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Curiosity and Determination

When a Grand asks to play our pump organ, I say, “Yes.” And I often say that my grandfather and his two sisters bought the organ about 1915 when they were young adults. 

            “Did one pump and one play?” eight-year-old Micah asked.  I shook my head.  Micah had played our piano and organ since he was a toddler – old enough to reach the keys.  Creating his own melodies, his little hands have run up and down the keyboards, and he learned to play with fingers, not fists. 

            He pumped the organ pedals and played, and like every other time, my Grand declared that you needed strong legs to pump.  When it was my turn, I played ‘Jesus Loves Me’ while Micah sat quietly studying my fingers and the hymnal propped open on the organ.  After I played the last note, he asked, “Gran, how do you know what key to play by looking at that book?” 

             I quickly found Lesson Book – Level 1A that Micah’s big brother and sister had used.  Knowing Samuel and Annabel used the same book made this young Grand throw out his chest. He asked to play the piano so he wouldn’t have to pump. 

            Micah is methodical – before he rides his bike, he puts on his helmet, arm and knee pads, and riding gloves – so when I flipped a few pages to one that showed black notes and finger numbers for ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ he stopped me.  “Gran, what if I miss something important in the front?” 

            He practiced sitting tall and curving his fingers like a cat’s paw.  We both numbered and wiggled our thumbs and fingers. “Are thumbs always number 1, even in a different book?” Micah bent his thumbs.  What a relief that music books uses the same numbered fingers. 

            We counted quarter, half, and whole notes in a measure. Micah played all the black keys in groups of two; then those in groups of three.  Forty-five minutes after opening the Lesson Book, we turned to ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ and we sang the numbers over the notes: 2343 222 333 222.  (Keys are named as letters in later lessons.)

            Micah put three left-hand fingers on the three black keys below middle C, and I put my index finger over the first note in the lesson book.  “No, Gran. I think I’ve got this,” he said.  And he did.  Maybe because Micah is left-handed, playing with his right hand was more difficult, but he tried over and over to master ‘O’er the Deep Blue Sea.’  

            Micah took home copies of two pages from the lesson book. “I’ll play on our piano.  Everyone will be so surprised!  It’s kinda’ like reading.  When can I play the next page?”  Micah will learn the names of keys and he’ll understand that notes for ‘Jesus Loves Me’ are written on five straight black lines.  My Grand’s curiosity led to learning and his determination to success.  And I got to watch. 

Part 2: The Real Value of a Pump Organ

What is the value of a musical instrument if it can’t be played? If it takes up space and means something only to me? I wrestled with these questions about my huge pump organ. When the canvas binding connecting a pedal to the bellows broke and the organ wouldn’t play, it was time to do some soul searching, with a pinch of practicality.

My maternal grandfather and his siblings purchased the organ over a century ago. I played “Rock of Ages” on it for Papa as he sat beside me. Papa left it to his three daughters in his will with instructions, “One old organ that shall be kept in the family if possible and if it’s sold out of the family, the proceeds are to be divided equally among all my grandchildren.” It was moved from Papa and Grandma’s house to our home in 1985.

After Husband and I determined we couldn’t repair the broken binding, I researched the organ’s value and the cost of getting it repaired. It was made by the Estey Company, founded in 1850 and located in Brattleboro, Vermont. Something this old must be valuable, right? Not really. I found one on eBay priced $399. The only person who advertised online to repair pump organs didn’t service Tennessee and one contact who might look at it charged a minimum of $2500 to overhaul the complete instrument. That was too much.

But I wanted it repaired. Maybe because I have a picture of Mom and her two sisters when they were children standing beside the organ or maybe because I played it for Papa or maybe because Papa wanted it to stay in the family and mostly because I’m sentimental and believe that if family heirlooms are used, they are treasured.

A friend, known to his family as Builder Bob, offered to look at the organ. After he’d replaced the broken binding, I pumped the pedals and pressed the keyboard keys and nothing happened. Both of us were disappointed. Another day Bob took the back off the organ and although he knows nothing about keyboard instruments, he’s a self-taught carpenter and worked on the hydraulic machinery on nuclear submarines in the early 1960s and he likes a challenge.

Making this organ play would be a challenge. The brass reeds were black. The bellows cracked. The stops stuck. Dust, insect droppings, dead bugs filled the organ cavity. Bob and I agreed on a price and he hauled all the organ’s workings to his home workshop.

Last week, Bob put the shiny reeds, new leather bellows, heavy cotton dampening, and all the many parts of the organ in place. After he worked for two days making adjustments, I pumped the pedals and pressed the keys and played “Rock of Ages.” How I wished Papa had been beside me.

But even more I wished he’d heard my Grands say, “Can I play the organ next?” “It’s really hard to pump those pedal things!” “Listen, it sounds like the piano, but different.”

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Post Script:  Thank you Builder Bob for your work!

 

Playing Papa’s Pump Organ

Papa sat in his easy chair beside me while I played “In the Garden” on his pump organ. My maternal grandfather, Paul Bertram, was a man of few words. When I finished the last note I knew he approved because he nodded, ever so slightly, and smiled. A closed mouth smile, his lips barely curved at the corners.

Papa’s approval was enough to encourage me to continue pumping the foot pedals to play “Rock of Ages.” After I played these two hymns, I opened the church hymnal and chose another. Papa sat as long as I played and I played as long as my twelve-year-old legs could pump the pedals.

I liked to pull out all the stop knobs to make the volume louder and it was fun to experiment by pushing some in. I didn’t know what Dulciana or Dolce or most of the other words printed on the nine other stops meant. I recognized the words Treble and Bass, but didn’t know what they meant when combined with Coupler and neither did Papa. He didn’t play any keyboard instrument, but he liked music and the organ was important to him.

Papa never talked about the days when he played musical instruments and I never saw him hold a fiddle, except in pictures, but I knew he had played one. Papa, his brother, and two sisters, Ervin, Mary and Martha, bought the organ about 1915 when they were all young adults, but not married so the organ sat in their parents’ parlor.   In the 1930s after their mother’s death, their father broke up housekeeping and lived with his daughter Mary and her husband. And the organ was moved to Papa and Grandma’s home.

During World War II, Papa and Grandma moved to Oak Ridge where he worked as a carpenter on war-related buildings. Upon their return home to Pickett County, Papa paid his siblings for their part of the organ and he took great pride in owning it. I wish I’d questioned him and taken notes. Who played it? Where did they buy it? Certainly not in the Bertram siblings’ hometown, Byrdstown, Tennessee. How much did it cost?

I continued to play for Papa every time I visited until his death in 1974 and about ten years later when it was time for Grandma to move from their home this dark stained, huge reed organ was moved to my house. Through the years I’ve played the organ occasionally and encouraged Daughter and our older Grands to play. Many notes stuck. The sounds were muffled. The pedals were stiff. But it played, until a few months ago when a pedal flopped because the binding connecting it to the bellows broke.

In his will, Papa excluded the organ from other property and left it to his three daughters with instructions, “One old organ shall be kept in the family if possible.” I believe family pieces are treasured only if they are used. So now what do I do with this family heirloom?

To be continued….

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