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ON THE 11th HOUR: when the war went quiet
A piano's life
“All my memories gather ‘round her.” — John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
Doesn’t it seem like an instrument has a life all its own?
Brand-new like a baby, people ooh and aah over it.
As it ages, it goes through cycles; sometimes full-speed allegro, other times a slow largo. Sometimes making music, and sometimes sitting quiet.
And sometimes – just when it seems its life is nearly through, and it hasn’t been tuned in some time – it belts out a rock n’ roll classic like Little Richard’s “Lucille”, and makes a roomful of people want to boogie.
For the Fitzpatricks, their family piano was “reincarnated” on Saturday when it left the St. John’s home where it lived for a generation and got a new lease on life at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market.
It was unveiled to much fanfare as part of the Business and Arts NL #ComePlayWithMeNL public piano program.
It marks the eighth piano to be placed in a public location for anyone to play – others are at the St. John’s International Airport, Memorial University Student Centre, the Health Sciences Centre, and other locations – with more on the way in the next few months.
Cultivating a love for the arts
When the Fitzpatrick siblings donated the piano in dedication to their mother, Violet Fitzpatrick, it was a deep brown colour.
Julie Lewis, the artist commissioned to paint it, said it got five to six coats of paint, and it took her between 45 and 55 hours to complete.
Now, the old piano looks sparkling new – and playful, like a child again.
To fit the farmers’ market location, Lewis painted it brightly with the seat full of smiling tomatoes, and its legs painted like a cucumber and a carrot.
“On the back (of the piano) you can see bumblebees and little things, and it made me cry,” said Laura Fitzpatrick, one of the three siblings who grew up playing classical pieces on the old piano.
“Because when you’re out in your garden farming, that is what you see. There’s a dragonfly, a bumblebee, a little snail and other little creatures. It’s what our life was growing up with our parents.”
The siblings Laura, Linda and Stephen Fitzpatrick described an upbringing that sounds idyllic. They said their parents nurtured in them a love of the arts – which is why the parents gave the children a piano, so they could learn to read music – but they also spent many hours working in their extensive family garden.
In a speech to the gathered crowd, Linda told of fond memories going out to pull carrots or an onion for an evening’s supper.
“Mom grew up on a family farm in the Goulds. When she married Dad, not only did she bring her green thumb roots with her, but along the way Dad couldn’t help but become a farmer, too. Together, they tilled, toiled, planted, weeded and harvested fresh vegetables and beautiful flowers from my mother’s garden for many, many years.”
After autumn harvest, their cellar would be filled with root vegetables to last the seven-member household the whole winter.
The siblings said that their parents love one another “deeply”.
“Dad will say to Mom, ‘You’re my heart’s bouquet’,” said Laura.
The five siblings (two of whom live away and weren’t at the unveiling) are now in their 50s and 60s, and their parents, Cyril and Violet Fitzpatrick, are in their late 80s. All of their grandchildren are now grown and are in their 30s.
“(The piano has) had its contribution to our family. And so, we wanted to share it,” said Laura, adding the farmers’ market was the perfect location given the family’s love for farming.
‘It’s a transition’
Her father, Cyril, was present for the unveiling. As Mick Davis performed for the crowd the very first song on the piano in its new space, Cyril tapped his foot along to the beat. His wife, Violet, has Alzheimer’s and uses a wheelchair and wasn’t able to be there to see the piano welcomed to its new home.
Decluttering some items from the family home was an important task, said the children, so that their mother to get around with greater ease. The piano was a part of that.
Laura recalled the last time it was played was two Christmases ago when she and her partner performed a duet for the family as part of a gift.
“With aging parents, you know, life is always changing, and in elder age it’s always changing – it’s continually changing. And so, for Mom and Dad, this is part of that. It’s a transition. It’s a new way to use this piano.”
While the piano wasn’t played as much in recent years, the couple still listens to music on CDs every day.
Laura described her parents’ music collection as varied – with everything from Bocelli to The Beatles to big band albums – but these days they’re listening to a lot of John Denver.
“Your ability to follow music, and to remember lyrics and to sing along, is one of the last things to go (with Alzheimer’s). So, Mom – if you put in a song that she was listening to in the past – she will remember the lyrics. She will know what the melody is that’s coming up. And so, while we’re not sitting using the piano at home, we are listening to music every day,” she said.
Linda said their mother isn’t able to communicate clearly with words and sentences these days, but she often communicates her moods by singing.
“And we all join in and sing with her,” she said.
Laura added that “it’s in that moment of a song” that her parents can “feel one another as if it was years ago.”
As the crowd started to disperse after the speeches were said and the band finished playing its short set, market patrons took turns playing the piano while the Fitzpatricks sat nearby and watched.
They joked about how the piano was never played the way Mick Davis played it, and Laura said she liked hearing the rock n’ roll.
“I thought that was just great because it was unwieldy, right? It was all over the board and it’s kind of like life, and you don’t know where life is going to bring you.”
She spoke about what it means to be able to pass the piano on to others.
“It’s a beautiful thing to have objects in your life that meant a lot, and then to give them to somebody who appreciates that as well, and to give that of yourself. It helps you through the sad moments of life. I mean, this is what life is about.”
Stephen said it was “a big thing” for the family to let go of the instrument.
“It was emotional,” he said.
“We are lucky that it’s going to live here in this type of space with people who are interested in these types of things and with people who are happy — because Mom and Dad were always extremely happy in their garden.”
And then, as the family were about to part ways and head home, there was a moment of what can only be described as serendipity — a market patron began playing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Tears formed in Laura’s eyes and the three siblings beamed.
The pianist played the chorus where Denver would sing, “country roads, take me home to the place I belong.”
And it was clear the piano would fit in here just fine.