’s school. The story of the timing and transport made the lack of tuning more reasonable. Who knew if either were true.

I told the tuner she might be assessing a stolen piano. She rightly pointed out pianos would be difficult to steal, but as she climbed up the step ladder I’d brought, mumbled, “Okay, could be stolen,” and began to tune, check the pin block, pads, strings, and pedals. She asked me to remind her the asking price, and confidently said it was a steal. At which we both laughed, because it might have been exactly that. But what was I doing? I don’t need a piano, and just as I wavered, Tina Theresa Piccolino, casually mentioned, “It’s sad, really. They bought this piano and had it fully restored for their daughter Izzy, who then decided she wanted to ski instead.” “Wait,” I said, “Is this the Campbell’s piano, because they bought it for their daughter Izzy who I hear is a strong skier?” “No,” Tina Theresa Piccolino said, “This belongs to clients of mine in Connecticut. I can’t tell you who they are to protect their privacy. They’re moving and just want it gone.” 

I know what you’re thinking, but this was a 1927, not a ‘29. The Campbell piano was very special, so special, I had it insured for more than my artwork. This piano was dusty, wildly out of tune, what were the odds... and for several days, told friends and neighbors about buying this piano that was meant to be mine because the Universe delivered a second Izzy whose parents bought her a Chickering, had it fully restored and then each Izzy decided to ski instead. Crazy, right? 

My piano mover blinked like a frog in a hail storm when he saw the piano and said of all the pianos he’s moved, none were from a flatbed trailer. As he started to remove the pedals, he casually said, “It’s missing a stick.” “What?” I asked. “It’s missing a stick, one of two that help stabilize to foot pedals...” “I know what the stick is, because that’s the second time you said those exact words to me when moving a piano. The Campbell’s piano also had a stick missing.” And I recounted the story of the Universe delivering a second Izzy, and now a piano with a missing stick. I know what you’re thinking, but this was a 1927, from Connecticut and this Izzy went to school in Maine, not Massachusetts... “This is Izzy’s piano,” proclaimed the mover. Then I became a little nervous. Did the Campbells know? Maybe they’re traveling and these people cleared out their house. Maybe that’s what all the wild stories have been about. I had no cell service in the barn, but thought, “Well, if their house was cleared out, at least they could have their piano back.” I let it be loaded into the moving truck and drove away, after photographing the seller’s license plates. At the first corner I turned around because I had forgotten to get a receipt. The sellers were already gone. 

As soon as I had service again, I stopped to text the Campbells: HOPE YOU FOLKS ARE WELL. UM, ARE YOU MINUS A PIANO? IF SO, I BELIEVE IT’S ON ITS WAY TO MY HOUSE. The response came immediately:  OMG, WHAT ARE THE ODDS?! WE MOVED AND GAVE THE PIANO TO OUR CLEANING LADY, TINA. WISH WE HAD KNOWN, WE WOULD HAVE GIVEN IT TO YOU INSTEAD. Were they kidding? This story alone was worth every penny.

Tears flowed as I drew back the cover and plinked out the first few notes and chords. Was this really happening? What are the odds this gorgeous instrument, the same Chickering that brought music, art, community and joy, would end up in my living room in this circuitous, wacky way, no longer Izzy’s piano, but mine?

It’s like Idaho, simply because it feels good,