A veritable piece of music history heads down the highway


The family piano is on its way to southern Ontario from Perth, having been wrapped in quilts with care this morning, under Mom’s watchful eye, and loaded into a moving van.  It is about to find another appreciative home at my sister’s where my young niece and nephew are at a good age to learn to play it.

To me, given my way of waxing hyperbolic, this is no ordinary piano.  Mom and Dad bought it, nearly new as I recall, more than fifty years ago taking it from Perth to (Salaberry-de-)Valleyfield’s three residences and then back to Perth when they retired.

It is, as Mom explained to me, an upright grand described this way by the Blue Book of Pianos:

Due to their towering height, these instruments usually had string lengths and musical capabilities equal and often superior to actual grand pianos, thus being labeled “Upright Grand”, “Cabinet Grand” or “Inverted Grand” by their manufacturers.

Heintzman of Toronto was the manufacturer of this instrument, the company name and “Toronto” stenciled on the shimmering wood centered above the middle C.  It’s been interesting just to read up on this company’s history at its website, so familiar – and greatly changed – are its former Toronto addresses.

The “Pledge-shine” piano always enjoyed a prominent place in the living rooms of our homes, except in the last couple of years of Mom, Dad and Janice living in Valleyfield when it was moved into an otherwise empty bedroom.  The only times the keys were covered were when it might serve as an elbow rest for untold numbers of house guests, such as we experienced at holiday choir parties.  Said guests would likely be sitting on the matching bench (two slender bums could share it), a bench full of all sorts of things over the years.  There was sheet music, of course, complete books of music as well, partial pages of various stickers Mom employed to encourage her students, pictures (both framed and unframed), diplomas sometimes, a tattered hymn book or two, perhaps some gift wrap.  Well, I’m sure that paints an adequate picture.  It has always been the go-to place when we couldn’t find something – such as last Thanksgiving when I was searching for a biography of my grandfather which an aunt had typed many years ago.

Things atop the piano changed depending on the circumstances, except for the ever-present light over the open music – family pictures, a little clock, and, when teaching was in progress, a metronome (which spent its off hours in a cupboard), a wind-up gizmo that counted the prescribed beats of a given piece of music.


Oh the stories these pictures-within-a-picture can tell! (click to enlarge)

A crowd of faces flashes through my mind when I think of the piano students Mom taught over the years, not the least of whom were her four children – with varying degrees of interest and success.  As I progressed (and wanted more time) I was farmed out, as I saw it, to one of her senior students.  Neither of my sisters took much interest in the piano but Craig, bless him, learned to play by ear which pissed me off to no end as I methodically plunked out the notes of whatever I was learning.

Craig’s gift came in handy when, as pre-adolescents, we played church (that’s a variation on playing house).  Craig took the dual role of minister (long before he felt called to do so as a vocation) and pianist.  I was the soprano soloist since I was able, with rather surprising ability, to imitate one of them from our own church – complete with impressive vibrato.  My sister was responsible for taking up the offering (of which there was none) – all of this being played out before the birth of my youngest sister (or, at least, before she could participate).  Craig might have baptized her, I don’t remember!  The piano bench served as altar until it was needed, of course, for its intended role to support the pianist.

There’s a picture somewhere, which I’ll seek out at Christmas, of Janice sitting at the piano on Craig’s lap.  Mom was delighted that Janice could carry a tune before she could even talk properly.  I remember a little ditty she and Craig would sing together, to commemorate the arrival of K-mart in Valleyfield: “Let’s go to ‘Tay-mawt’, let’s go to ‘Tay-mawt’, ‘Tay-mawt, Tay-mawt’ Department Store.”

