Important Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille


June: THE PIANO PLAYER
by Susan G. Butruille, copyright 2001

My dad, R.J. (Griff) Greffenius, taught me how to play the piano. I remember the metronome's arm ticking back and forth on top of the upright piano Mom and Dad bought used when they married in 1935. Dad would sit beside me counting with the metronome to make sure I got the counting right.

That was one thing about Dad. You had to get it right. To this day, if there's one thing I can get right when I play the piano, it's counting. Another thing I get right is the feel for the song. I didn't get that from Dad though. I got it from Mom. When I would play and Mom would sing, I'd know from her how to feel the song.

The night I met the piano player, Mom and I weren't thinking about music. We were thinking about Dad. The doctors at the hospital had told us he would live only a few more days. We'd been with him all day, reading and talking to him, playing some of his favorite recorded music.

That night Mother and I needed a refuge from our vigil so we escaped to a quiet restaurant. We sat down, ordered wine, gazed at the menu, couldn't think of much to say. Our thoughts were back at the hospital. Slowly, the mellow notes of a piano filtered into our consciousness. We began to realize that whoever was playing it was reviewing Mom and Dad's life together in the music they lived and loved and danced to.

We listened in silence to "Stardust."

Perfect time, I thought. Dad would have approved.

"The piano player puts such feeling into that song," Mother said, breaking our silence. "I think we danced to it the first time we met." Her eyes glistened. "It was at a dance, you remember."

Mother smiled as her memory glided back in time to the little Colorado town where the pretty blond college coed danced with the tall, handsome forest ranger.

"He wasn't a very good dancer then," Mom said as the piano player continued with strains of "Dancing in the Dark."

"Dad didn't feel the music like I did," she said. Mother by now was in the reverie the songs told about. "I learned how to dance from my father, just by getting the rhythm of it. But your dad learned by counting: slow . . . slow . . . quick . . . quick . . ."

So they learned to dance together -- Mom feeling it, Dad counting.

Now the piano player, without being asked, was playing all of Mom's requests.

"Walkin' My Baby Back Home" . . . "Anniversary Waltz" . . . "A Cottage for Sale" . . . "The Man I Love" . . . "April in Paris" . . .

Most of the songs were from the '30s, when Mom and Dad married, learned to dance together, started their family, and welcomed my brother, their first child. Some songs were from the '40s, when I was born.

Mom and Dad danced through their lives together, not always in synch. But any sour notes they shared, as couples do, never sounded on the dance floor. Wherever they lived, they were the most elegant dancers in town.

We finished our food and wine to the accompaniment of Mom and Dad's musical past. Soon it was time to leave. But first I had some unfinished business.

I made my way to the bar where a man about my age sat at the piano. He was playing "Tenderly." As the tune ended he glanced in my direction.

I explained about my dad, and told the piano player how much his music had meant to my mother and me.

"I'm so sorry," he said. I could tell he was a lot more comfortable playing the piano than offering sympathy to a stranger. He positioned his hands over the keys, ready to play another song. Then he turned to me.

"You know," he said, "sometimes you sit here and make the music, and you wonder if anyone's listening. If anyone cares."

He thought for a moment.

"Tell your mother this one's especially for her." And he began to play again.

"Thanks for the memories . . ."

Thank you so much.

Mom and I drove back to the hospital. To say thanks to Dad. For the memories. For the music.


There's a post script to this story. Some months after Dad died I sent a copy of this story to the piano player, care of the restaurant. I soon received a letter -- not from him but from his mother. He had died of a heart attack the month before. The news deepened the loss I already was feeling. But I was glad I had thanked the piano player.


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