I was up the creek in the key of F.
And it was all her fault.
And it was all her fault.
My grandmother was a looker. Beautiful smile, dancing eyes, long dark hair and a wrinkle in her nose that scrunched up when she laughed. Which was often. Even, and especially, in her middle-aged years she had a certain something that men gravitated to and women hated. Her sparkling personality could turn a man's head once -usually twice - when she walked in a room. She never crossed the unlady-like line to overtly flirt with those whose eyes gravitated towards the back heel of her properly slung stilettos, but not from lack of ammunition.
Shoes or no shoes, my grandmother had a great pair of legs.
Red lipstick. Beautiful skin. Matching accessories. Adorable clothes.
Cool sunglasses (even in the sixties) and more shoes than Imelda Marcos.
With matching purses, of course.
It is why I am a pencil skirt today.
But it is not why I am a piano player.
She owned a couple of small restaurants. Her cooking was famous. Her Saturday night shindigs were infamous. One of her restaurants was attached to an establishment she used on weekends for local musicians to come and play. Homegrown bands of all shapes and varieties showed up to perform on that tiny stage out in the middle of farmland USA.
A "No Drinking" sign posted at the front door to patronize the local law enforcement but even I knew it was the back door that needed the sign. I grew up around guitars and banjos and piano players. Harmonicas and rat-a-tat basement drum sets with long-haired hippie-wanna-be drummers imitating Ringo behind an occasional steel guitar.
Somehow, that just didn't fit.
And neither did I this particular Saturday night.
Why she insisted I play Swannie River at her weekly soiree I will never know. It's amazing I ever played the piano again.
Always one to smell impending disaster and prepare for it appropriately, I decided to practice once more before my bow unbowed. Because, somehow, I just knew it would. My wilt had already melted in the intense heat of too much testosterone and not enough talcum powder. I had to do something before my pencily fingers were flying in the wrong direction. This was no ordinary Saturday night. The place was packed. And smokey. And loud. Ripe for all those sins thrown timidly on the Sunday morning altar. But that was a few hours away yet.
I still had time to emerge as a rock star. Repenting would have to wait.
It was time to warm up my trembling fingers. Counting one and two and three and four and.....
"Do you MIND little girl?" snarled freckle-faced beer-bellied Fred sitting in the corner trying to tune his six-string. He leaned his ear into the crook of his shiny Saturday night appendage and listened. Strum. Tune. Strum. Strum. Cuss. Tune.
I don't know what he was so upset about it.
All he had to do was play in the key of F.
And that might have worked had the piano - and old upright with squeaky pedals - been in tune. But it was horribly derailed from one end to the other. Up the proverbial creek I was without a cushion for my skinny fanny and a room full of smokers who wanted to choke my crinoline.
But grandmother was determined. And beautiful. She stood and announced, her very pointy heels marking the beat with Stephen Foster's common time on my yellowed page. "My granddaughter will now play Swannie River."
What are you gonna do? She owned the place. They had to listen to me play.
After a rather prissy sashay onto the squatty bench, I looked around.
Nobody breathed. Everybody watched bony fingers about to wow them with John Thompson's Piano Book Level Five page 22 rendition of the most boring song on the planet. But groovy grandmother didn't care.
It was my debut.
I held my breath and counted.
One swannie....two swannies...three swannies....four swannies...five.
And began again.
Twenty swannies later and nobody was paying attention to Little Miss Muffet's tuffet. My fanny was finished.
They were talking. Whispering. Laughing.
In the middle of my swannie?
Oh the nerve.
The sweaty palms.
Around swannie number 30 I saw a man get up and approach my grandmother.
He was the lead singer for the band that night. "Could you ask her to stop playing for a minute? My guitar players can't tune their guitars."
Fred looked at me and laughed.
I was mortified.
I continued to count and pretend I was squishing his face with the heel of my right black patent leather which was furiously pumping the squeaky pedal. But my concentration was lost.
My grandmother, whose every move stole any hope of anybody paying attention to anything else in the room anyway, wafted my way and with a wave of her puffy smoking cigarette (which somehow magically disappeared quickly every Sunday morning before church) escorted my pencil skirt elsewhere. Thank you very much for no applause.
In the back of the restaurant on a stool too tall for my heel-less pumps, I sulked and leaned on the counter, listening to the crowd explode as Johnny and Sue's hodgepodge hillbilly rock band took the stage.
"Banana pudding?" my uncle asked. "It's your favorite," safely tucked away in the empty kitchen void of cooks and dishwashers and grandmothers.
"They didn't like my playing," I said. "I hate that song!!"
Tears in the custard.
But the only thing I had to repent for the next day were the bad words that spilled heavily through my twelve-year-old brain directed at - you guessed it - Imelda.
I survived and later learned that she was, admittedly, a tad touched in the head at times. I suppose I would be too if I'd spent as much time as she did matching accessories and properly and painfully walking into department stores to find just the right pair of heels. It was a hard life. My grandfather saw to it that she never put me on display again (well,there was that time during choir practice that nearly ruined me for life......but that's another story).
Fred went on to crash and burn in a few dozen amateur bands and I learned to tell the difference between country/western music and southern rock. The melding of the two is the best fit - provided one knows how to terminally smother the dreaded twang. Steel guitars still make me itch. Smoke makes me wither. And the thought of playing Swannie River again makes me want to drown myself.
But if there's one thing I learned from my infamous -and lovable - grandmother: Shoe shopping fixes everything. I'm thinking toe-less and jeweled.
Aren't these lovely?