In December, after hearing Cheryl Strayed speak at UCLA, I considered what might feel like prayer for me (See Walking is a Prayer). The piano came strongly into my consciousness. I took lessons from age 8-15. I have always felt that I should be MORE accomplished with the piano than I am so when I went to college at BYU (a school with an inordinate number of accomplished pianists), I almost entirely gave it up. But I remembered being a teenager, working out my anxiety and grief and pain while seated on the claw-footed stool in front of the keys. Reading and playing music felt like a prayer.
I thought about getting a piano on Criagslist. I even looked at the listings. But I felt pulled to ask for the family heirloom piano that I learned to play on. It was sitting, unplayed, in my parents’ house. This is one possession that my sisters and have all been interested in inheriting someday. I think it’s a reflection of the therapeutic nature of this instrument, that we each feel a strong connection to it. This piano is a Kimball upright that was a commercial (or dancehall) -quality instrument, purchased by my great-great-grandmother while she was living in Byron, Wyoming around the turn of the century. It’s covered in beautiful veneers, with carvings of oak branches overlaid on the music rest. For a piece this old and well-traveled, it’s in amazing condition. Only one key has a slight chip. The C two octaves above middle sticks occasionally—it’s done this as long as I can remember. My dad remarked about the generations of children who sat on the ornate stool for family dinners as the height is easily adjusted by rotating the seat.
My parent’s delivered it to me in January. It was a rainy weekend and it waited in their trailer on the street of my neighborhood for a day until the piano movers came to unload it. I thought about the 450 pound piano, strapped up to the wall of the covered trailer. I thought about the miles she had traveled in her century of existence. And I thought about Our Lady of Chains from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
Let me explain the connection. In the book, the main character, Lily, becomes familiar with black Mary, a wooden carving that was originally a figurehead on the bow of a ship. While living as a runaway, with four black women in the South in the 1960s, Lily (who is white and about 14 years old) is introduced to her hosts’ rituals surrounding black Mary. One of the more memorable rituals involves them wrapping black Mary in chains (Our Lady of Chains) and leaving her this way for several days. She is then ceremonially unchained and honey is rubbed into every crevice of her wooden figure until she is completely saturated, which is a kind of preservation exercise, but also an intense sensory/spiritual experience for the participants.
As the Kimball piano sat out on the curb in the trailer, I thought of Our Lady of Chains and of Lily’s first close-up interaction with black Mary:
“Our Lady of Chains looked so different late at night, her face older and darker, her fist bigger than I remembered. I wondered about all the places she’d traveled out there on the waters of the world, all the sad things that had been whispered to her, the things she’d endured…. I told her, Fix me, please fix me. Help me know what to do. Forgive me….Help me stop lying. Make the world better. Take the meanness out of people’s hearts….Send them rescue, send them consolation, send them freedom. I reached out and traced black Mary’s heart with my finger. I stood with the petals on my toes and pressed my palm flat and hard against her heart. I live in a hive of darkness, and you are my mother, I told her. You are the mother of thousands.”Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
I wonder about the places this piano has traveled. I wonder what has been whispered to her. The things she’s endured. I feel the collective heaviness of the women, my progenitors, who sat on the claw footed stool and bore their sorrow. I feel the collective relief that the piano provides, a way to dedicate my energy to something beautiful, like a flower, but also like oxygen.
My great-great grandmother, Susan Tucker, was born in 1864 in a reasonably well-developed Mormon community, Morgan, Utah. Her friends called her “Black-eyed Susan.” She was under five feet tall and never weighed over 100 pounds, with beautiful, large, expressive brown eyes and dark curly hair. Susan married John James “J.J.” Simmons in 1885 and gave birth to five children before her husband was called on a church mission in 1896. That’s five children under the age of 11, in case the gravity of this slipped by. He left her to tend their farm and children, supporting him financially, while he preached in Wisconsin. During this time, his business partner liquidated their mill business and pocketed the funds, leaving Susan as the sole provider for her family of seven. Susan lost two of her sons to diphtheria, one the day before and the other the day after J.J. arrived home.
Susan bore a sixth child the year after J.J. returned and around that same time he left to explore Big Horn Country, Wyoming as a potential Mormon settlement. They relocated the family to a camp in this area in 1900. The wagon journey through Wyoming was hideously cold. They arrived and camped for six months before a home was built. J.J. purchased a 400 acre ranch outside of the settlement, which Susan ran while caring for her five children. J.J. lived in town and opened a store that was a financial success. After several years, Susan and the children were able to move into town and J.J sold the ranch. It was around this time they purchased a Kimball upright piano. It was the first piano in Byron, Wyoming.