Another legend I have codified, inasmuch as I’ve put them in a music list for my hypothetical memorial service, revolves around the painstaking process (for those who overheard it as much as me) as I learned two difficult pieces of music – and not just “easy for piano” knock-offs, either, but the original scores.  I don’t remember which was first (they seemed to be my two-song repertoire ad infinitum) – “The Homecoming” by Hagood Hardy, made famous as the background music for Salada tea commercials and “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin, a much more complex piece which was the theme from the 70s flick “The Sting”.  Weeks of work leading to months of practice and even years of play – both on this piano and on the green one located where I used to spend my summers.

It was while Mom was trying to teach after-school piano lessons that Lynn and I would arrive home ready, if not always willing, to deliver the now-defunct Montreal Star, the afternoon newspaper competitor of the morning Gazette (which is still going strong). We each had routes of about the same size which brought in a little spending money. There were occasions when the distributor left us one newspaper short which led to, above the melodic plunking of the piano keys at the other end of the house, a row over who would have to go to a store to pick up the extra copy (and, being an English paper, our options were limited somewhat). Nine times out of ten it would be yours truly who went, usually to O’Neill’s on Boulevard du Havre until a new little book-store opened up in the shopping centre, about the same distance away.

I have digressed.

This piano was where Mom transcribed the Sound of Music wedding processional.  It was where Craig rehearsed for at least a couple of friends’ weddings.

I know that many more stories will come to mind, which I will add, as the piano – absent in one home, present in another – continues to be a beautiful part of our family’s collective memory.

Town Crier silenced


‘The voice of Valleyfield’ has died and, while I hadn’t given him any thought for many, many years happening on to this story in The Gazette brought back great memories.

Anyone of a certain age from Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Québec will remember this man’s voice as he drove around town making paid announcements via loudspeakers on the roof of his truck (or van, as I recall). We’d think he would never stop talking as he passed our quiet street along two slightly more heavily travelled routes, making his announcement and then, after a beat, starting all over again. This would have been in the 1960s and ’70s, that I remember, although apparently it lasted longer than that. In fact he outlasted home delivery of eggs, bread and milk from three different men – all of which I remember, despite the rigormortis I’m sure any young bucks reading this think must be setting in to my typing fingers.

Now it’s not like Valleyfield didn’t have other forms of media. There was an AM radio station (it’s now FM), although I’m not sure how many would have listened to it (or perhaps so many did that its advertising rates were through the roof – not likely). There was a weekly community newspaper (and now there are two!) with most people subscribing to Montréal’s dailies and watching television from the city as well.

His first year on the job, 1946, was auspicious to say the least. He was hired by Montreal Cottons to bellow at picketing workers in Valleyfield during what was a violent strike, which I wrote about here a few years ago.

Suffice it to say that Antonin (Tony) Guevremont had a good gig for a whopping sixty years! I didn’t know he was thought of as town crier. (I would only become familiar with that term later in Niagara-on-the-lake and Perth, Ontario, but these were/are of the “jolly ol’ England” variety.)

While, according to The Gazette story, he made announcements for quite a variety of causes I vividly remember a few key words that I could pick out with my then very limited French-speaking abilities:

“Attention, attention, s’il vous plait. Bingo bourse ce soir à huit heures à l’église Saint-Eugène…” and I don’t recall what followed. Nevertheless I had all the information I needed, had I wished it: there was to be an evening of bingo at 8 p.m. at St. Eugene Church (a very modern structure which appeared, at least, to have stained glass from steps to steeple – which someone familiar with such things might have mistaken for broken bottles from the nearby Schenley’s distillery).

Completely coincidentally, that building turned up on the police blotter of one of the aforementioned weeklies last week after a suspicious fire. I gleaned from the article that the Roman Catholic archdiocese had unloaded the real estate and plans were afoot to convert it into a seniors’ centre. How’s that for irony? A Catholic church, used more for bingo than anything else since even I was a kid, now being turned into a place where seniors can (still) play bingo!

I think Tony would get a chuckle out of that. In light of the fire, were he still alive (and working) he might have needed to announce the postponement, or outright cancellation, of bingo!