The Green Piano

The cottage was simple, primitive by modern standards, but my memories of it are as warm as a favourite sweater. “Hillcrest” belonged to my Auntie Dot and Uncle Homer who owned and operated a cluster of weekly housekeeping cottages on Big Rideau Lake collectively known as “Homer’s Haven”. 

There was the cottage over the boat-house, “Rideau”, named for the lake, and “Cedar Crest” whose living area was just a matter of steps from the water but was nestled in a grove of evergreens at the very edge of the property. Up the hill a little was “Bay View”, across the well-shaded lawn from “Lakefield” and “Birch View”. Then, in the late 1960s, directly across from the main house, “Bawnvilla” was built specifically so that a faithful customer from Indiana, who was dying of cancer, could visit at a time when all other cottages were spoken for. This rush-job was made easier by the fact that Homer and Dorothy, in addition to their maintenance of this extensive property, both worked full-time at a company which built pre-fabricated homes (and cottages).

Because it was their summer home Hillcrest had a few more comforts than those available in the other cottages. Mind you there wasn’t a shower or bath-tub to be found. We had the lake for that or Homer and Dorothy would take a short drive to their winter home just outside the nearby village of Portland. Hillcrest’s bathroom would more accurately be called a “W.C”, or water closet, the British term for the single-purpose room housing a toilet and sink. In the corner was a water heater. 

The kitchen, for most of my visits there, was a well-traveled alleyway from the front door to the bathroom. Later, as I grew older and spent summers working for my aunt and uncle, I was naturally expected to help out with cleanups after meals. What I lacked in speed I made up for in detail as Auntie Dot frequently remarked, “No one can dry a dish like Kenneth Chaplin!”. The kitchen was separated from the dining area by an enamel-covered counter where we would often eat a hasty breakfast or where Auntie Dot would brew her much-loved tea. 

Two small bedrooms were off the living room area. Like all the bedrooms in the other cottages their walls were more like room dividers. A common ceiling made privacy possible for the eyes only. Snoring, quite animated in the case of Uncle Homer, and other nocturnal noise-making, were shared equally.

If my cousin was in residence I slept on one of the living room sofas, one a fire engine-red, imitation leather, couch and the other a flip-out sofa bed. These were in an L-shape facing an artificial fireplace, good for taking the dampness out of the air if we had to endure a stretch of rainy weather. 

Along the wall, between the bedrooms, was the large upright piano. It was painted green, something like the colour of lime JELL-O after it has been whipped with cream, or cream cheese, into a ‘quick ‘n’ easy’ mousse. There was a matching bench which, like our own back home, had storage space underneath for music. Pianos have been a central part of my family’s entertainment for generations and this green one saw a lot of action, whether cousin “Red Jack” was showing us his jazz prowess or Mom was leading a sing-along of Depression and World War Two-era standards. There were a couple of summers in the 1970s when I hardly let a day go by without playing that piano.

It was the time of “The Sting” and Scott Joplin’s music, particularly “The Entertainer”, was very popular. I set out to learn it – and not some simplified version for kids, either. I was determined to learn how to play it as Joplin himself had written it. That took a lot of practice, something many members of my family will remember well, if not always fondly. (I also worked on it at home and at my grandmother’s.) Thanks in no small measure to that green piano I mastered “The Entertainer” that summer (and it became a part of my repertoire for a few more years).

My fingers can still find those opening notes whenever I am near a piano, which is not too often anymore. 

I’m not sure what became of that green piano. The winters in a cottage with no insulation surely were not kind to it.



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