My mother was groomed to be a singer from early childhood. She first appeared on the radio at age three, graduated from high school just before she turned 16, and was off to the University of Texas in Austin the autumn of 1943 to study voice.
The summer after her college graduation, her voice teacher sent her to Denver, where he hoped the drier climate would help tame her asthma before her audition with the NY Metropolitan Opera. Instead, she met my dad in the payroll line at the department store where they both worked, waiting to cash their paychecks. By the time her audition came around, she was engaged and planning a very different life than the one her mother set out for her.
Yet music remained a huge part of her life. As a young bride, her pride and joy was this piano. I’m not sure how she managed to buy it; in the early days of her marriage, she worked as a teacher while my dad finished college on the G.I. Bill at the University of Denver. After graduation, with jobs scarce in Denver and parental disapproval over the marriage still simmering in Houston, my parents relocated to Cincinnati, where my dad’s brother and his family lived.
My dad eventually got a job at Procter & Gamble, with an annual salary of $2,000. My mother worked, too, as an editor for the employee magazine of the Fernald Nuclear facility outside Hamilton, Ohio. Her letters home are full of the challenges of managing a household on so little money, and hopes of a raise or a new job for my dad that would boost their income.
She must have pinched pennies to buy the piano, which happened sometime before my birth in 1954. I think her father may have helped; I have a letter from my mother to him with the picture above, dated February 1953, as if to day, “See, Daddy? I’ve not given up my dreams, not entirely.”
And she didn’t. My mother always kept music alive in our house. She sang in the choirs of the churches we attended, performed in musical theater productions all over town, and taught the basics of manners and decency to her kindergarten students through music.
This was the piano that accompanied my mother as she warmed up her voice with vocalization exercises. She banged out chords while she sang, ever higher (and louder), “Mee-ee—MAY-eee-meee. Mee-ee-MAY-ee-me,” that rudely awoke me when I would have rather slept in on Sunday mornings. It’s the piano I played “Autumn Leaves” on, over and over, until my brother and sister would scream, and worked out the complexities of Chopin’s Etude in E-Major, a beautiful piece my mother had selected for her wedding.
I hit my head on this piano bench at age 4. My parents allowed me to stay up late for a grown-up party in our Westwood apartment to serve cookies. I spilled a few and as I bent down to pick them up, one of the adults, who was using the stool as a table, pushed it out to get up. I got a nasty cut on my forehead, and the party ended so my parents could take me to the hospital for stitches. I can still remember my daddy telling me that if I didn’t cry, they’d buy me a chocolate ice cream cone on the way home. That’s all it took: I was stoic, earning praise from both the doctor and my parents (and the promised chocolate cone).
This piano nurtured the budding compositions of my brother, who went on to become a talented songwriter and librettist, winning a Jonathan Larson award for his work on a musical that has not yet been produced. He then became a teacher himself, who – like our mother – uses the arts to help design curriculum for 4th graders in NYC.
It also nurtured the talents of my sister, another accomplished NYC musician and singer. She makes her living singing her own and others’ songs, and has performed with a number of famous musicians, past and present – people like Wilson Pickett, Jennifer Hudson and Spyro Gyra.
My mother died last November, unexpectedly and far from home. I wasn’t prepared for dealing with the disposal of the many treasured possessions that document her life – and my own. I scan old photos, read old letters, and wish she were here so we could talk about them. I wasn’t ready to lose her. No child ever is, even those who live to become grandmothers themselves, like me.
This old piano bears the scars of the rambunctious household it was such a big part of. Giving it away is hard, but as I sift through everything left behind, I know it’s time that it go out into the world to make new memories. And I know my mother would be thrilled that it will have a new life teaching children to find meaning in music.
The Didrichsen family dedicates this piano in loving memory of Anne Elkins Didrichsen. May it help spread the joy she found in music to all who play or listen to it.