My great grandmother, Zella, was born around this time. During her first twelve years she lived in relative comfort in rural Wyoming. Also around this time, J.J. decided to take a second wife. The circumstances surrounding this decision are told in two different ways. J.J., in his own words, explained that he had committed to take a second wife, before he married the first time when he was set apart as a Seventy (a clergy position in the church). This commitment would have predated the church’s abandonment of polygamy. He reported that he saw Bertha (his second wife) in a vision and then saw her a few days later at a church event. He wrote that he told Susan about this and she responded, “If you will marry her it will make me the happiest woman in the world.” Knowing how the story was told through the oral tradition of my family, J.J.’s description of Susan’s response seems generously delusional, and maybe more cynically manipulative.
Another account reported that J.J. was persuaded by a local church leader to take his daughter as a second wife. In this account they reported that Bertha had seizure-like events each month around her menstruation making her unmarriagable. And the reasoning was that J.J. had enough income to support a second family so he could provide for her. This second account seems somewhat likely as the history is pretty consistent in the report that Bertha continued to live with her family of origin until they had been married for around five years. It was suggested that Bertha’s father told J.J. that he needed to consummate the marriage and give Bertha the opportunity to have children.
By all accounts, Bertha was a delightful woman, tall, gregarious and a talented musician. When Bertha’s first child was five months old, under duress from the non-Mormon population of Northern Wyoming, J.J. and Bertha fled in the night and relocated to Southern Idaho. J.J. didn’t return to Wyoming for at least two years.
I can imagine how my great grandmother, Zella, must have felt. She was 12 years old when her father left. She had been living in relative prosperity up to this point. She was one of the older of Susan’s younger children and I imagine with her father leaving, she took on more responsibilities for the household and younger children. That’s to say nothing of the shame she likely felt at such a sensitive age. Susan began taking in laundry and selling eggs to fund her family. Her oldest son, Wynn, took over J.J.’s store, but he too, left Wyoming before J.J. returned.
Eventually J.J. returned to Wyoming to claim Susan and his first family. Zella reported that she cried as each piece of furniture was sold, and the only item that would make the trip was the Kimball piano. J.J. set up Susan’s family on a farm initially and then moved them into a house in town. Bertha’s family lived on a ranch out of town. The family oral tradition states that J.J. perpetuated the story that Susan was his sister in the Southern Idaho community but that the community likely guessed the truth.
My grandmother wrote of her grandmother, “Susan was a tolerant, hard working, independent person. She took in boarders, scrubbed clothes, sold milk, butter and eggs to eke out an existence. When the children were old enough to work, they helped support the family. She believed in education and was always reading and encouraging her children to continue their education. The girls continued music lessons when they moved to Oakley, paid for by eggs or butter that Susan made.”
My dad reported that his grandmother, Zella, spoke of her father with contempt. “He traveled with a pillow under his arm!” she would say. Zella viewed her father as an extremely selfish man. She said nothing of this in her personal history, which didn’t surprise my dad. She was understandably sensitive about her reputation.
Susan lived the rest of her days working and supporting her family in Oakley, Idaho. One of Susan’s granddaughters, Rose Simmons Hansen, described Susan as “reserved.” She didn’t speculate on the cause of her reserve but commented that, “for Susan, life had been hard.” Someone wrote that Susan “came to forgive” J.J. before the end of her life. She suffered a heart attack on the way to church and died in the pew before the service began.
As I sit at the keys on the little claw-footed stool and work out my grief and anxiety and longing, I think of Our Lady of Chains. I suspect the lesson we are to learn in this life is the same for me as it was for Susan as it was for Zella as it was for fictional Lily. This dialogue says it better than I can:
“Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She’s not the statue in the parlor. She’s something inside of you. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Our Lady is inside me,” I repeated, not sure if I did.
“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.” She held out her hand to me. “Give me your hand.”
I lifted my left hand and placed it in hers. She took it and pressed the flat of my palm up against my chest, over my beating heart. “You don’t have to put your hand on Mary’s heart to get strength and consolation and rescue, and all the other things we need to get through life,” she said. “You can place it right here on your own heart. Your own heart.”
August stepped closer. She kept the pressure steady against my hand. “All those times your father treated you mean, Our Lady was the voice in you that said, ‘No, I will not bow down to this. I am Lily Melissa Owens, I will not bow down.’ Whether you could hear this voice or not, she was in there saying it.”
I took my other hand and placed it on top of hers, and she moved her free hand on top of it, so we had this black-and-white stack of hands resting upon my chest.
“When you’re unsure of yourself,” she said, “when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, she’s the one inside saying, ‘Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.’ She’s the power inside you, you understand?”
Her hands stayed where they were but released their pressure. “And whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love – but to persist in love.”Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
This piano has been black Mary for five generations of women of my family. As I place my hands on the keys I place my hand on the heart of black Mary and then over my own heart. Like you, Susan, I live in a hive of darkness and I am own my mother. I am the mother of thousands. I will persist in love.