The Karen Files, pt. 5

Another in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the life of our mother:

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It’s Christmas, 1955 (don’t let the date on the border of the photograph fool you). We think the setting is the home of our grandparents—Karen’s folks—in Okemah, Oklahoma.

That’s our grandfather standing in the archway, holding my older brother, who was nearly six months old at the time.

We like the candid nature of this photo—that Karen appears caught unaware, that Cecil and Tony seem not to know a shot’s being snapped.

And we especially like that Karen is playing the piano.

Karen’s mom, Frances, made a little money on the side giving piano lessons to the no-doubt reluctant children of Okemah. And, given that Cecil was the superintendent of schools, it must have been a bit daunting for those kids to step through the front door of the Oakes residence.

We can recall a time when our first-grade teacher, Ms. Crowell, paid a visit to our home (actually, in those days, it would have been Miss or Mrs. Crowell, and we don’t know just which). When the doorbell rang, we ran to answer it. Flinging the door open, we were stunned to see her standing there. What was Ms. Crowell doing at our house? Surely we weren’t in trouble for anything. First grade was over, for Pete’s sake. We had pried ourselves loose from her grip and were enjoying our barefoot summer months before moving on to second grade, savoring some well-earned down time before moving on to a new, as-yet-unnamed taskmaster.

Ms. Crowell was, as it turned out, paying a visit to Karen, but what they talked about and what inspired Ms. Crowell to come calling, we’ll never know.

But we can remember quite well how unsettling it felt to have our two worlds—school and home—collide unexpectedly, and on a warm summer morning, at that. We imagine it was equally unsettling for those Okemah youngsters, all those years ago, to cross the threshold of Superintendent Oakes’ house for piano lessons.

It’s said that Karen played the piano very well when she was young. It was a pursuit she held quite dear. As she moved into young adulthood, though, she and the piano parted ways. She and Dad simply didn’t have the money to buy a piano, and when they finally did manage to purchase one, it seems to have been too late. Mom almost never sat down to play it.

Why? We don’t know for sure, but it seems likely that she was distressed at having lost her touch, that, after so many years, she was disappointed to realize she no longer had the facility she’d once had. Surely she could have regained her skills with time and effort, but perhaps that task seemed too daunting, what with her busy schedule and four teenagers to herd.

We like to think Karen’s disappointments in life were relatively few, but we have to count among them the fact that she never again played the piano with any regularity. She’d probably long dreamed of the day she and Lloyd could acquire a piano, and when they did, to have her reunion with those eighty-eight keys prove a clumsy one must have been difficult.

So it’s with a bittersweet feeling that we share this photo with you, dear readers. It makes us smile to see Karen at the keys (and we’d love to know what she was playing—a Christmas carol, perhaps?), but it reminds us that she gave up a very special part of her life when she began to devote herself ever more fervently to her family.