A Love Letter to This Piano

This piano came into my family in 1952, when my Great Gramma Elsie bought it (secondhand) for my then 14-year-old Gramma June. Gramma doesn’t know anything about it’s history before it joined our family, and I haven’t been able to find any really solid information about how old it might be. One source suggests the Clinton line of pianos were first introduced by Doherty in 1913 and may have been manufactured until the early 1930s. So, theoretically, this piano is possibly between 90 and 108 years old. But, there’s a lot of guesswork in that estimate, so let’s just confidently say it is over 69 years old.

This piano was “well loved”, so it developed a strong character over the past 70 years. It was always with a laugh and a shrug that my Mum and Gramma would talk about the box of tomatoes forgotten on it over a long winter decades ago that left the top warped and worn on one side. And seeing the small holes that scattered the front left side made me smile to imagine my four uncles as teenagers, playing darts (badly, clearly) in my grandparents’ basement where the dartboard was next to this piano for some time.

Eventually, this piano left my grandparents’ house and joined my Mum’s. My earliest memories of it start in Alida, Saskatchewan, where I took lessons for three or so years, during which time, in my mother’s words, getting me to practices was, “harder than pulling teeth”. She also says she and I had that in common. Today, I can scarcely read music, but I can still play every recital song – those numbers that were practiced so frequently in preparation for festival competitions that I expect they will remain locked in my muscle memory long after my hands are too weathered and arthritic to actually play them.

My brother was better at it, both in discipline and talent. He even won a few awards at those music festival competitions. He spent five or six years practicing on this piano until our teacher, Tania, moved away and other hobbies drew his attention. But this piano remained an ever-present fixture of our living room.

In those later years of my childhood, once my brother had moved away for university, this piano got the most attention from me around Christmas. I would pull out one of the two Christmas-themed songbooks we owned and spend one week refreshing my memory on how to play as many carols as possible, one week playing them fairly well and fairly incessantly, and then January would come and they would be tucked away once again. During the rest of the year, I would periodically sit down in front of it and either play a recital song or try to figure out a basic contemporary tune by ear. My greatest success of the latter was a two-fingered version of My Heart Will Go On.

Eventually, I graduated high school, moved to Regina and then to Calgary, met a guy who also hated practicing piano (we had a few other things in common too, I suppose), fell in love, and got married. Nine years ago, we bought our first house. Eight years and six months ago, my mum and step-father showed up on our doorstop with this piano. It was now mine.

This piano sat in my garage for eight years, simply because I didn’t know what else to do with it. This piano was a beast – large, and very, very, very heavy. There was simply no space that it would fit well on our main floor, it was too heavy and bulky to safely move and keep upstairs, and too precious to keep in the basement (assuming it would even fit down those stairs, which it wouldn’t). Plus, though the sentimental value was and is through the roof, this piano actually needed a fair bit of work to clean and tune before it could readily be used to play music again.

So in the garage it sat. I never considered selling or giving it away (see aforementioned sentimental value), but I did feel guilty about it’s relegation to a dusty corner under our winter tires.

Then, six months ago, I had an idea. An idea to turn it into a bookcase, making it lighter and more mobile, while retaining the spirit that made this piano special to my family. With my Gramma and Mum’s blessing, I contacted a local carpenter, Amanda with She Built Ltd., and shared my idea along with a few Pinterest-sourced pictures. She jumped on it with enthusiasm and I turned this piano over to her near the end of 2020. She gave it back to me earlier this month and…

I love it. Like, it’s hard to even put into words how much I love it. It is gorgeous and every ounce of sentimental value was retained. Throughout the project, as Amanda was tearing apart this piano and finding all these cool pieces inside, she would reach out to me with ideas of her own for how some of those components could be incorporated into the finished product. For example, one of the wooden knobs on the front was long-missing, she she replaced both with these silver components from the interior.

She also cleaned up this plate (I think it might be called a pin block), preserving the names and dates on it which mark tuning done decades ago.

Those tidbits barely scrape the surface of the work that went into this project. From dismantling and gutting it, to cutting off the top half (by Luke’s request to make it more mobile), to building shelving, to cleaning and re-staining the entire thing, Amanda did amazing work (and extra shout-out for sharing all these fun in-progress pictures with me).

She even came up with a clever way to make the keys still bounce back up when pushed – a favourite feature of the smallest residents of this house.

With the help last weekend of a wonderful but very poorly-paid mover, this piano is now where it belongs – perfectly fitted into a nook of our bedroom.

I love this piano. I loved it when it made music and I love it now when it doesn’t. I hope my daughter loves it too, now and when it is hers someday.

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