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A Big Old Beautiful “Piano” is in Your Life—but It Can’t Stay

Mar 07, 2018 // By Marcus Brotherton

This is the piano that was passed down from one generation to another in our family since 1904.  It was big and beautiful, but at last, it needed to go.

You value something immensely.

But you can’t use it anymore.

What then?

Many years ago, in the foothills of the wild wheat country of Montana, a little girl named Kitty Lynes was born. She was the child of my great-great grandparents, one of her shoulders was humped and misshapen from birth, and she always limped, I am told.

Kitty could not run with the other children, and doctors could do nothing for her. So in 1904 her parents bought her a fantastic gift:

A piano.

Huge. Upright. Polished. With scrolls and flowers, and real ivory keys. Painted in gold letters, the front panel read “Kimball, Chicago,” and when it was new, it was said that the wood of that piano shined like the shank of a chestnut mare.

The piano gave Kitty the gift of music, but even more, it gave her the gift of joy. For hers was a short life. She died at age 19, and in grief, and perhaps out of financial necessity, my great-great grandparents sold the piano to a neighbor for $125, with the agreement that it could be bought back for the family at any time for the same price.

A generation passed. With it, World War I, and half the Roaring Twenties.

In 1925, after my great-grandfather Rob Lynes had grown and was married, he and his wife Blanch had six children, and Blanch heard about the piano. She wanted her children to have music, so during the summer of 1925 she took an extra job, working in a beet dump. All summer she labored in the heat and the dust. When the beets were harvested, the job ended. Her wages totaled $125. She bought back the piano.

My grandfather, Bob Lynes, was one of Blanch’s six children. The piano was theirs again. The Depression cancelled any hopes for money for music lessons, but the kids taught themselves how to play by ear. Those were the days before music was readily available. Your family might have one radio, but if you wanted the joy of music in those days, you made it yourself.

Another generation passed. With it the Great Depression, and World War II.

My grandfather, Bob, grew up and married, and in 1945 when his wife Hazel became pregnant with her third child, Bob and Hazel bought the piano from Bob’s parents for $75. My mother was Bob and Hazel’s second child. Mom remembers, when she was just 5 years old, driving with her dad the 350 miles over dirt roads in their old Chevy truck to bring the piano home.

The piano was tied with ropes and draped in tarps within the truck’s bed, and when they were almost back to the ranch, they found rains had turned the road to mud, and the truck got stuck. They needed to walk home. Mom remembers glancing over her young shoulder, watching as the piano grew smaller and smaller on the wide prairie. The next day, her dad came back with his tractor and pulled the truck out.

For the next 50 years that piano stood in my grandparents’ home. It was the piano my mother learned to play on. So did her younger sister, Ruth, who grew up to become a professional musician.

I remember that piano as a kid. We lived in British Columbia, and once a year, we drove the 14 hours to my grandparents’ house near Great Falls for a visit. I grew up taking piano lessons and remember banging out “The Entertainer,” the classic Scott Joplin rag, in an impromptu family recital. My grandparents both cheered and asked me to play it again.

Years of good use passed, then in the summer of 1995, when I was 26, my grandparents were downsizing, and they offered the piano to me.

I was speechless.

What a remarkable gift.

The piano was again tarped and tied, secured in a U-Haul trailer, and carted the 750 miles from Great Falls to Bellingham, Washington, where I shared an apartment with two other dudes.

And here’s where the story takes a bit of a twist.

Over the next few years, I moved that piano 6 times. The behemoth could not simply be carried. I learned how to rent piano dollies and hoists and call in favors from all my friends.

Once, I lugged that thing, with a crew of 5 guys, up a flight of outside stairs to the second floor of a rental house. We winched it up with climbing ropes, and all 5 guys were sweating and straining. We needed to remove and later rebuild the staircase railing so the piano could pass.

Sure, I loved that piano. I genuinely respected the enormous heritage reflected in that musical instrument.

But have you ever been 26 and owned a huge, heavy, upright?

Fast forward to 2017. My own son, Zach, was ready to take piano lessons. My wife and I were more settled in our living arrangements, and part of that means I work from home. My son would need the kind of piano where he could wear headphones to practice in the afternoons.

Sadly, by then, the generations of heat and cold and moving and aging had inflicted permanent damage on the old family piano, and it could not hold a true pitch anymore. Keys were chipped. Notes stayed either flat or sharp. No amount of professional tuning would remedy the problem. I had a piano master examine it, and he sighed the way veterinarians do when a beloved family pet needs to be put down.

“You’ll need to replace all the insides,” he said. “It’ll cost as much as a brand-new piano. And those chipped and missing ivory keys are another issue entirely. You simply can’t buy replacement ivory anymore. It’s illegal.”

It was time for a decision.

Carefully, I asked a few family members what we should do. There was no easy answer. The piano was steeped in memories, and it felt crass to consider selling it. Even to give it away. Scrapping it was out of the question.

What would you have done?

One of the hardest decisions you’ll ever make is when you value something immensely, but you know it needs to go.

Perhaps your garage is packed to overflowing, and a sale is in order. Or your volunteer role has become tedious and you need to resign. Or an activity or a relationship has become overwhelming and you need to back away.

Maybe your best seasons of effectiveness have passed in your job and you need to move on. Or maybe an organization you love doesn’t serve its purpose anymore, and you need to free yourself so you can join and serve elsewhere.

From a negative perspective, you could curse that useless weight. The thing you once loved cannot do the very thing it was designed to do.

But a better plan is to view it from a positive perspective. Unless you leave something behind, you can never fully go forward. Your needful step becomes a release.

For us, my younger cousin, Austin, offered to take in the piano, and our baton was passed. The piano found a new home with lots of love, broken keys and all, and perhaps someday the resources for rebuilding.

I so appreciate the sacrifices made over the years so that piano could stay in our extended family. And I so dearly treasure the solid family traditions and values that piano represented.

But the larger lesson I learned was that few things ever stay in our lives forever.

Sometimes, simply, it’s time for a different story to begin. So you value the thing while you have it. You promise to hold it closely in memory after its gone. You pray that anything vital would be kept intact during the transition.

Then—and this can be the hardest step of all—you must open your hand.

And let it go.

Question: what kind of piano have you let go of?

 

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HI, I'M MARCUS BROTHERTON,

the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.