By: Mark Veenman
My piano teacher’s husband made beautiful grandfather clocks. After 30 years, a masterpiece of his still stands in solitude in my parents’ living room, gonging out the quarter hours with all the grandeur of Big Ben. Whenever I hear it, I think of my piano teacher, warily teaching me middle C, the bass clef, and Minuet in G major by Bach, punctuated by the bells of Big Ben.
It’s not often that we venerate heirlooms. I mean, do you still sit on Oma’s brocade chesterfield rubbing the fabric and recalling the smell of mothballs? Yes, I’ll admire the grainy black and white photos of the great gate of Rotterdam. Perhaps a few Delfts Blauw plates, or intricate cross-stitched windmills. But carefully tucked away against the inside wall, far away from the awninged windows and against the inside wall stands Great-grandfather’s upright piano. The centre of entertainment. The silent witness. And the bringer of sadness, and great joy.
Today, I met a Canadian army WWII veteran. He was born in 1921 in Wingham, Ontario to immigrant Brits, and on his 9th birthday his dad bought him a black Lab. And a Heintzman upright piano from Toronto. I was there to tune his piano.
Arriving in a downpour, I was greeted warmly by
Lloyd and Marie who quickly urged me in. They
were dressed impeccably: he in buttoned-up
vest, dress shirt, and ironed slacks. She in
knee-length skirt, blouse with a large brooch,
and gloriously combed silver hair. And there it
stood. The 1930 Heintzman upright piano sat quietly and majestically beside the grandfather clock, an anthology of hits from the roaring 20s sitting diffidently on the music desk. Still a glorious upright, its beautiful book-ended and burled Walnut music desk radiated even in the darkened living room, the white ivories still in perfect condition. I quickly set about my work, opening the lid and carefully removing the music desk and resting it against the wing-backed chair, and began tuning the piano. Marie, having brought me coffee and cookies, urged Lloyd, who was peppering me with questions, to leave me alone so I could work quietly. They both sat down in the kitchen.
Interrupted recurrently by the grandfather clock, I set about my work, working up and down the keyboard as I always do, setting up the perfect equal temperament and then tidying up the unisons. The years had not detracted much from its fantastic engineering, and the old Heintzman, after 87 years, finished perfectly at concert pitch. The tone is warm, shifting seamlessly across the break. Inviting and full. I quietly thanked the craftsman, long dead, who built her in the early years of the great depression in Toronto.
Breathlessly, I started to play the piano as I always do; this time a variation on Rameau’s Gavotte avec 6 doubles. It’s a great test of simple intervals and quiet playing; for me, always the true test of an instrument and its tuning. After a while, Lloyd wandered in from the kitchen and sat down beside me as I finished.
“Mark, I wish my dad coulda heard that.” He paused, settling back in the chair. I turned on the bench toward him and patiently folded my hands. “I’m a World War Two vet. I wanted to join RCAF when I was 18, but they told me I was colour blind. Damn! Imagine living for 18 years not knowing you were colour blind! To hell with that. I was going to Europe, so I joined the army. I landed in Normandy, fought in the Scheldt estuary, and liberated the Netherlands.” My heart skipped a beat. Had he noticed my last name? “Would you do me a favour?” “Of course”, I replied. “Could you play for me ‘God Save the King’”? “You mean ‘God Save the Queen’”! I quipped.
“No. God Save the King’. When I got home to Wingham in ’45, my dad - they were all crying - asked me to sit down and play the national anthem on the piano.” Realizing the gravity of the moment, I turned on the bench
and laid my hands on the keyboard. 71 short years ago, the young Lloyd, army veteran, survivor of WWII, and Marie’s young, handsome
groom had placed his hands on the self-same piano. Was it G major? It was my best guess at the moment. And so it was that the Heintzman upright, doing righteous battle with the neighbouring grandfather clock chiming 4pm, played “the national anthem” once again. The 91 year old warrior, now standing quietly beside his war bride, bravely wiped away invisible tears from moistened eyes. “Thanks, Mark”.
I quietly packed up and, standing outside in the rain, I paused. Lloyd had sat down at the piano and began playing some flapper tune from the ‘20s
We’re often invited into the private spaces of our clients. Sometimes we work on the most precious possessions they own. And sometimes, we step back in history, and relive it with them, and even for them.
“A good man”, I whispered. No, a great man. Thank you Lloyd, and all veterans.
Written on May 5th, 2017, the anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian and Allied forces.