Dedicated to the memory of Uncle Clarence
It was a bright, warm Saturday morning in June. School was out, and Wendy was eager to get outside and play. But as she rushed to the screen door, she was puzzled by the sight of her Great Uncle Ralph’s big red truck in their big back yard.
Oh no! Suddenly she remembered: today must be the day her dad was selling her piano. He had asked her if she would mind. She did not play it so much anymore, he thought, and he needed the money.
It was not really Wendy’s piano. She just thought of it as hers. Her dad had bought it for her mom, soon after the family had first moved to this house two years ago. Wendy’s mom knew how to play many classical songs on the piano, like Richard Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer.” Wendy had wanted to learn to play the piano too, so her mom had found her a teacher. After that teacher moved away, Wendy’s mom had taken her to lessons in a nearby town once a week with a teacher she really liked, Mrs. Gold.
And then, last year, everything had changed. Wendy’s mom and dad had broken up. Her mom now lived miles away and Wendy rarely saw her. Wendy’s Grandma and Grandpa came and stayed during the week and went home on weekends.
Then Mrs. Gold stopped teaching piano lessons when she had a new baby. Wendy had to get a new teacher once again. The trouble was, her new teacher, Mrs. Garrouchy, was… well, grouchy! She never smiled like Mrs. Gold had done. Wendy knew Mrs. Gold liked her, but she was not so sure Mrs. Garrouchy did. Mrs. Garrouchy would get mad if Wendy needed to cancel a lesson because she had not practiced. But if Wendy went to the lesson and she had not practiced, she would make mistakes. Mrs. Garrouchy would make her feel bad then too.
So she had quit taking piano lessons. Dad and Grandma had not seemed to mind, but Grandpa said it was not good to “be a quitter” and quit too many things. (She had also quit Girl Scouts).
Wendy had intended to keep practicing the piano on her own. However, without a teacher, that was not so easy. She needed new songs and a teacher’s guidance. Oh, sometimes she would still goof around on the piano and play the songs she knew. That was mostly before Dad got home from work. Once Grandpa brought her some sheet music and asked her to learn a song just for him, “Moon River” by Henry Mancini. She was proud that she had learned to play that complicated arrangement by heart for him, and he had seemed pleased. She wished he would buy her more music, but he did not. True, she never asked him to.
Wendy continued to keep the little brown spinet polished with furniture polish until it gleamed and the seat was as smooth as a skating rink. On top of the piano sat three small statues of composers: Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. She was so proud that she had earned each one by practicing one hour a day, for six weeks with Mrs. Gold.
Now, as she stood there in the kitchen doorway, staring into the yard at Uncle Ralph’s truck, Wendy felt devastated. She did not want to lose her piano. Just as with her mother’s leaving, she felt there was nothing she could do to stop it from happening.
Her dad and Uncle Ralph wheeled the piano from the dining room into the kitchen. The floors creaked under its weight.
“Honey, we need you to move out of the way, okay?” her dad asked kindly.
Wendy’s Uncle Clarence, her favorite uncle, had been getting a drink of water at the kitchen sink. He had come over for the day with Uncle Ralph. Clarence, her dad’s younger brother, was a music-loving college student. He had taught Wendy how to play “Heart and Soul” and to ‘ad lib’, to make up her own accompaniments. They had fun playing the piano together.
“Come on, Wendy, let’s go for a walk,” he said, grabbing her hand.
They started down the sidewalk silently, with Wendy holding back tears. Her stomach hurt too.
After a bit, Uncle Clarence said, “Did I ever tell you about the pony I had?”
“No,” said Wendy, trying not to sniffle.
“Her name was Pet,” Uncle Clarence began. “When I was about your age, our family had to move to the country for a year. Your grandpa had gotten sick working as a painter, from the lead paint they used then, so he’d had to quit painting. We lived in a house near Shelbyville, on your Great-Uncle Jay’s farm. Your grandpa farmed for him. We were there last Thanksgiving. Do you remember?”
“Oh yeah.” Grandpa had passed out bread slices at the table like he was dealing cards, saying, “Bread, bread, Bread.” Everyone had laughed.
