Praying for a Piano Player

Every family with an oral tradition has a story that is told and re-told at Christmas until it acquires the power of myth. This is mine. It tells how my grandmother, Ona Willis, joined the Salvation Army.

It was a rainy night in Columbus, Ohio on Christmas Eve in 1944. All three of Ona’s sons were fighting overseas in the war. The news was full of stories about the German counter-offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. Ona knew my dad was somewhere in northern France, and she feared the worst.

Anxious and depressed, Ona walked aimlessly along the streets of her neighborhood that night. She stopped in front of a Salvation Army Hall when she heard people singing. She listened a long time in the rain before mustering the resolve to go in. She stood meekly just inside the door, ready to slip back into the night. When the hymn ended, the Salvation Army Captain at the front of the hall noticed her standing there, wet and frazzled .

“Lady,” he said in a booming, radiant voice, ‘do you know how to play the piano?”

She did.

“Praise the Lord! We’ve been praying for a piano player, and here you are!”

The Salvation Army gave Ona refuge that Christmas Eve, and she made music for them every Wednesday night and Sunday morning for the next 30 years. She played all the stalwart hymns. She wrote several hymns herself, but the scores are lost to the world. What I remember now – I can still hear it – is her jubilation as she marched through the major chords until she made them swing.

I can see Ona now sitting at the piano, a cigarette dangling from her lip, a cold cup of coffee perched somewhere in arm’s reach. Conjure Hoagy Carmichael in a floral print house dress and you get the picture. See the four-year-old boy snuggled next to her on the piano bench? That’s me, mesmerized by her deft hands making such an effortless stream of music. She played it all by ear. Ona and my dad read and wrote music on paper, but they really cut loose when they played without a score. From them I began to learn what it means to listen, remember, and improvise this way. None of us knew then how I would need that knowledge — playing by ear — throughout a life of letting go of sight.

Originally posted December 24, 2007.

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10 Responses to Praying for a Piano Player

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  2. tomrobertstennessee says:

    Aunt Ethyl, who couldn’t read music but could play any tune by ear on a piano, enlivened our family gatherings in Kansas City. She had an ebulient personality and could easily draw out anyone’s fun-loving side. She always wore high heels, stockings with a stripe and well-tailored dress suits. Her hair, done in a beehive, was regularly tinted blue. She wore lots of rouge on her cheeks, red lipstick and perfume. She and her husband, Marion, my father’s cousin, had no children of their own. Ethyl and Marion would arrive a little late at family functions, nattily dressed and exuberant to get the fun started. The real party always began after they arrived.

  3. ms modigliani says:

    My younger brother, Jerry, learned to play piano by ear at a young age. In his teens he decided to take lessons so that he could play boogie woogie. After a few lessons in chording back then and many decades later. he jams wherever he finds a piano. He mocks my elegant piano: “Have you tuned it yet?” I have had it tuned many times, but each tuner says the same thing: nice piece of furniture, but not much of a piano sound. Doesn’t matter. On Christmas Day, Jerry sat down at the baby grand and hammered out Christmas tunes for the gathering. The piano sounded great and joyous. Jerry looked over at me, smiled and I understood from his look that the piano still needed tuning.

  4. Mark Willis says:

    Bless the piano players!

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  6. Sara H says:

    What a wonderful story! Yes, God bless the piano players, wherever and however they get that joint a-jumpin!

  7. Mark Willis says:

    Indeed, what would we do without them? Merry Christmas, Sara!

  8. Lorca says:

    I was surprised by Your grandmothers name.It is lithuanian name. My grandmother was Ona too.
    Maybe Your roots are from Lithuania? Merry Christmas! I like to read You very much.

  9. Mark Willis says:

    Dear Lorca,

    In all my years I’ve never met or heard of another named Ona. It pleases me very much to learn that your grandmother was Ona, too. I love the idea that some part of our family may have roots in Lithuania. Thank you so much for making contact! It is a simple gift only the Internet can provide. Wishing you a joyous and healthy New Year,

    Mark

  10. Pingback: Mahalia’s Gift: “Go Tell It On the Mountain” – a blind flaneur

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