Playing piano together, side by side

Published 7:19 pm Sunday, January 2, 2022

By Jan Miller Penton

I sat at the piano playing scales, which I did not really enjoy. Who loves playing scales? I wanted to play the little songs in my book, but scales? Really? Mama Ball told me it was important so I dutifully practiced. We lived in the little town of Harrisville in Simpson County, Mississippi where my daddy taught high school English and History and my grandmother, his mother, lived with us. It was special to have my grandmother as my first piano teacher, but at the time I didn’t realize what a gift it was. Isn’t that the way of many things? It’s much easier to appreciate times and people in hindsight.

Mama Ball was extraordinarily talented and beautiful, but I thought she was a little odd. She called bicycles wheels and pennies were called coppers.

“Take these coppers and ride your wheel to the store for me,” I heard her say.

I was too young to ride my bike all the way to the store so she must have been speaking to my older brother, but I always remembered how funny I thought she sounded. Mama Ball was old when she taught me to play, but I learned some techniques from her that have stayed with me. Before very long, time took its toll and she required constant care. I was saddened when she had to go to the old folks’ home as they were called in those days, but she lived many more years after this.

All her children and grandchildren visited when they could, and eventually she would smile as if she knew me, but I knew she really didn’t. Her eyes would brighten when I would say, “Mama Ball, I’m Jan. I’m I.W.’s youngest daughter.” She didn’t remember me, but when she heard daddy’s name her eyes would light up.

On one particular visit my aunt Sarah Lee was with me. I remember thinking how sad that the light I had seen before at the mention of my daddy’s name had failed to shine. By this point in time she may not have recognized anyone, but the gracious southern lady remembered one thing.

My aunt Sarah Lee lovingly led her to the piano in the guest area and helped her sit. She gingerly took her mama’s hands and placed her fragile fingers on the keys. Slowly at first, Mama Ball touched the ivories. The first few notes she played haltingly, but soon beautiful music filled the air as her hands remembered.

Today the old piano that Mama Ball taught me to play on has been moved from storage in a garage to its new home at our house. We are having the old piano restored, and I’ll just bet Mama Ball is looking down with a smile.

I never practiced enough to be anywhere near the pianist my grandmother was, but I will plunk away and think of the times we sat together side by side.