“I never saw any horses,” Wendy said.
“No, not any more; your Uncle Jay used to keep them though. He had one pony called Pet. She wasn’t really a pony, but we boys—your dad and our three cousins Ray, Jim, and Charlie and I—called her a pony because that was how we thought cowboys talked. She was really a full-sized horse, as tall as a man. I had to climb up on the fence to get onto her. She was brown and white with a big brown spot on her rump.
“I was in love with that horse,” Uncle Clarence continued. “I called her Pet. I thought of her as mine, but she wasn’t really mine. I rode her every day when I came home from school and took care of her every chance I got.
“For a little boy like me, it was a big thing to be able to control her. I was the youngest. Ray was the next youngest, but he was a lot bigger than I was. He would make me ride bareback behind him. He’d make that horse go like a bat out of — a belfry, with me hanging on for dear life. But what I liked best was just spending time with Pet — stroking her, talking to her, and just taking care of her.
“And then one day,” said Uncle Clarence, “Uncle Jay told me that he was going to have to sell Pet.”
“Oh no!” said Wendy, looking up at him quickly. “Why?”
“I never knew why,” said Uncle Clarence. “Your Uncle Jay was a kind man. He was good to his animals. Perhaps he thought his older boys were mistreating or neglecting Pet in some way. He wouldn’t have stood for that. Or, maybe he couldn’t afford to keep feeding her. She wasn’t a working horse on the farm anymore, so she wasn’t earning her keep. So, when he had a chance to sell her, maybe he felt like he had to take it.”
“I guess he needed the money,” said Wendy.
“Probably,” said Uncle Clarence. “Farmers didn’t make much money back then. Your grandpa only made $100 a month. Now, $100 went a lot farther in those days—”
“—but it wasn’t enough to keep Pet, was it.” Wendy sighed. “How could you stand it, Uncle, to lose Pet?”
“At first, I couldn’t,” said Uncle Clarence slowly, remembering. “But Pet was never really mine, you see. She was Uncle Jay’s. I trusted him that he wasn’t selling Pet to hurt me.”
“She was like yours,” Wendy observed.
“She sure was,” Uncle Clarence agreed.
“How could they do that to you? I can hardly believe it!” said Wendy. It seemed so unfair.
“It was hard,” said Uncle Clarence, “but it got better in time. I just kept looking forward to the good things that I knew would happen, on down the road.”
“Did you ever get another pony?” asked Wendy.
“No,” said Uncle Clarence. He gave her hand a squeeze and his eyes looked a little wistful, as if he could see Pet standing before him right then with her liquid, understanding brown eyes and soft lashes, her soft furry coat that was just right to touch, the way she let him hug her. “We moved back to town the next year.”
“Well, when I grow up, I am going to buy you a pony,” Wendy promised.
“You will? Well that’s a kind thought,” said her uncle with a smile. “And one of these days, Wendy, you will have another piano. You will never forget this piano, of course. It will always be special to you, just as Pet will always be special to me.”
Wendy’s eyes welled with tears. It was hard to put into words how she felt. She would miss being able to bang down on the keys hard if she wanted to, or to make up “love songs” between the high notes for the ‘girl’ and the low notes for the ‘boy’. Her piano had sung back to her the medleys in her heart, her hopes and dreams, her anger and fears, like a good friend.
She couldn’t have put all that into words, not then. But maybe, she could have put it into music.
Soon they were back at her house. Uncle Ralph’s truck had gone, but her friends were there, waiting on the porch: Mary, Vicky and Becky. The sun felt good. The truck was gone, and the yard was free for playing.
“Do you want to play Kick-the-Can?” they asked.
“Sure!” said Wendy.
Uncle Clarence said, “Wendy, when you’ve got enough money, let me know, and I’ll take you to pick out that new record player you’ve been saving for.”
“Thanks, Uncle Clarence!” said Wendy. “Maybe next time you come over?”
“That’ll be something to look forward to!” he said with a smile. He turned and went on into the house.