My mother worked long days on the farm, but when she had a few minutes to herself, she spent them at the keys of the upright piano that took up half the north wall of our living room.
Spare time usually came only after the supper meal had been served and the pots, pans and dishes washed, dried and stacked away. Feeding and caring for a working husband and five active, growing kids consumed much of her time, day after day.
She played mostly by ear, although she taught herself to read some music. She played show tunes and big-band songs and more tunes about Ireland than most people know were ever written. When I was quite young, before I started school, I can remember rolling around the living room floor while my mother played piano. Her daytime playing came in brief moments — while a cake or pie baked, or while she waited for a pot of water to heat. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but after I grew up and left the home place, I could see that my mother snatched a few moments here and a bit of time there, just to make the music she loved.
The poet Maya Angelou is credited with having said, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.’’
My dad never heard of Angelou, as far as I know, but I’m sure he’d have understood what she felt. He recognized that in his spouse when she took a break and coaxed one melody after another from the chipped keys of the black, thick-legged piano. He told me so, in his way, once when we were trying to fix a hinge on the south gate in our yard. It was a warm evening. The windows were open throughout the house, and as we worked, the music my mother played flowed out of the living room and across the yard. Dad paused, pliers forgotten in one hand, head cocked toward the house.
“Hear that?’’ he asked. “Your mother uses her music to work out her feelings. Whether she’s happy or sad or lonely, she can sit at the piano and make the music say what she’s feeling. It’s really a gift.’’
My dad was no slouch himself with music. He played accordion quite well, and he had a strong, true tenor voice that soared in a church choir, that laughed and cried as he sang along to some of his wife’s Irish ballads. Looking back, I can see that he had a gift of using music to express his feelings, too.
For many years I played in a folk group at church and a dance band around the Pierre area with a big-hearted music lover named Larry. He played bass, both upright and electric. He sang bass, too, with a voice as deep as a river and as booming as a cannon shot. In our church group, we played for more funerals than I can count. Larry told me he liked to be part of a choir at funerals, in spite of how sad those occasions were. He said he wasn’t good at expressing his feelings to grieving people in person, but through the music he hoped he was telling them what he felt and he hoped that would be some comfort.
My college roommate, a psychology major who enlisted in the Army in the late 1960s and served in Vietnam, began taking saxophone lessons late in life. He’d always wanted to play an instrument. I don’t know if he became a gifted sax player, but he was good enough to be part of a big band out in Idaho where he lives.
I had another friend who, after she retired, bought a piano and began taking lessons. It’s never too late to get serious about music, I guess. It does give a person a way to put feelings out there.
It’s good for listeners, too. Bob Marley, the Jamaican singer and songwriter, said, “One thing about music. When it hits you, you feel no pain.’’
Almost always, though, you do feel something.