The magnificent two hundred-year-old Hagspiel, its original ivory keys barely yellowed owned the living room. A showpiece grand piano made from smoothly polished blonde and dark burled-oak it still had vividly pure tones.
I remember the first time I heard Colleen play.
It was just before our first Christmas together. Maddie, Colleen’s eighteen-year-old daughter, who proved to be a child at heart despite her tough exterior and desire to be independent, loved all things Christmas. She was so much like my daughter—just one of the many reasons why I loved her. We were decorating every corner of the house with precious ornaments and tacky wreaths, years of colourful treasures our two families, now one, had accumulated. It was hilarious.
“Ya gotta put something here,” Maddie said, laughing as she pointed to the one remaining empty spot on the mantle.
As she tossed her head to move the long curl that swept across her face the twinkle in her eye confirmed that we were in cahoots to make the family room the best Christmas hang-out ever. The friends at our upcoming open house would be dazzled.
Or politely speechless.
Either way, we were having a blast when suddenly, rising above our laughter there came an unfamiliar sound.
The moving, lyrical piano melody of Jim Brickman’s Winter Peace filled the room.
Maddie pointed to the living room and shushed us silently by placing her finger on her lips.
“I can’t remember when she last played,” she whispered, her face flushed with adoration. “She’s happy, Mamma Judes.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, trying to listen and not dissolve into mush as I witnessed a timeless moment I will cherish forever. I saw the love this girl had for her mother.
If Colleen knew we were listening she would have stopped immediately so we carried on as if oblivious as I fell even more in love with my new life.
A week later, we welcomed friends and family to what we said would be an annual Christmas event. It was our first and last.
I remember standing back and watching people talk and laugh as they got to know each other. Maddie joined me, sideliners observing, when two dear friends of mine joined us and with their typical grace swept Maddie into their circle of kindness. I could tell that this young woman-child was content in the moment, able to set troubles aside. Another cherished memory.
As the party drew to an end, a handful of folks gathered around the piano and despite Colleen’s sincere pronouncement that she couldn’t possibly play in front of people, play she did and we sang carols and every old chestnut we could think of on our way down memory lane.
Maddie’s Cheshire cat grin said it all. That grand old piano had a way of opening hearts.
The antique instrument needed tuning after that. It had held its own for long enough and needed the tender care of an expert. Colleen lucked out and found someone who knew something about the uncommon Hagspiels. They’re a German piano, and hers was one of approximately two hundred ever made. Using all her savings, she bought it when she was eighteen and was studying classical piano at a serious level. Years later, after a decade or two in the care of her parents, she had it moved to her home where it stayed.
The piano tuner’s name was Frank. Near eighty, he wasn’t a big man but he was strong and feisty and gregarious enough to share his opinion whether you wanted it or not. Maddie, who socialized with adults in a way far beyond her years, answered the door when he arrived and chatted with him briefly and then Colleen showed him the piano. His admiration for it was immediate.
“She’s a beauty, this one,” he said, stroking the wood with one hand while tentatively testing the keyboard with the other.
He treated that piano like it was a small needy child in need of firm but loving care. His gift for perfect pitch was exceptional but it was when he finished tuning it that the real transformation took place. He sat down on the bench and without a word’s notice or a single sheet of music in front of him played as if he were an angel sent from God. Classical, jazz, ragtime…every style imaginable. I never wanted him to stop. And then he rose, said a brief goodbye and left, his music lingering.
A few months after that, Maddie was killed at the hand of another.
A thousand times over, I have written about her, about losing her, and how the loss of a child for a mother is not something that allows recovery but rather, at best, discovery…a perpetual search for an elusive way to live a life with meaning after a soul-destroying loss.
The Hagspiel went silent as Colleen, forced to navigate this dark path, could barely breathe never mind play. But over time it somehow drew her back. She would play for hours in meditative forgetfulness or distraction.
And, in time, it needed Frank’s tender care once again.
Thing is, Frank was tender with the instrument but perhaps not quite so tender, although unintentional, with us. God love him, given his age and opinions, it was easy to assume he had lived through some challenges of his own.
He tuned the piano and as before, enthralled us with an impromptu after-tuning concert and then rose to leave. I was in the kitchen just off the front hallway and Colleen accompanied him to the door when he turned to Colleen.
“Say, where’s that young girl that was here before?” he asked.
“Frank, my daughter was killed four months ago, murdered,” she replied.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. And continued, “Well, you need to just get over it, these things happen.”
That was unexpected. In disbelief, after she closed the door, I joined her, asking, “Did he actually just say get over it?”
“Yes, yes, indeed he did,” she said.
We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. People don’t know what to say and often fumble but their hearts are mostly rooted in kindness and sympathy but this faux pas seemed in an old-world league of its own.
