I knew what was going to be special about the house concert I attended on May 22. I would see my new friend Dennis Johnson, an accomplished pianist, in his element, hear his music, and spend time with his wife and friends.
As a young man, Dennis practiced up to five hours a day, and I imagined that a similar effort would go into this performance.
What I didn’t expect was for the music to be so good that it transported me to the past, a confusing past full of sensory experience and more than a whiff of failure and loss.
It happened halfway through the concert when Dennis played the Turkish march from Mozart’s Sonata in A major. Before starting, Dennis told us he felt strongly connected to this piece because it was the only one his mother played. But I soon forgot his mother because my own ghost entered the room.
My dad, who died six years ago, liked that movement, too, and although he played hundreds of other classical pieces on his old grand piano, he must have tackled that one often because, all of a sudden, I was back in my parents’ living room in Eastchester, N.Y.
It was a small room, dominated by the piano that my father’s family had somehow transported from Germany in the late 1930s. I have no idea how these Jewish people accomplished this, but it was my dad’s most precious possession. Although my brother and I were allowed to touch the exterior, very gently, we were never to open it or play with the keys.
My father was always animated while playing his piano, near-sighted eyes fixed on the music, fingers moving independently and at great speed over the keyboard, his right hand turning pages with a swift slap. He was known as a very good sight reader.
He didn’t smile much, but a certain loosening of his body told me he loved the music, especially Chopin. I wished he’d play my kind of tune more often, but I knew that when he knocked off “On Top of Old Smokey” or “Getting to Know You” — always with extra flourishes — it was “for the children” or for our mother, not for himself. He never sang, either.
What I remember best are the evenings when one of his three musician friends would come to our home. They would play music that had been agreed upon ahead of time and sit down to a wonderful dinner (usually a roast) provided by my mom.
My dad’s friend Irving, in particular, was an outstanding violinist, having played with the renowned Cleveland Orchestra. Our living room was small and the music was loud, filling our home with glorious sound.
But I didn’t appreciate it.
I liked my mother’s London broil. After dinner, I’d stay for the first movement of the first piece and then I’d go to my room. Classical music was boring and I was bad at it, having tried a few piano lessons with my dad.
At Dennis’ house concert, he introduced the pieces by telling us a little about the lives of the composers. Information like that could have been a hook to keep me in the living room (Bach fathered 20 children?), but my dad and his friends didn’t talk about where the music came from. They just played.
As I got older, my lack of interest gnawed at my self-esteem. Obviously, I had no ability to appreciate fine music. As with any “failing,” the child blames herself.
I learned about musical passion from watching my dad at the piano but only now do I understand that parents must work to invite young children into their passion, to make them feel safe there, competent, able to participate. Perhaps a daughter with the right musical drive would have involved herself no matter what, but I slipped into the background, and defined classical music as something that was not for me.
Most of the time I was content to remain an outsider, knowing that my father had this skill and it made him happy. His best friends were his musical friends, his best evenings, the evenings of making music or going to concerts. I liked his friends, especially the ones who were into children, and if the music didn’t speak to me, they did.
In the last year of my dad’s life, I saw him go to the piano only once, and, although he expressed frustration at his errors, to me it still sounded decent. I felt proud of him.
A month before he died, he became deeply confused. He would look around the Manhattan apartment where he had been living for 15 years with his second wife and ask, “Where am I?”
One day, when he was in his bedroom asking the home health aide yet again where he really lived she said, “Come, Peter. Let’s go to the living room.” As they stood in the doorway with my brother watching, she pointed to the grand piano and said, “There’s your piano.”
“Oh,” he said. “I know now. I’m home.”
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected] Her column appears Sundays.