17, Number 95, February/March 2014 Mrs. Petrowski’s Piano by Sylvia Holt
On a hot, clearsky day in the early summer of 1932, Mrs. Petrowski got her piano. It arrived on the 3:00 o’clock westbound, all padded and crated up, and required several men, grunting and heaving, to lower it from the box car onto Kelley’s freight wagon. The dray horses were familiar with the noises of the train, but shied nervously away from the crowd that had gathered to witness this momentous event. Frank Kelley held the reins taut, and calmed the massive pair of Clydesdales by repeating their names, Star and Tanner, and adding “steady now” and “whoa” in his church choir baritone voice. There was other freight: canned goods and fabrics for the general store, machinery parts for McCleary’s Machine Shop, and the mail bag for the post office, but it was all set on the station platform to be dealt with later. The piano commanded a solo performance. It was hauled along the dusty main street alone, standing high and regal in the wagon, and followed by a parade of townspeople, and even some district farmers and their wives, who normally only came to town to meet the eastbound that carried their cans of cream and crates of eggs back to the city.
Falling markets, drought, and dust storms had left little incentive to celebrate anything. Spirits had grown as grey as the dust that drifted into mounds around fence posts and seeped into houses like dry fog, settling over dishes and furniture, and making the efforts of even the most fastidious housekeeper futile. Newspapers from the city were beginning to refer to these times as “The Great Depression”, hammering the politicians for allowing things to get so out of hand. Farmers were calling it “The Dirty Thirties” and scanned the summer skies endlessly for signs of rain.
Anvil Petrowski’s well went dry, forcing him to sell his livestock for little more than the cost of shipping. For a while he drove his car the four miles to town once a week, and filled cans with water from the town well, enough to drink and keep a few garden vegetables alive. When there was no more money for gas, he pulled the motor out of the model T and hooked it to his one remaining horse. His two daughters couldn’t get away from the failing farm quick enough and married the first promising young men that came along. His sons left soon after to search for paying jobs. Then the bank repossessed the land and sent a letter telling him he had to move off, and just days later, his wife, Lena, found him hanging by his neck
from a rafter in the barn.
After the funeral she gathered what few belongings were left, and rented a tiny one-bedroom house at the edge of town, once kept by the school board as a teacherage. To earn a living Lena Petrowski began teaching music. She had once been a gifted pianist but those days of glory were long since past. Her piano had been sold for seed grain years ago, after the first crop failure, but she still kept a precious bundle of sheet music, bound with ribbon and tucked between the half dozen dog-eared books in the parlour. Unable to teach her students to play, she taught them to sing by reading the notes and sounding them out. She drew a replica keyboard on butcher paper, and taped it to the wall to demonstrate the keys represented by each note. The students adored their teacher and parents sent baskets of vegetables, or an occasional chicken, or loaf of bread and a dish of fresh churned butter in payment for the lessons. Soon the community had an excellent choir.
A farmer, sitting with a group of cronies in the town café, said it was a damned shame that Mrs. Petrowski didn’t have a real piano, and that day the idea was hatched, that if everyone pitched in a little here and there, maybe they could somehow raise enough to buy one. Aylmer McLeod said he knew a good man in the city that sold musical instruments. He would write him a letter and ask about making a deal. A few letters later an agreement was struck. In exchange for two winters worth of firewood and twenty dollars cash, a piano would be shipped by train.
Firewood was not easily available on the prairies, and often involved week long treks to the more wooded northern country, with horses and wagons and long hard days of chopping, sawing and loading. But a small part of every load that came back was set aside for Mrs. Petrowski’s piano fund. It was the talk of the town, all whispered in secret of course, because it was to be a surprise. No one told Lena. The townswomen scrounged pennies from various bake sales and fundraisers however they could. Farm women tucked away a few cents from the cream cheque, and everyone turned the money over to Freida McLeod, the post mistress, who had agreed to act as record keeper and holder of the funds. Freida kept a log of the strapped bundles of firewood that were regularly loaded onto the twice weekly eastbound train. Eventually enough change accumulated for her to take out a post office money order, in the amount of twenty dollars, address it to the piano man, and drop it in the mailbag. And now the big day was here. The piano had arrived.
The procession wound its way along Main Street. Ed Steiner, the school board chairman, upon hearing the piano had arrived, ordered classes dismissed for the day. School children poured into the procession, adding noisy chatter and excitement to a parade they knew nothing about. Almost all of the women carried a basket of special baking for the occasion, and some of the men had come prepared with hammers and saws to remove the wooden crating, and cut it up for building boards and firewood. At the end of the street Frank Keller turned the horses onto a rutted side road that wound alongside the graveyard, past the United Church, then the Co-op lumber yard, and finally in front of the old teacherage.
The commotion brought Lena out onto the front step to investigate. She stood bewildered, watching the crowd of people mill about her front yard. Finally the Mayor whistled the crowd to silence and officially presented the gift to Mrs. Lena Petrowski, on behalf of the community. Agroup of men slid the huge crate off the wagon and removed the wooden slats and shipping pads. It was beautiful. The piano man had done himself proud. The mahogany was polished to a high lustre. The black and ivory keyboard that would soon replace the butcher paper replica taped on Lena’s parlour wall glowed in brilliant contrast. Someone quickly found a stool and set it in front of the new piano. Mrs. Petrowski, tears streaming down her cheeks, sat down, and right there in her front yard, played “The Blue Danube Waltz”, delighting the crowd with the rich tones of a fine musical instrument. When it ended people clapped and cheered, and then the Mayor invited everyone to help themselves to the cakes and cookies arranged on makeshift tables of planks and sawhorses that had been dragged over from the Co-op.
It was a big day for that town. People felt hope and pride. As tough as things were, here was this beautiful piano, and they had made it happen. Celebrations were a rare event in those years. Mrs. Petrowski’s piano was long remembered and talked about. The story was passed from one generation to the next, and eighty years later someone typed it out and entered it in a contest.