what 1934 says about the future

Growing up, music was part of my family heritage. As a little kid, it seemed like everyone was heavily into playing some instrument, usually really well. There was a piano in everyone’s house, and with that piano was an expectation that you would learn to play it.

Today I have a piano in my house. And not just any piano. As the result of being a part of a very small family, I’m the only grandchild on my mother’s side…the musical side, we have THE piano.

My grandfather was from a small family in a  small town in northern Michigan. The nearest high school was in a few towns over, so he had to stay at a boarding house. They didn’t have a car, they had essentially a covered wagon. He spent most days after school in the potato fields. But they had a piano. And he played it for several hours every day. (OK, so the piano was in a pool hall, owned by his father who was a Methodist minister/barber/pool hall owner)

My grandmother grew up in a larger family, a singing family. Not Von Trapp singing, but not far off. She lived in an actual town where she had great opportunities to seriously pursue music. She went to boarding school, but it was for musical training during the summers.

They met at Albion College where she was a music performance major and he was just playing piano any chance he could get. Concerts, fraternity parties, pep rallies…you name it.

When they got married, my great grandfather decided to give them a piano as a wedding present. A Baldwin studio grand. I don’t know if he gave it to them simply because it was the perfect gift for these two music lovers, or for some grander purpose.

Fast forward through the years of piano lessons my grandmother taught on that piano and the hours of my grandfather playing through his favorite Rachmaninov pieces; past my own childhood looking forward to hearing them play and for the chance to play the piano myself, however simple the piece might be.

While my experience with music has ebbed and flowed over the years, my love for that piano never diminished. If anything, it only grew with time and my appreciation for the instrument increased each time I went to play it.

My grandparents have been gone for a while now, and after letting some time pass, I talked a friend into taking a road trip with me to go and pick it up that piano. There are quite a few crazy stories to tell from that adventure, but that will have to wait for another time; since by now, you’re wondering where this is headed.

That piano now lives in my house.

There is music that I play on that piano that my grandfather used to play. The very same keys that he poured himself into are the same ones that I now play.

When my youngest son started taking piano lessons, he learned to play a piece by Chopin that my grandfather loved to play…on that same piano.

My grandfather never knew my son or that he would be playing that song on that piano someday. He probably never thought too much about how pushing me to practice the piano would lead to me attempting to pass on the musical legacy to my kids.

I didn’t know my great-grandfather, so it’s difficult to know what he was thinking when he bought the piano, but I’m guessing he wasn’t imagining his great-great-grandson playing that piano in my living room in Chicago.

Inside the piano bench, there was a letter from the Baldwin Piano Company along with the original invoice for $1100. (I think I spent that much in gas for the box truck when we went to pick up the piano!)

I read the letter out loud to my wife. The Baldwin company was thanking my great-grandfather for his business. Then I got to the last statement:   

“We thank you for your patronage, and hope the piano will always be a source of pleasure to you and to your family.”

I’m not an emotional person, but this line got to me. This statement came true for my grandparents and is coming true almost 90 years later with my family. I’m pretty sure the Baldwin Piano Company and H. Arthur White had no idea that my son would be playing this piano.

What is the legacy you will leave behind? I don’t know that it is possible to entirely know. Who fully understands the impact of our words on people? Our actions towards them?

When I read that letter, I realized how short-sighted I live my life. I don’t tend to think about how the interactions I’m having today will impact the lives of my great-great-grandson. I don’t often think about how the small things I do each day build-up to the legacy I leave my kids; my friends; the people I encounter every day.

What if we approached our lives with this long view? What if we invested today far into the future? To invest in people, whether they are our family or people we work with; whether our good friend or a total stranger; whether young or old.

The things we do today ring out into the future in ways we cannot fully know, but if we lift up our eyes to look further down the road, maybe we can live with intentionality towards that far-off goal. 

Todd Elliott

Todd Elliott

Todd is a writer, speaker, technical artist in the local church and founder of FILO.

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MAY 2-3, 2023