Katie Belle Wesley Ballard (a.k.a. Grandmother) September 1975
Upon her graduation from high school, Grandmother received what is now known as a full-ride scholarship to the Piano Conservatory. She went the first year, and as she prepared for her second year, her father told her that girls didn’t need a college education – especially in music – and declared she was to stay home and find herself a husband. She stayed home, found a husband, and her children all agree that Granddaddy married up.
She may have left the Conservatory, but Grandmother never left the piano. At the end of each summer, she set up a schedule giving each grandchild a day and a time to come for piano lessons. Granddaddy picked us up after school and treated us to ‘cream and Co-Colas (in the small bottles cause they taste better). When Grandmother beckoned us to the piano, more often than not, Granddaddy followed us into the living room, sat on the sofa across the room from the piano, and said “Play me a tune.” We’d roll the piano stool up or down, depending on our height, take our seat, and loosen up with five-finger exercises.
What are piano lessons without a recital, right? So every Christmas came the two words that struck a chord of dread in every parents’ heart: The Program. In early September, Grandmother sent Mother to Newberry’s in downtown Atlanta to fetch the sheet music on her list. Assignments were made, sheet music handed out, and practice began in earnest in early October. By Christmas Day, we were ready. Or at least as ready as we were ever gonna’ be. We all moved to the living room (well, not all of us, really. Daddy, for example, who never spent much time with babies suddenly loved them and volunteered to hold at least one of them. In another room.). Grandmother called us to order, introducing each grandchild, and we took our turn, adjusting the piano seat and playing our piece.
I always wanted to play Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town because it was such a fun tune, and it was the hardest piece on Grandmother’s list, but that song always went to my cousin Cynthia (remember, Grandmother did not abide nicknames) who, I have to admit, really could tickle the ivories better than any of the rest of us. (She still can.) The boys: Jerry, Scott, and Brain played the same thing for 32 consecutive Programs: The Caisson Song. My cousin Stacy bypassed the piano altogether and went for the trombone. He lived in New Jersey.
She never talked about it, and I often wonder if Grandmother ever really got over having her daddy yank her scholarship from her. If this letter is to be believed, she was very good. And I can’t help but wonder – even if it means I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this – how her life would’ve been different had she finished the program.
In Our Own Language 4:19
Nancy (my developmentally disabled sister-in-law) draws.
I (the woman who flat-out loves her) stitch.
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