4: An Unexpected Gift

4: An Unexpected Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles and More

An Unexpected Gift

One does not play the piano with one’s fingers; one plays the piano with one’s mind.

~Glenn Gould

My grandfather married his first wife, Edith, when they were both nineteen years old. When she was twenty-one and heavily pregnant with twin sons, she bent over the oven and her apron caught on fire. She panicked and ran from the house to find my grandfather, who was out working in the fields. By that time, she was engulfed in flames. The babies were stillborn the next day. Although the doctor, my grandfather and their family tended to her in the upstairs bedroom of their farmhouse, Edith died about two weeks later.

Grandpa rarely spoke of Edith. He lived alone in their home for five years before marrying my grandmother and having a family. My father and his siblings knew nothing about their father’s first wife until they were playing one day and ran through the cemetery of a little church located in the middle of their farm. There they happened upon the headstones of Edith and the twins.

That farm became a refuge for me after my father died when I was only five. This year, on his birthday, I was looking for a way to honor and remember him. It was a lovely day, warm and sunny, so I spontaneously decided to drive down to the old farm.

Once I reached the farm, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. My cousin owns it now, but he and his family weren’t home. I had my two Golden Retrievers with me, and I let them run for a bit in the field behind the church. Then I decided I would visit the old church and graveyard to “look for Edith.”

In all the time I had spent at that farm, I had never looked for Edith’s headstone. I found the boys first — “twin sons of Foster and Edith McDonnell.” Although I had always known it was there, I felt a twinge upon actually seeing it. The larger headstone was just behind the first. Edith Little McDonnell, 1905–1926. A white plastic flower had been placed in front of the stone — the only flower I saw in the cemetery. Apparently, someone else was remembering Edith, too.

I wandered for a while, enjoying the quiet, the sound of the birds, and the fresh air. I could see my cousin’s home where Grandpa’s house had once stood down the hill. I was happy to see that the new home fit in, and by closing my eyes, I could imagine the old farmhouse as it looked all those years ago. I put the dogs back in the car and prepared to leave but decided to walk to the front of the church and look over the hill one more time. Just as I did, a truck pulled in, and the man inside looked at me. I wavered, thinking I should jump in my car and run away, but then decided I had as much business to be there as anybody. So I continued standing on the steps looking out over the view.

The man came over to inquire as to why I was there. I told him I had just been exploring the old cemetery and what I was looking for. His name was Tim, and his interest was caught immediately. He walked back through the cemetery gate with me to see the headstones I had been looking for. I told him who Edith was, and we began to put some pieces together. He had known my aunt and uncle, had grown up nearby, and was lovingly restoring the old church and caring for the cemetery. He invited me in to see the progress he had made inside the old church. The inside of the building looked well cared for. An altar from the late 1800s still stood in its place.

Tim played me a hymn on the old piano in the church. I complimented him, adding that it reminded me of my grandma, who had lived in the old house down the road and used to pound out those hymns on the piano in her living room. That piano had been there when my grandma moved in, as it had belonged to Edith.

Tim turned and looked at me. That moment is frozen in my mind. He said, “I know where that piano is.” I couldn’t believe it. I had not thought about that piano in years.

It seems that when my cousin tore down the old house, he didn’t know what to do with the piano. He knew that Tim loved music, so he put the piano on a forklift and drove over to Tim’s house. Tim did not need the piano, but he refinished it, put on new keys and pads, and tuned it up. Eventually, Tim gave away the piano, and the man to whom it had been given had called him just a few months ago. He said he was moving and asked if Tim wanted the old piano back. He did not, so the man moved, leaving behind the piano for whoever moved in after him.

I couldn’t believe it. The piano from the home I loved was still in existence, in a town about twenty miles away, right next to the one where I live.

I left the old church and headed straight for New Philadelphia, stopping only to drop off the dogs. Tim had said that the house was on High Street, on an alley and close to another old church. We had visited that church just a few months before; I could not believe I had been so close. I found the house and jumped from the car. I went up the steps, feeling a little foolish, not quite sure what I was going to say when I knocked on the door. No one answered, so I began to look around, and I realized the house was still unoccupied. Not knowing what else to do, I returned to my car. A neighbor was outside, so I asked if he knew anything about the owner of the house. He said the church actually owned the house and it was going to be torn down.

I walked over to the church and met the director of music. She knew about the piano. The church had tried to sell it, but the two people who had been interested had decided it was too heavy to move. Now she just wanted to get rid of it.

That piano now sits in my house. After the movers brought it to me, I sat down to play. There was an echo when certain keys were hit, and when I heard that sound, I began to weep. It was the echo of my childhood.

~Sara Conkle

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