As the family car wound down the road near my childhood home, passing the same trees and scrubby undergrowth over and over, all at once appeared a little park. The obvious hand of a caring gardener separated this space from others where trees and flowers spoke of being loved. I would strain to glimpse the little house far back on the property, before the next curve covered it like a hand. Mr. Crawford, my elderly piano teacher, lived there alone for many years, tending the plants and innumerable stray dogs.
I was ten years old and excited to take lessons. We had just purchased a very special antique upright piano. At one time it was able to play rolls of music on it’s own – a real player piano. It also had an extra pedal that when depressed gave every key the tinkle of saloon music. The keys were real imitation ivory and the wood was patterned with carved scrolls and flowers. I loved it.
My teacher was the quintessential Southern gentleman. With an elegant script, he wrote innumerable major and minor scales on the inside covers of my music books. I never remember a charge for any of the sheet music or lesson books. He could not help but notice our poverty, I suppose, when he came to our house.
The eighty-year-old Mr. Crawford stuck with me as I struggled through easy and then intermediate lessons. After four years I felt on the cusp of mastery of a few pieces – when the notes began to match the beating of my heart.
One day he arrived a few minutes late. As he moved his hands toward the keys I noticed that they trembled slightly and a scattering of puncture wounds covered them. He said a few strays had come around, and as he was trying to feed them, they started fighting and then turned on him. The lesson ended after its thirty minutes and he went home, but something wasn’t right.
He died that week.
I think it had something to do with the shock of the dog attack and that he was elderly. Afterwards, there wasn’t any talk of more piano lessons, so I just kept playing the music I had and thought of him, to make him proud of me. He had never really praised me, but my mom had heard that he never stayed with someone unless they had promise.
My parents sold the piano in order to make a house payment the summer I got married and was away in Florida . They said they could surely find one that I could borrow if I still wanted to play. They did find one and I did play, but it wasn’t the same.
I miss you, Mr. Crawford. Thank you for giving me a lesson even after being attacked. And I am so sorry that no one ever went back to take care of your garden. I tried to find it years later, but couldn’t.