Earlier today, I said goodbye to a family heirloom that’s been in the Ruffin family and household for more than half a century: an upright piano, a Westbrook, with two wobbly wheeled legs that somehow have managed to not snap off at the base despite treks spanning half the Eastern seaboard and a drive through the country between Georgia and Wisconsin that could only be described as — and maybe I’m compressing the whole experience into and through the hellish, microcosmic filter that is Paducah, Kentucky (where, and I wish I were kidding, we filled up at a Citgo where we saw a man pumping gas with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips) — god-forsaken. Seriously — if you ever want to get an idea of what driving alongside the edge of an event horizon is like, hit the highway around southern Illinois. It’s like Satan’s first draft of a travelogue, made flesh.
So yeah, this is an instrument that’s been through some stuff: being turned end over end to get moved into our old apartment in the first place — we were on the second floor in a building that eschewed elevators, thanks Middleton — and then out of it today was probably not a great way to treat a box full of ultra-sensitive wires, though it was not the worst of its ordeals. I’ve scraped cat hair from between the keys with a sewing needle, suffered through said cats’ trouncing-upon of the keys in the dead of night after we’d forgotten to close the hood, and listened to my sister’s endless recitation — and perfection of, I have to add — “The Entertainer.”
It’s been a constant in my life, and that counts for something. Though it’s not necessarily a thing that has held much additional value to me outside of its mere existence, it has achieved and has maintained a sort of authority afforded it by time, by the sheer duration of its presence. And that, more than anything, is why we’ve kept it around, myself — personally, individually — and my family included. No one’s played it regularly in years, though Michelle and I had it tuned almost immediately after moving into our Middleton apartment. She played it sporadically for a little while after that, but grew wary of disturbing our neighbors; our walls are thin, and they are disturbed enough as it is, in a variety of contexts and manners.
And so today, we sent it off on a U-Haul across town, to be kept in my boss’ living room. She’s a classically trained singer, and an enthusiastic pianist who’s been making do with a keyboard that, I’ve been told, is a few steps above a Casio, and a few below a keytar. We — and by “we,” I mean her husband and a friend, who both more resemble full matured Kodiak bears than they do human beings — shrugged it onto a two-part piano dolly, flipped it on its ass out the hallway door, completely upended it to slide it down the carpeted stairwell, before finally wheeling it ceremoniously onto the truck. No more than three hours later, I received a text message, picture accompanying, saying that it was set up and doing well. I’m told, further, Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” is ringing fairly true on it.
I bring up this whole piano saga because it boils down one of the points I was attempting make last week in the “Hoarder” piece: namely, that — and this is, as best I understand it, one of the principle telltale signs of a certifiable hoarder — the impetus for keeping something around for so long is the belief that it serves some purpose that it does not, or that it soon will.
Can you “hoard” a single object? I think so. Not, of course, in the same way one hoards receipts, orphan socks or old floppy disks, but the idea is the same, and a single piano is worth a few mountains, after all, of the aforementioned.
Sometimes, a wait for something to fulfill a purpose is justified. The thing is, conditions have to be right: I have at least 40 bottles of beer downstairs in our cellar that won’t hit their peak for another 3-5 years; a piano, similarly, can keep almost forever if properly maintained, which means regular tunings and consistent use. This very act — writing — is impossible to maintain a knack for unless it’s properly revisited, whetted. It’s the reason that my poems, after a long drought — like the one I’m experiencing, or self-inflicting if you like, now — are rather unwieldy, forced, largely devoid of grace or insight.
Maintenance, of whatever kind, of whatever object or skill, requires discipline. Still, in the absence of that, resides the next best thing: the willingness to part, to pass on what you’d secreted away to play the part you simply were not meant to.