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Published Date: January 30, 1990

Published Date: January 30, 1990

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The Parable of the Old Piano

As far back as I can remember, our summers have been spent on Cape Cod in the two hundred year old house which my great-great-grandfather built. The loft above the barn was a wonderful place to explore after one had made the precarious ascent up a rickety ladder. One day in a dark corner, my sister and I discovered lying on the floor a strange box with a piano keyboard. “A spinet!” she cried, “Just like Mozart’s!” By squatting down on a moldering board, we were able to play on the old keys and to elicit a strange tinkly sound. If our performance lacked any of the skill of the young Mozart, we were impervious. It was a wonderful game.

In time we grew too large to squeeze onto the board behind the keyboard, though we still talked affectionately of the old spinet. My sister’s piano teacher even told her that the instrument could be restored, but my parents did not show much interest. I once asked my mother why it was in the loft, and she replied, “It just didn’t work out in the house.”

Then came World War II and deaths and marriages and births and many other vicissitudes of life. We seldom remembered the old piano any more. When the barn roof developed a large gaping hole directly above it, I tossed on a tarpaulin to protect the poor old thing from torrents of rain. Whenever I thought of trying to restore it, I shuddered at the cost and quickly thought of something else. It would be a great inconvenience to have to make room for such a monster in the house.

At last my husband retired, and we moved our possessions to the old house on Cape Cod. It soon became apparent that we were woefully short of storage space. The barn roof was repaired, and I was firmly told that I must clear everything out of the barn loft. My husband even offered his assistance in carting the monstrosity to the dump. But I could not dispose of an old friend so perfunctorily. Decency demanded some token effort on my part.

After some searching, I found a man who restores old pianos; and I even managed to coax him up the wobbly ladder and into the dark loft. He had brought along an electric torch, and I pointed out to him the dim form of the old piano. He moved beside the wall and said, “First I’ll just see if the name of the maker might be on it.” As he shone the flash-light above the keyboard, he gave a startled exclamation. “This is a John Broadwood piano!” Well, had he been expecting our poor old pet to be a Steinway? He began to explain that the piano had been made in London and that John Broadwood pianos stood in the museums of Europe and at the Smithsonian Institute. Broadwood had made a present of a grand piano to Beethoven in 1818, and it still stood in his house. Since the 1960’s early pianos have been much in vogue so that the music of Beethoven and Mozart may be performed on the instruments for which it was originally written. I was suspicious that the excited gentleman was simply making up a good story – perhaps to encourage me to invest in a restoration.

He asked then to see the strings. As I raised the lid, the beam of his light revealed mice scampering for cover. I slammed the lid quickly and asked if I should run to the house for mouse poison. “That’s not giving them a fair chance,” he objected. “I’ll be back in a few days to clean it out and lower it out of the loft.” I hurried to the house and consulted an encyclopedia about the history of pianos. John Broadwood was indeed a name to conjure with.

On the appointed day the piano conservator returned. He was as good as his word about cleaning out the mice and theirs nests before lowering the instrument and carrying it out into the daylight. Now I could see the gilt writing above the keyboard “John Broadwood and Sons, Golden Square, London, By special appointment to His Royal Highness and Princesses.” Finely carved fretwork adorned its top and the legs which had lain discarded so long in the dark now displayed fine workmanship. The daylight revealed an aura of elegance about that battered old box of a piano that I could not possibly have suspected.

A few days later the conservator called me to visit the piano in his work room. With considerable satisfaction, he showed me a large box of debris which he had collected in the course of his labors. He had scraped off an incredible amount of dirt and even removed and replaced each key to facilitate the cleaning. On the side of one key was penciled the date of its manufacture: January 23, 1821. The serial number as well attested to this date. The piano at long last stood upon its own legs and clearly proclaimed itself a museum piece.

Now I was faced with a terrible dilemma: What should I do with the old piano? Sell it, restore it, give it to a museum or institution? One thing was quite clear: The first beam of the conservator’s light had revealed an identity which precluded my ever slighting or ignoring the instrument again. The more light that fell on it and the more cleaning which occurred, the more the value was revealed. I am compelled to deal with its true worth. It is no longer that hunk of junk in the barn attic, a nuisance piece of furniture. It is undeniably a treasure.

It is so with the transforming power of God’s Word which cleans and illuminates. When the true worth of a human being is revealed to us, we can never again treat that individual as a second rate person. We are sometimes suspicious of those who plead the case of the underprivileged until we understand the truth.

People are not made by John Broadwood – they are made by God Almighty, and each one is an original. Like the piano, there may be a need for cleaning and restoration, but we cannot rate as inferior any soul for whom Jesus Christ died. People as well as pianos can be made to stand upon their own legs.

I had neglected the old piano because it threatened to deplete my pocket-book and to disrupt my personal living arrangements. Are not these also the reasons by which we justify our indifference to victims of injustice? Yet the Scriptures compel us to deal with their true worth. Token efforts or a tolerantly patronizing attitude simply will not do. God’s Word must transform us to heed the poor, the widows, the homeless, the strangers within our gates, the fatherless, the afflicted, – and those who face discrimination by reason of their gender. When the Word of God has taken hold of us, we can never again treat anyone as inconsequential.