A few months later again, we moved to a farm. A beautiful old century home with exquisite perennial gardens and organic vegetable fields that offered us rural privacy on the outskirts of town but was only a short distance to all our usual destinations.
The decision to move was made only after we confirmed that the piano would fit into the living room, which although old, was a century younger than the Hagspiel it would house.
To embellish our living space we planned an addition. Encumbered with no less than six governmental bodies whose approval was required, the final say for a permit lay in the hands of the Niagara Escarpment Commission whose hold on every inch of land is tighter than…, well, tight. The rules of greenbelt protection are sacred beyond any comparable measure. One man, one impossibly difficult-to-reach man, held the key to the final permit.
It took months to get the go-ahead to complete the entire renovation forcing us to live in an unfinished home with plastic-covered framing on one exterior wall and a makeshift kitchen. Finally, Mr. difficult-to-get was booked for a site visit and would arrive sometime the next day.
I had Frank booked for that morning. The piano had suffered terribly from the move and the humidity in its marginally protected new home.
Need I say, I hoped their visits would not overlap?
“Frank, the inspector is here for final approvals, Frank, so I’ll leave you to it so I can have this private meeting outside. I can’t tell you how important it is and I’m ready to speak to all his concerns because, frankly, if he says no, we’re screwed.”
“Oh those inspectors,” he said. “They can be a real pain. I know a lot about them.”
“Yes, they can,” I added, hoping my gasp was inaudible.
I left him there to tune and went outside to meet the man.
Our roadside garden gate had been removed to allow the contractor’s equipment to get through and the yard was a torn-up mess but the inspector only cared about measurements to the road and any expansion from the home’s original footprint. We had covered it all. No new driveway, no new foundation outside allotments, etc. We had done our homework.
It was late June. The inspector knew of Maddie’s death and that come August, her alleged murderer was facing his preliminary hearing and we would be in court. During that time we couldn’t manage contractors or construction so we were pushing for completion. The contractor was on board. The window was tight but we knew the Escarpment Commission could not be pushed to do anything. This meeting mattered.
So there I was in the garden having a fine old, critically important conversation only to look over to the gateless opening and see Frank driving his Smart car right through it and up to us, then park, step out and join our conversation.
Apparently, Frank could not be pushed either.
The renovation was not approved in time for the hearing. I know that wasn’t Frank’s fault but I was angry. Those useless what ifs…if only he hadn’t interfered. It was unfair of me, he was just trying to help. Still, there was only so much I could take and my annoyance with his brash style and how he simply dismissed my request for privacy trumped my love for his exquisite musicality.
My coping skills, at the time, stank.
A few months after the hearing, we found another piano tuner who loved the Hagspiel as much as Frank. Just differently. And with no concert.
Shortly after that last tuning, we accompanied a friend to the hospital. One of the kindest women I have known with many struggles she hid well, she was a breast cancer survivor. The appointment was her annual delivery of good…or not…news and fear before it lingered in the air like heavy fog.
Colleen and I sat in the reception area, a small room with a sprinkling of people coming and going. I’m nosy and admit to eavesdropping on conversations although I never join them. Above the din, I heard a familiar voice.
“It’s a beautiful day and will stay that way,” I heard. “We can have a nice lunch after at that place, what’s it called, you like so much. Yes, that’s what we’ll do.”
I glanced over and saw an old man sitting forward in his chair, leaning into the woman beside him. Thin and pale, I was sure she was there, like our friend, for similar frightening reasons. Frank’s arm gently caressed hers; the crinkly skin on his hand no disguise for its obvious strength. His words were soothing and their intended comfort appeared to ease some of her worries because her eyes lingered closed during the moments he spoke. Like on the keys of the old Hagspiel, his tender strokes offered her care beyond what most could do. I thought how much this feisty old man must hurt as he watched the woman he so obviously loved, suffer.
Frank’s been on my mind lately. Today, six years later, I googled him. His wife survived that scare, if, in fact, that’s who she was. I know this because she wrote his obituary and reading the love in her words is like listening to Frank play. She wrote that on his last day he told his family that he had come to the end of his 88 keys.
I am envious of their marriage, not because mine has any less love—quite the contrary, I awaken grateful every morning of my life—but because they shared more than sixty years together with what seems the same joy I have found in my later years. There would have to be significant medical discoveries for Colleen and me to share equal longevity.
We had to rehome the grand old one-of-a-kind Hagspiel because we sold the farm and our new home does not have the space it requires. We sold it to strangers, two lovely women, who fell in love with it on sight and while it is no longer in our home its departure gifted us with two new friends.
But we still have a piano—my old Heintzman that, like Colleen’s lifelong friend, has travelled many thousands of miles with me through the years. Together we will play it, accompanied by the tender sound of Maddie’s single octave, an unfinished symphony, until we reach the end of our 88 keys.