I sat at the piano to start practicing Christmas songs and immediately thought of Grandmother. I can still see her clearly in my mind’s eye. Sitting at the organ next to the fireplace, head of graying black curled hair thrown back as she sang tunes so familiar she hardly needed to look at the music, feet moving like liquid over the pedals, one hand on each keyboard, playing beautifully. Grandmother was so at home in front of the keyboard. She brought out my love of music and encouraged me to learn how to play and play well.
As a child of the 1950’s memories of family singalongs in Grandmother’s house are some of my most precious. Simpler times with plenty of modern conveniences for daily life but without the personal distraction devices we have today. We had TV and on Sunday nights watched Bonanza and Wonderful World of Disney in color. But other than that when my family gathered the stereo played as the adults visited while cousins played in the back room or back yard. At night Grandmother would slide onto the organ or piano bench and we gathered around. I loved how she smiled as she played, enjoying the chance to make music for herself and her loved ones.
I remember other loved ones long passed too. Granddaddy: small and wiry, a survivor of the Battle of Mindanao in WW II, Irish to the core with the lilt in his voice to prove it, singing along from his recliner, loving every minute. Uncle Billy Bob: yes, that was his real name and yes he lived up to it, larger than life; his favorite drink was a Salty Dog and his sailor days had colored his vocabulary salty as well; beautiful wife Aunt Ruby and three lovely daughters. Uncle Collins: not much older than Billy Bob but different, kind and gentle, smooth where his brother was rough, an Air Force pilot, madly in love with Aunt Kay – a delightful force to be reckoned with – both of them doting on their only son.
In non-holiday times she played music from the 40’s from her vast collection of sheet music. But at Christmas time it was all about Christmas carols. Everything from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer to O Holy Night, from White Christmas to Jingle Bells, from Silent Night to Away in a Manager. My favorite was Silver Bells.
Written for a movie by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1951, Silver Bells became a classic. When grandmother sat down to play I always asked for that one. Others had their favorite requests but mine never varied. Always at some point in the evening she would play it. When I was 9 or so she taught me how to play the tinkling bell notes for the chorus and I was thrilled. Sitting beside her on the edge of the bench I watched carefully for her nod when it was time for me to play my part, desperately wanting to get it perfect. After I had lessons and could read music I followed along as she played until it was time for me to shine with my 12 special notes.
Grandmother’s organ is long gone. The lady who bought it was delighted to get it, loved to play and loved its history.
So is my 1910 King Upright Grand piano, sold to Pete the piano player who’d been dying for an antique upright grand. Now when I slide onto the bench it sits in front of my own baby grand piano. Dream come true.
My non-holiday playing involves that same sheet music, stored now in my piano bench instead of Grandmother’s, as well as shelves of music books I’ve collected over the decades. Favorite hymns, Disney tunes, George Winston and Mark Hayes instrumentals, popular tunes from all ages. These days I play for an audience of One, or at times two if I feel like playing when my husband is home.
Times are different now. Siblings, children and cousins don’t live in the same city. Smart devices, cable TV and crammed schedules steal time that in the past was spent in conversation or reading or games or singing around the piano. I love modern mobility and conveniences – I’d have no blog if it weren’t for the internet! But each year when I pull out grandmother’s tattered, taped together copy of Silver Bells, I long for just one night where TV and cell phones are silenced and all my family is gathered around the piano next to the fireplace, singing, laughing, loving.
“Christmas makes you feel emotional,
It may bring parties or thoughts devotional,
Whatever happens or what may be, here is what Christmas time means to me: … Silver bells …”