From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

Inspired by Love

Always know in your heart that you are far bigger than anything that can happen to you.

Dan Zadra

As early as I can remember, I craved being in the spotlight. When I was two, I would crowd my mom and dad and aunt, uncles and cousins into our living room at holidays and sing them songs. The desire grew stronger throughout my childhood and became my life’s ambition.

I was blessed to have two of the most loving and supportive parents a child could have. It was this warm, adoring encouragement that helped so much when an electric floor fan fell over on me and I lost the little finger on my left hand. I was thirteen months old, and I don’t even remember it happening. I think it was as traumatic for my parents as it was for me, but they handled it beautifully. Even though they knew losing my finger was going to be a challenge, they also knew my love of music would conquer any obstacles that I encountered.

When I turned four, they decided to start me on piano lessons. Once a week, I packed my piano books under my arm and cheerfully walked up the street and around the corner in our Florida Gulf Coast town to the home of Irene Market, my piano teacher. Mrs. Market was elderly, small and frail—a wisp of a woman. But oh! That wisp could fill your heart with inspiration and make your fingers dance. She loved music, and she loved children. She made me love piano.

There was only one problem. When I started lessons playing “Hot Cross Buns,” I did fine practicing on one of those little pianos like Schroeder plays in “Peanuts,” but after a couple of years, when it became clear that I had a talent for piano and wanted to continue—it also became obvious that I’d outgrown my “baby grand.”

That made for a new problem. My mom and dad were both public school teachers. Dad was a painter who taught high school art, and Mom taught home economics; and they both loved their work. However, their salaries just didn’t provide enough money to buy a real piano.

Then one day I got the surprise of my young life. Mom and Dad called me out into the garage. There, big as life, was a brown upright piano. Squealing with delight, I pulled the bench over and began playing. All those keys! They went on and on for octaves, and all but the highest key and the lowest key worked.

When I asked where it came from, Mom grinned and said she’d found it at a garage sale—for twenty-five dollars.

“It doesn’t look like much now,” she said. “But I’ll take care of that.”

I can still picture how scratched and battered the wood of that old piano was. But true to her word and her creativity, within days, Mom had covered that piano with contact paper. It had orange and green mushrooms on it. For a kid in the late sixties, that was the height of cool.

The arrival of that piano began a new era in my life. It lived in the garage, which was where my dad had his “art studio” set. To this day, I remember the glorious sounds and smells of creativity—oil paint, plaster, canvas and even the oil leaking from under the car. From then on I lived in the garage. It became my own personal stage. I sang and danced on the grandest stages in front of huge audiences, and I didn’t even have to close my eyes. I lived in a continuous musical, like a daydream, performing alongside such stars as Judy Garland, who inspired me so much as the child star of the Wizard of Oz.

From my old piano, I learned that music defined much of who I was and what I loved. Practicing for hours every day was a joy. And the old piano gave its all. Being in the garage, the instrument was subjected to Gulf Coast weather year-round—through the humidity of summer and the cold of winter. (Yes, there are some cold winters in Florida!) Sometimes during the winter, I’d take a bowl of steaming water out with me, and when my fingers got too cold to continue, I’d warm them in the water and play on. Of course, our house became a regular stop on the piano tuner’s rounds.

Not everyone was supportive, and the magic didn’t always occur. In college, I prepared to sing an aria from the opera Tales of Hoffman. When my name was called, I said a quick prayer and walked onstage to face the audience— and the panel of judges. My voice was in fine form for the occasion, and I felt really good as I gestured with my hands to accent the lyrics. Afterward, as the audience warmly applauded my performance, I felt a wonderful glow of satisfaction. From the smile on the faces of the judges, I was confident they had enjoyed the piece as well.

Out in the hallway, I ran into the vocal professor. She stopped me and said, “I saw your performance, and I have to say . . .” She hesitated. “I was really distracted by your missing finger. You need to rework your movements so that your hand isn’t so visible. It’s really disturbing.”

This is where I have to give my parents so much credit. Because of their nurturing and constant encouragement, I’ve never felt like I had a handicap at all. I believe that God gave me a voice and musical talent to share with others, to make them feel good, and I believe he gave me the challenge of my childhood mishap to encourage others, to let them know that they have more strength than they sometimes realize. He’s also given me this wonderful career in country music—a lifelong dream come true. Looking back, I can never recall the insensitive music professor’s words without remembering the old piano. I’m sure by the time the piano reached the garage sale, its owners saw a battered hunk of worthless junk. Maybe they could get twenty-five dollars for it. I admit that green and orange mushrooms might not add a lot to the value the se days. But if you were willing to look past the outer imperfections, inside that piano was a magical world of beautiful music—and the promise of possibilities for a young girl.

Lari White
As told by Ron Camacho

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