My sister and I took piano lessons for several years in the mid-to-late-70s. Sometime not long after we moved to Walton, an upright from (I think) Willis Music Co. appeared in our home. Learning to play the piano was one of two things I specifically remember my mother wanting for her children that she didn’t know how to do herself (swimming was the other). Mom pretty quickly set out to find a teacher for us.
I realized early on that I didn’t have any particular aptitude for the instrument. Both Amy and I regularly resisted practicing, which of course didn’t aid my progress, but Mom persisted. I believe for a short while at the beginning our teacher was a young woman from our church, but it wasn’t long before we switched over to Mrs. Henson, a gray-blond, thin, bespectacled woman who was maybe in her late 50s.
While it could be that Mrs. Henson began by giving lessons at our home, we spent the better part of Monday afternoons over four years being shuttled out to her place a few miles outside of Walton. She lived on a sparsely populated road that led out to the local landfill, so following or being followed by garbage trucks was the norm on those trips. It was a fairly new house; she and her husband also seemed to provide a lot of care for their toddler granddaughter. The interior was largely unfinished when we started going out there, though progress toward completion was made over the years. The room where we played for Mrs. Henson would have been one of the bedrooms, though it contained only the piano, a bench, and a chair, all sitting on the particle board floor. I remember her as nice and largely patient with us, though she had to be frustrated with our practicing habits. I still have a Christmas ornament she gave us one year.
One of my classmates lived on a small farm across the road from the Hensons. As I got older, particularly in junior high, I made sure I took my lesson first; afterward, I would walk over to Andy’s to hang out for the thirty minutes Amy was playing. He and I would talk some about music (Bob Seger comes to mind), baseball cards (I was a big collector in my youth), and other things important to 13-year-olds.
My sister and I kept trying to tickle the ivories until the end of my eighth grade year, the spring of 78; by that point, Amy was getting much more involved in sports (as was I, though she was very much the jock of the family). Practices after school plus HW left not enough time for piano. Plus, Mom would have had to admit we weren’t advancing all that far. I can still pound out scales and some mean chords on occasion, but not much else. Mom held on to the piano the rest of her life—Amy took it down to Florida three years ago as we were emptying the folks’ house (you can imagine it was badly out of tune). The bench still contained our lesson books, with Mrs. Henson’s notes, suggestions, and maybe occasional admonishments throughout them.
It’s the music of 75 that I most associate with those trips out to our lessons—maybe it’s because it was still before I was listening to the radio almost all the time. I imagine we didn’t go out there over the summers, but there are songs from both the spring and fall that always stick me back in Mom’s Ford Fairlane, out on the hills of McCoys Fork Road. Spring tracks include “You Are So Beautiful” and “Poetry Man,” while for fall there’s “At Seventeen,” “Feelings,” and this week’s #12 song, “Dance with Me.” Orleans had formed a few years earlier in upstate New York and would reach #6 with this utterly winsome song, their first big hit. Trivia time: a decade ago, band member John Hall, who wrote “Dance with Me,” was in the middle of serving two terms in the U.S. House.
We lost touch with Mrs. Henson after the lessons stopped, though I’d guess we might have seen her at the grocery or drug store from time to time while we were in high school. There was a snippet of sad news while I was in grad school—the granddaughter, now in her late teens/early 20s, had gotten into a legal scrape big enough to make the community paper. Several years later, after I was back in Kentucky, Mom told me during one of our twice-weekly calls that she’d come across Mrs. Henson’s obituary.
About three years ago, I stopped off at Walton on one of my trips to Florence to drive out the road where she had lived—checking out “the old places” is something I seem to do from time to time.. Maybe I’m just getting old and forgetful, but I couldn’t find her house. I’m pretty certain I found Andy’s place, and there wasn’t anything across the way.