Iowa Writes

DIANNA PENNY
Old Pianos (excerpt from "River Town Chronicles")


[...]

In addition to Jack's store, there were other small businesses along the riverfront, most of them taverns. It was from one of these that I would receive a very special gift—my first piano. I will never forget the sunny September afternoon a red pick-up truck bearing an upright piano turned into our gravel lane. I had seen it from the school bus and ran toward the house as fast as my long, thin twelve-year-old legs would carry me. Mama and Daddy, waiting on the front porch, beamed at my excitement. The piano was a battered Victorian relic, its gloriously ruined appearance a sight to behold, having seen its share of celebratory and drunken revelry. Many of the places where bas-relief carvings had once adorned it were now bare expanses of wood with only faded outlines of what once was.  Most of the white keys were missing their ivories, and one key was missing a hammer, producing, when struck, only a dry, scratchy sound, like the rattling of bones. Most of the felt pieces in the key bed were missing. None of that concerned me, however. The piano was mine, and lessons would commence on the following Saturday. In retrospect, I suspect this instrument had been through a flood, perhaps several. The tavern's proprietor was replacing it with a jukebox. It seems as though the river had offered it to me, and I practiced until my parents made me go outdoors and play or called me to dinner.

[...]

In addition to Jack's store, there were other small businesses along the riverfront, most of them taverns. It was from one of these that I would receive a very special gift—my first piano. I will never forget the sunny September afternoon a red pick-up truck bearing an upright piano turned into our gravel lane. I had seen it from the school bus and ran toward the house as fast as my long, thin twelve-year-old legs would carry me. Mama and Daddy, waiting on the front porch, beamed at my excitement. The piano was a battered Victorian relic, its gloriously ruined appearance a sight to behold, having seen its share of celebratory and drunken revelry. Many of the places where bas-relief carvings had once adorned it were now bare expanses of wood with only faded outlines of what once was.  Most of the white keys were missing their ivories, and one key was missing a hammer, producing, when struck, only a dry, scratchy sound, like the rattling of bones. Most of the felt pieces in the key bed were missing. None of that concerned me, however. The piano was mine, and lessons would commence on the following Saturday. In retrospect, I suspect this instrument had been through a flood, perhaps several. The tavern's proprietor was replacing it with a jukebox. It seems as though the river had offered it to me, and I practiced until my parents made me go outdoors and play or called me to dinner.

My sisters and I were also child singers, and soon I could play accompaniment. Daddy hosted a religious broadcast on KSGM of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, a historic French community on the west bank of the Mississippi north of Chester, and before long we were able to participate in it. Ste. Genevieve was the oldest European settlement west of the Mississippi and boasted beautiful old stone chateau-like houses with walled gardens. Every weekend our entire family would travel to the station to either broadcast live or tape our program. We would cross the Chester Toll Bridge and be greeted by a toll-taker, a delightful chap named Alfonso and nicknamed "Fonny." Once on the Missouri side, we would pass through the hamlet of St. Mary, also historic, where we met a surviving former slave whom everyone called Aunt Biddy. She was the last surviving member of the tiny AME Church in her community.  We loved to arrive early enough to visit with the station's manager and announcer, a big, amiable Cajun called "Uncle Buck." The studio, housed in one of Ste. Genevieve's lovely stone mansions, contained a beautiful antique Steinway concert grand piano of 1870s vintage, and I was smitten. It was well maintained and sounded heavenly after a week of playing my "gift from the river." My old beat-up piano stood proudly, though, in one corner of the parsonage's lace-curtained living room until it was destroyed by fire three years later when both church and parsonage at Chester burned to the ground. By then, KSGM had acquired a sub-station at Chester, and my high school choral director was one of its announcers; he issued an appeal for a replacement of my piano and I was soon the owner of much finer used instrument.

[...]

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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DIANNA PENNY

Having kept a journal for most of her life, Dianna Penny finds that "writing it down" tends to sharpen her memory of events and details. She also credits her late father, a pastor and avid storyteller, for the gift of a rich family oral history. "River Town Chronicles" originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of The Iowa Review.

This page was first displayed
on July 05, 2010

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