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The Piano & A Lesson in Impermanence


In 1949, my grandfather Constantine “Gus” Zaffiras bought a second hand baby grand piano. From whom he bought it and for how much is lost to history, but what my mom definitely remembers is that it was his pride and joy and the perfect centerpiece for my grandparents’ first home with a front door after years of living in the back of a Curries ice cream store that they owned and operated.

My Papa dreamt of a career as a singer in film. He came to Hollywood, California, from a small village near Olympia, Greece, via Sioux City, Iowa and Ellis Island, NY. He attended Juilliard until the war broke out, got professional headshots, and even pressed his voice to vinyl. He never made it on the silver screen, but I didn’t care one bit because he was my Papa who embodied music and encouraged me to learn to play on that very same piano that he’d acquired in ‘49.

In the early 70s’, the same piano was now tucked along the living room wall of a different home. My sister and I would sit on the piano bench with our legs dangling above the pedals and our small hands hovering over the keys ready to go. I’m not sure which one of us was playing, but I can still sense Papa reaching over, from where he stood behind us, to open a sheet of music. I’m sure we had a repertoire of simple songs, but I only ever remember one, the Irish tune “Danny Boy” (1910) by Frederic Weatherly. The lyrics are about loss of people and place, but also hope and the possibility of being reunited with the departed. My Papa knew those feelings. After all, when he was a young man, he’d left his home country and many beloved family members for better opportunities. His tenor voice plucked our heart strings when he sang, then his voice carried out through the open sliding doors and into the garden where it would weave into the birds’ songs.

Eventually, my husband and I inherited the piano and moved it into our first home in the Hollywood district in Portland, Oregon. Then we moved again and kept moving first to Germany, then China, Colorado, France, and California, where we are now. The piano moved too, sometimes with us and sometimes she stayed back with friends. In the middle of all those moves, we had two children who grew up pounding the keys then learning how to read, play, and love music in the same way that I did. Through all the changes, the piano remained timeless and kept her signature sound in spite of variations in humidity, heat, tunings, and periods of silence.

When I look at the piano, I see an ancient tree and a towering elephant whose tusks curl up into the sky. I see artisans lovingly shaping and assembling all her parts: soundboard, bridge, strings, damper, turning pins, keys, pedals, and so on. I see an elegant instrument and a dear family member of seventy-four years. I’d like to believe that my Papa knew that his purchase was a generational one. Not only would his own daughter play, but his granddaughters and great grandchildren, too. Music has a way of weaving itself into DNA.

It’s time for her to move again. This time to live with my friend Tom who is an incredible musician. He hopes to have his own family one day who will learn to love and play music just like he does. It’s never easy saying goodbye, but the time comes when we must – to places, people, and even pianos. I never imagined the piano would be the one giving me a lesson in impermanence, but she has. Things change.

On May 5th, the day of the Flower Full Moon of Spring, and the day before the piano movers came, I took time to sit outside in my garden and listen to the birds who carried my grandfather’s voice in their song for all these years. Then I sat down at the piano and played one last time. I felt deeply grateful to the tree, elephant, my Papa, my parents for sitting through my playing, my sister for being my bench mate, my children, now adults, for sticking with their lessons, and Tom for opening up his home to the piano. Yes, things change, but we are forever connected through music.

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