he front room, as the adults called it, was my favorite place in my grandmother’s house. Originally intended for entertaining guests, it functioned for as long as I can remember as a repository for all things out of date and useless. My sisters, brothers and I called the front room the piano room because the big old upright piano dominating the east wall was the best useless item we could have possibly imagined.
The piano had seen better days. It was black with age, the dark mahogany finish crackled and rough. The ivories were varying shades of yellow, some chipped, a few missing entirely. A couple of hammers were broken, so when that key was struck the resulting sound, rather than a musical note, was a dull thunk.
On a hot summer day in 1969, I opened the door to the piano room, stepped in, and quietly closed the door behind me. Having just escaped the carnage sometimes necessary to farm work unfolding in the backyard, I was relieved to find refuge in this cherished space. I breathed in the familiar odor of mothballs and old books and delighted in the streams of floating dust that rode on the light beams coming through the windows.
Surveying my surroundings, I took note of the room that I loved. The large Craftsman oak buffet was reliably covered with stacks of books, boxes of correspondence, business papers, and long forgotten Christmas decorations. The top shelf displayed various religious statues, candleholders and other dusty knickknacks. Hanging on the wall above the buffet and on any other available vertical surface were family photos, dry braided Palm Sunday palms and many pictures of Jesus, Mary and Catholic saints. The Sacred Heart of Jesus was of particularly fascination; just looking at his flaming heart encircled by a crown of thorns and sincerely sad visage somehow caused me to feel responsible for his sorrow.
The original front door leading out to the old front porch was no longer used and had been permanently shut and locked. On its window, someone had many years ago written Merry X-mas in cursive with spray snow. I remember long ago reaching up with a small finger to touch the “snow” hoping to add a bit of my own artistry to the creation, but was disappointed to find that the text, petrified over the years, was impossible to alter.
A turquoise plastic wardrobe bag bulging with old clothes hung on the back of the door, the gaping zipper exposing a swath of black velvet and a sliver of baby blue tulle. Propped open against the west wall was a gray metal steamer trunk overflowing with photographs and memorabilia. Across the room next to the piano, an enormous ancient typewriter sat on a wooden box below the east window. The big black machine provided hours of amusement for us kids. We thought it was funny to hit more than one key at a time and jam the type hammers into an inky metal pyramid. We often competed to see who could jam the most in one shot. My brother, Kenny, who managed to take any competition to the next level, usually took that prize.
I walked over to the beloved piano and slid onto the wooden bench. Moving forward to the front edge of my seat, I thumbed through a yellowed dog-eared book of songs for the beginning piano player. The songbook, a refugee from my mother’s childhood, was the only music we had.
Looking through the pages I contemplated, would it be Home on the Range, Shortnin’ Bread, or perhaps something that I knew by heart like Chopsticks or Heart and Soul? When I had almost reached the end of the selections, I found the song I wanted to play.
Suddenly, a loud cheer erupted from the back yard. I glanced to my left toward the window overlooking the action outside. Viewed through the yellowed tattered lace curtain draping the opening, my family members were indistinguishable from one another. Refocusing my attention to the piano, I put my fingers to the keys.
Way down upon the Swanee River/Far, far away/That’s where my heart is turning ever/That’s where the old folks stay….
A high-pitched laugh pierced the old window. I played on, trying to ignore the excited commotion going on outside. Though I had managed to escape that day’s unpleasantness to the refuge of the cherished piano room, images of the happenings in my grandmother’s yard replayed now like a horror movie in my head, stubbornly persisting even as my fingers worked to erase them….
“You’ll all get your turn,” my dad promised, “But first I’m going to show you how it’s done.” It was hot that afternoon on my grandmother’s western Kansas farm. An occasional breeze relieved the mugginess, but oppressive stagnant air dominated the day. Dad, handsome and slim as a sailor, strode to and opened one of the poultry cages arranged under a big tree next to the pasture fence and grabbed a white hen by her orange legs. The chicken cackled and thrashed, but in spite of her protests, the foul stood no chance of escape. “Now here is how you hold them,” Dad instructed his five children. Gripping the chicken with his right hand, Dad slid his left hand over the hen’s body to deftly trap both its wings and legs. He laid the chicken’s neck across the tree stump, which had been moved to the yard just for the occasion. Reaching to the ground with his right hand, he picked up a small hatchet and raised it just above his shoulder. Sensing the danger, the hen squawked and squirmed under his hold. The caged chickens echoed her sounds of alarm. Swoosh! The hatchet came down quickly, expertly severing the hen’s head from its body.
The head lay lifeless on the bloody stump, while the remainder of the hen leaped to the ground, ran a few frantic steps and then dropped quivering to the earth. Blood gushed from the neck of the increasingly inert body. The already unpleasant air, now tinged with the stench of blood and death, washed across the yard and over the ever-more-alarmed caged fowl.
At first there was an astounded silence; then my siblings erupted in excited laughter. “I want to do it!” “No, me first!” they shouted. Meanwhile, my grandmother took the beheaded chicken by the feet and immersed it in a bucket of hot water. She dipped it in the scarlet bath for a few seconds and then removed it. She repeated this several times, periodically pulling on the breast feathers to determine whether or not they would be easily plucked. When the feathers were sufficiently loosened, Grandma took that bird down to the skin in no time and handed it off to my mother to gut.
“Cathy’s the oldest. She gets to go first,” ordered the chief executioner who was also my father. Happy to get a rare payoff for being first-born, my sister determinedly stepped up to the stump. Dad walked to the cages, grabbed another chicken and helped Cathy to grip the bird just right. “Now, just lay her down easy and wait for her to lie still.” My sister following our dad’s directions and example, took the hatchet in hand, raised it and swung down at the hen’s neck. Bulls eye! Again, the decapitated chicken’s body sprung from the stump in a frenzied death dance; after a few seconds, it succumbed to its fate and fell to the ground. Everyone applauded the performance and begged to be next.
My dad, his prematurely silvering hair gleaming in the sun, gestured me to the stump. I was second oldest and being given the honor of that seniority. The aromas of blood and wet feathers permeated the heavy air. The expectant faces of my family urged me forward. I looked over at the doomed birds awaiting their fate.
I had always felt different from the rest of my family. I don’t know, maybe all kids feel that way at one time or another. I remember once asking my mom if I had been adopted. She laughed, as most people would, considering that we five blond haired, blue-eyed kids looked so much alike. But there was something about the way I saw the world that often did not match the sensibilities of my collective family. I didn’t understand it, but I felt it. And on that summer day in 1969 when I was 10, surrounded by the people I knew and loved most in the world, I felt alone.
“Come on,” my dad offered, encouraging me to join in. I shook my head, turned and walked toward the house. Following a moment’s murmur, the festivities resumed without me.
I opened the door to the piano room, stepped in, and quietly closed the door behind me. Sounds of laughter and conversation seeped in from outdoors through the closed windows. I walked over to the beloved piano, slid onto the wooden bench, and put my fingers to the keys.
Way down upon the Swanee River/Far, far away/That’s where my heart is turning ever/That’s where the old folks stay.
All the world is sad and dreary everywhere I roam/Oh how my heart grows weary/Far from the old folks at home…