by Rosemary Peterson, Apr 18, 2019
One day I realized that my friend, Rosemary, was a naturally gifted storyteller. And it dawned on me that I should ask her if I could record some of her stories. She agreed and I went to Seattle with my trusty Sony Walkman. This was the last of five... R. Whitaker
I want to tell you one more story. This one is about old people; this is about my mother. When I was a little girl, my mother was a beautiful pianist. She had nine children and we lived on a farm, but we had a piano. And one of the wonderful moments was when we’d drag her from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron, to sit down at the piano in the evening and play. She played so much from memory. We were poor. The music sheets had been lost. We had a small farmhouse with eleven people in it. They were difficult years. But anyway, she would play and we all loved it. She played one piece that was particularly wonderful called “Black Hawk Waltz.”
Later, when she was old and we were living on the farm in Minnesota, she would come for the summer and stay with us. It started when she was eighty and my father had died. She would go out, disappear, and gather fruit that had been dropping from the trees. I’d say, “Where’s mom?” And she’d come back with her apron full of apples and whatever else she found.
She’d work all summer and each summer, as she got older, she got a little less strong. For years, it was just like Katherine’s Kitchen. She’d work all day. She canned. There were hundreds of jars of jam she’d put up. She’d bake bread and pies and put them in the freezer for the winter when she’d leave to San Diego where she stayed with my sister.
The last summer when she came, she’d really started to deteriorate. She was eighty-six. She’d gotten very frail. But she was coming, and as I was driving down the street one day in Minneapolis near this warehouse and I noticed a sign that said “Pianos.” They were having a sale and suddenly I thought, “I’m going to buy my mother a piano!” So I called my husband at work and said, “Sweetie, I just wanted to tell you that I’m going to buy a piano.”
He said, “But you don’t play the piano.”
I said, “I’m going to go buy a piano for mom!” Well I would never make a large purchase without our both agreeing.
He said, “We could rent a piano.”
I said, “No. She has to have her own piano.” And he didn’t argue anymore [laughs]. So I got a friend who knew pianos very well and he helped me pick one out, a little Baldwin upright with a wonderful tone.
They delivered it and I set my mother’s place up on the floor level of our farmhouse with these big windows looking out towards the marsh. She had her little suite down there. It was a great space for her and I just couldn’t wait to show her the piano.
So she arrived and I said, “Look, mom, what I got for you!”
She sat down and could not remember a thing. It was gone. I was sad. But there was nothing.
So I got some music pieces, almost beginner pieces. She would sit and try, but it was gone. It was very sad. I was kind of at a loss as to how I might help her. I’d had this fantasy of her playing music again like she did when I was little.
Well, I was upstairs working one day and downstairs I heard this repetitive note striking. It was in the high octaves, like a high E. Way high—just this one note: ping. [with pauses between notes] Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. And it captured me, this sound.
I slowly came downstairs to see what she was doing. She was sitting at the piano, and she was looking out the window. There was a bush outside the window. In the bush, with some little flowers on it, was a little bird. My mother was looking at the bird.
And the bird was looking at her. My mother would strike the note, ping—and the bird would chirp.
I said, [whispers] “What are you doing?” [still whispering] And she said, “Ssshhhh… We’re talking to each other.”
[Very quietly] She would hit the note, ping. And the bird went chirp. [with pauses] ping… chirp… ping… chirp…
I s-l-o-w-l-y backed away. And I slowly went back up the stairs with my heart singing.