When Dad played the piano

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I don’t remember where it came from or when we got it, but there was a beat-up old piano in the basement of our “new” house on the farm on Konitzer Road south of Oconto Falls. (You may recall some of my earlier tales about life in the old log house; the “new” house was built in 1946 or 1947.)

Anyway, backed up against the root cellar and 6 feet away from the washing machine was this old out-of-tune upright piano. Nobody played piano or took piano lessons in our family, so I don’t know why it was there. But sometimes Dad would sit down there on an old backless kitchen chair and plunk away on that old piano with one finger until he’d find a melody, and then he’d play it joyfully over and over. He had quite a repertoire of one-finger songs that he could entertain himself with.

I should point out that Dad had no sort of musical training, but he had a great “ear” and he had an uncanny sense of melody. This “ear” manifested itself in other ways, too.

Dad carried a harmonica (he called it a “mouth organ”) and a jew’s harp in his pocket almost all the time, and he’d pull one or the other out whenever he called a timeout from our daily chores. And like that old piano, he could find songs hidden in the harmonica. He’d play it happily to entertain himself, but he also entertained me. The jew’s harp wasn’t a very melodic instrument, but Dad could make it come alive. It was one of the joys of working with him as I was growing up.

Dad could also pick out tunes on the concertina and the accordion. I don’t know where those instruments came from, either, because we didn’t have much for discretionary funds in those days. Dad loved those “squeeze-boxes,” and in the evening after chores were done, and before we got a television, he’d sit in the living room and play to his heart’s content and to our enjoyment. I can remember many an evening as I sat at the kitchen table doing homework and Dad would be in the living room playing.

I am a lover of music, but I have no abilities musically, so I was always in awe of Dad’s innate ability to make music. His range of musical tastes was fairly narrow; he liked polkas and old-time waltzes, folk tunes and ballads. Mostly, he played the same things that he sang as he worked. I grew up loving his favorites, but as my education developed, so did my tastes.

I became a lover of almost all kinds of music, from Dad’s world to the rock ’n’ roll of my teens, to classical music. In high school, I sang in the mixed chorus even though I never learned how to read music. As an adult, I sang in the church choir, and even in a choir that toured several European countries, still without reading music. (The director of our touring choir said I had good “tonal memory.”) I credit my love of music to the time I spent with Dad.

I married Marilyn in 1961. She’s a great singer, so I was lucky to have someone who could keep music in my life. All of our kids have musical ability – no thanks to me – and our grandchildren are also musically talented. Dad’s legacy.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com