I think there must be a place in the soul all made of tunes, of tunes of long ago.—Charles Ives
For years my mother kept a black-and-white snapshot of my father in her wallet. The image showed him at the piano, hands on the keys, foot on the pedal, a grin on his face. My dad the bard, life of our parents' cocktail-party circuit, always ready to sit down at the keyboard and shake a tune from his fingers. Word had it he could play Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue from start to finish and hit every note. Yet we never heard him play in our house, and by the time I was eight or nine, he had stopped making music altogether. He spent his days coned in silence and his evenings wreathed in gin and then sleep. My brother and I were the only ones who touched the piano.
It was a Steinway baby grand, manufactured circa 1923, with an ebony case and a bright gold interior, and it had belonged to our father's mother, Elizabeth Easton Stainton. I was often told she was blonde, like me, and musical, as it was hoped I would become. The few photographs I have of her suggest she was more brunette than [End Page 93] blonde, with a square, somewhat plain face and timid smile. But death transformed her into golden-haired Elizabeth, the Muse, revered by her survivors as though she were a Botticelli apparition.
I have no idea what tunes Elizabeth Stainton played on her piano. Before marrying my grandfather, she'd been a church organist in her hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, so she must have known the standard hymns: "Rock of Ages," "Onward, Christian Soldiers." After her wedding she gave up her church job, moved to a factory town in the center of the state, and became a wife and mother. It's a familiar story, and it's easy to draw familiar conclusions from it. But I'd like to think she had a cabinet filled with sheet music, and that she found time to indulge in parlor songs. I can't quite picture her rolling up the rug and dancing, can't imagine ragtime spilling from the soundboard, but perhaps of an evening my grandmother sat at her Steinway and sang songs by Stephen Foster or even Irving Berlin, and perhaps her husband and children joined her.
The things my father loved: Mommy and Daddy. Big sister Betty. Stuffed dog, toy gun. Baseball bat and ball. Beach outings in a wicker stroller. The knee-length sailor suit whose cotton tie flopped gently against my father's narrow chest. His mother's hands at the keyboard, making melodies.
The keys of Elizabeth Stainton's piano were smooth and had small gray threads running through them, like capillaries. Ivory keys, from the tusk of an elephant. I used to stroke them as if they were kitten fur. They emitted a soft, honeyed hum, distinctly feminine, even when I pounded on them.
Years of my childhood uncoiled on the sagging needlepoint bench in front of my grandmother's Steinway as I worked my way through the brightly colored Thomson and Schaum exercise books my teachers assigned and onto the mountainous slopes of Czerny's scales. I was a desultory student, never in love with music but obedient to my parents, who seemed to think it important that I master the instrument that sat like a curse in the corner of our living room. At Thanksgiving my mother would make me play "We Gather Together" before dinner. [End Page 94] "Show everyone what you've learned," she'd urge, and I'd pick out the tune while the grownups sat on the sofa with their cocktails and sang. When I finished, my Aunt Betty, a banker by trade, unmarried and childless, would take a long draw on her cigarette and dab at her eyes with a Kleenex. My father, beaming, would rattle the ice in his glass and ask who was ready for the next round.
He was four when his own father, William Whitfield Stainton, purchased the...