By Patrick Heffernan
I cannot describe the way my grandma could play the piano, but I will try. She had a natural gift for playing and could play anything she heard by ear immediately. She enhanced this gift with about 57 years of being a church organist and also giving piano lessons for much of her life. Unless you’ve been in presence and up close – I mean right by the piano- with someone who can play like she could, you simply can’t understand it. Her hands would fly; her feet would frantically press the pedals as she would make the piano sound like an orchestra or a big band, depending on the piece she played.
Of course my grandma could play everything including beautiful, complex piano pieces, but in my mind there was one song that she played that was far and away her very best. That song was Jingle Bells. My sister and I loved her version of Jingle Bells so much that we would request she play it year 'round. Many times she would arrive at our house for a Sunday dinner in the middle of the summer to be greeted at the door by my sister and me begging her to play, of all things, Jingle Bells. Now I understand that it probably gave her great joy to play the piano with two of her grandchildren right by her side. I know it gave us great joy.
My Grandma’s version of Jingle Bells was incredible. She’d sit down and quietly start as we began “dashing through the snow". The song and the sounds would build and build with her hands frantically flying way, way up into the air while the keys were pressed all over the place–the left hand creating a deep booming almost drum-like beat while her right hand was way up creating the sounds of bells. Those hands of hers…now I look back and realize, especially in her later years, they probably looked frail, but to me they looked like pure magic. I can honestly remember grabbing her hands after she played to see if she had more than the usual ten fingers.
The song built and built–one time I think I may have seen a spark fly from the piano as the keys caused those strings within the piano to scream a beautiful sound. At some point each time she would play, I would wonder if maybe, just maybe, even in the middle of summer, we would get a visit from someone who we called “The Jolly Old Elf” but most call Santa Claus.
On that note, you don’t need to take my word on her piano playing, just ask Santa how my Grandma could play Jingle Bells. You see, each year on Christmas Eve we would gather with a bunch of family members and enjoy Christmas together. After all the food was eaten and all the dishes were done it was finally time for my Grandma to make her way to the piano–it seemed like it was 2 am to me but probably more like 8 pm. My little grandma would sit at the piano and begin my favorite song-and it was pure joy. Just like every other time it would build and build. But on Christmas Eve it got so loud that way, way up in the sky Santa could hear it. Can you imagine the chaos of that evening for Santa, the elves and the reindeer? At this point they were probably running behind so he had the reindeer going full tilt through the freezing sky.
“On Dasher, On Dancer, On Comet, On Cupid” as he cracked his whip into midair. “On Donner, On Blitzen……whoa…..whoa…… Ruth Anna Aurora Heffernan is at the piano! To Duluth we go!” So down the reindeer would dive and they would go into a free fall pointing directly at Duluth, Minnesota. I imagine Santa would arrive and peek in a window and see my grandma playing with all the kids around smiling at her playing and all the adults around smiling at the kids smiling, and of course, the song. I’d bet at this point he would say “now that is a gift”. Just about at the end of the magical song the doorbell would ring and there would be Santa. We’d hear the bells ringing and he would pass in a big, huge bag of gifts for the kids. We’d run to the door to catch a glimpse of him but, sure enough, by the time we got there he was on his way.
Every single Christmas Eve went exactly this way and it was pure joy for the young and I’m sure for the old, too. What could be better than being all together and having my grandma play Jingle Bells? But just like everyone else, my Grandma started to get a bit older. One year it was time for her to move out of her house and into a nursing home. Her old piano happily found a home at my parents’ house where it still sits. I was about 10 years old at this point, so my memories are that of a child. I remember visiting her at the nursing home and finding she was getting foggier and foggier. I didn’t know it then, but I now realize as an adult that elderly loved-ones march into heaven too fast for your heart and too slow for your head. This was the case for my Grandma.
I remember one time in particular my dad and I visited her and she didn’t seem to know who we were- pretty confusing for a ten year old. But I think I started to understand what was happening, as much as I didn’t want to accept it. At this time, we decided to see if she could still play the old piano. Life is pretty funny; while time and her advanced age had taken her ability to walk and her ability to reason, it had not taken her amazing ability to play the piano. Almost instinctively, I asked her to play my favorite song. And away she went, playing Jingle Bells just as good as she always did. I can assure you, that nursing home piano had never, ever been played like that–not even close. Yet again, I wondered if just maybe the Jolly Old Elf would come walking in the nursing home and in the room.
That would be the last time I would hear her play her magical version of that song. After all those years of her playing Jingle Bells on Christmas Eve, I knew I would miss it on that special night and I sure do. But I soon realized that, even if she wasn’t here with me, my Grandma playing Jingle Bells would be with me forever. I’m sure my grandma gave me many thoughtful gifts over the years–toys, hockey stuff, and games, but the only one I remember is the one she played on the piano for all of us. And oh, what a gift it was.