Late last fall, I posted a video on Facebook of myself playing our new piano
. It’s been some twenty years since I have played consistently, so there’s a lot of rust that I’m working off. But finally having a piano in the house to play—and to hear others play—has been one of the great joys of my life over the past few months. I still haven’t had it tuned (bad, I know), because it’s Waco and I signed up to do business with the wrong feller. But it hasn’t mattered: having real music fill the house is enough to make my heart very, very glad.
We had looked for a piano for a few years. As you might imagine, I was, shall we say, particular about my desires. I knew I wanted a baby grand, because we are lucky enough to have the sort of house that would fit one. It needed to be used, because who can afford a new one? I wanted the action to feel right, and a warm sound—bright, but not too bright. We had all sorts of arguments in the home over whether it should be black or brown: I wanted the latter, because it’s more inviting and approachable than black, even while still being serious. We also knew that it would have to be just the right size: we didn’t want to give up any seating in our living room, which is already fairly small to begin with. We made a cardboard cutout to test: 5 foot 1 was optimal, but 5 foot 3 would do.
The difficulty, as you might imagine, is that we live in Waco. Used baby grands don’t come on the market very often, and our constraints meant we had to say “no” to almost every one that we saw. The nearest we came was last spring. A local dealer who I’d been talking with had one on consignment and called me. I went, and liked it: I would have bought it. It just hadn’t been voiced, or cleaned. So I asked him to do that before we bought—and then came back on the day we had arranged, only to learn he’d called another client the night before and sold it out from beneath me (without telling me that was the case). Confession: I was somewhat angry over this exchange, and quit looking for several months.
On September 15th of last year, I boarded a flight to Waco. A student in the row in front of me pulled out The Odyssey. I momentarily thought about letting her read, but curiosity overcame me: having taught in Great Texts, I wanted to know who her professor was. So we chatted—but not about Great Texts. She played piano and violin, and so we compared notes on our favorite pieces and periods. Inspired, I began searching for a piano again the moment I came home.
Tomorrow is the two-year anniversary of the death of my sister-in-law, Tiffany Mealman
. Tiff was a delightful soul: her cheerful, airy personality masked her indomitable tenacity. Her brightness was no act, but was suffused with a warmth that made her easily approachable. It is hard to imagine her having someone intensely dislike
her, much less her having an enemy. (You can imagine how odd, and how wonderful, someone like me might find that.)
Tiff was also an exceedingly responsible person (as is, if I may say so, the entire family I married into–a quality a degenerate fellow like me finds both impossible and admirable). She had saved diligently, and bequeathed her earnings and life insurance funds to her siblings. Naturally, she wanted to know what we would do with it. I told her I would buy a smoker: she told us we should buy a piano.
My search began with a store in Phoenix. We had looked there before, and my wife happened to be there for the weekend. Not expecting to find anything, I went on to the Stilwell Pianos website—and saw the piano we would eventually buy. It was, as best I could tell, perfect: a Steinway and Sons baby grand from the 1930s, which had been rebuilt a few years back, that was 5-foot-1 and a dark walnut color. I called the store early the next morning, heard it played over the phone, and asked my wife to go look at it.
So she went. With her mother. They liked it fine, but I’m the one who plays the most—and how do you decide to buy a piano over the phone? We were uncertain about what to do: it was more money than we’d hoped to spend, but we also tired of searching. And then we learned someone else was flying in the next day to look at it, and they’d texted him to let him know there was an interested person in the store already. Whoever claimed it first would get it.
And then it dawned on us: it was Tiff’s birthday. See, she was born September 16th—and to mark the occasion with her family, my wife had flown to Phoenix. We had the opportunity to buy a piano that would be perfect for us, with the resources she had bequeathed us, on the anniversary of the gift of her life to the world.
The piano is not the only object I own that reminds me of Tiff. I kept her massive, pink and plaid coffee mug as well. But my possessiveness toward the mug is utterly self-indulgent: I am not keen at all to see anyone else use it. The piano is of a different quality: it has infused a brightness and warmth into our home that embodies the sort of sober joy that Tiff approached her final days with. We miss her terribly. The pain of loss, Lewis observes in A Grief Observed, never diminishes in its intensity—it simply comes less often. But this piano has been some consolation: Tiff’s life was, in the most concrete and determinate sense possible, a seed implanted within our own home that we hope bears the fruit of conversation, community and joy. Her final gift to us has allowed us make our home more of a gift to others than it was before. And so, her life goes on and her the fruit of her goodness continues to grow.