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?”
“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.