The importance of Lemon Pledge and the piano

There’s a literal arsenal of cleaning supplies in the world to choose from. Glass cleaners, bleaches, bacteria-killing sponges, foams, soaps, detergents . . .

But none is as important as good old lemon-scented Pledge furniture polish.

For me, this one product is most crucial, a must-have. Who would have known that a yellow can of stuff could conjure up memories every time I use it?

When my mother was growing up, she only wanted one thing in the whole world. A piano. She begged for one, pleaded that she’d do chores, take lessons, play it faithfully. She said her mother always argued there was no room for such a piece of furniture in their house and that it wasn’t going to happen.

But after years of begging, my Grandpa Pete went to an auction of an old school house and purchased the big, heavy upright that had been used for years by children singing the state song and the American anthem.

When mom told the story of the day that big hunk of wood arrived, her eyes would shine as if she was a child all over again. Of course, Grandma wasn’t thrilled — but she said there might be a space for it in the partially-finished basement, near the foot of the stairs.

While it wasn’t necessarily an airy, sunny music room — it worked. Grandpa Pete and some neighbors somehow got the giant piece down the stairs and situated under the light with the pull-string.

And mom started to learn to play. She told stories of taking lessons from some old lady in the neighborhood — of teaching herself as much as she could after she got past the fundamentals. The knowledge poured out of the red “Thompson Piano Books” into her brain and then to her fingers. The magic of music was hers.

But, as mom told us, the magic wasn’t to last. One day, Grandma decided the piano had to go — and so it did. When Grandma spoke, people listened. And my mother had to watch the thing be taken away in pieces — because it was the only way to get it out of the basement.

Mom grew up, married and started to build her own family. And she never stopped talking about the need for a piano. She still had her old Thompson books, as well as a hymnal from church and a book from that same old school where her first piano originated.

“Someday, I will play again,” she would say. But I don’t think she or any of us kids believed it . . . money wasn’t exactly growing on trees in the back yard and our little house was not the place for a wooden box and ivory keys.

But someone was listening. For ten years, my father soaked in her occasional yearning. And he didn’t forget.

On July 15, 1977, their tenth anniversary, it started as just a normal day. I remember we were working out in the garden and for some reason, my dad came home in the middle of the day. He had this weird look on his face and told my mom that he was there to pick up some papers for the bank.

So we went back to work — but suddenly, he came out the back door, telling us to all go into the front yard. My mom asked him what was wrong, and he just smiled. About then, we all looked to the road and saw a truck pulling into the driveway. The logo on the truck boldly proclaimed “Tom’s Music” on the side. It took a few seconds for anyone to realize what was happening — it was my mother’s exclamation and then tears that told the true story. Then we knew.

As she jumped on my dad, hugging and kissing him up — with him beaming from ear to ear in his dirty shirt — it became clear that all her dreams had come true.

They opened the back door, and there was a large, beautiful cardboard box inside. The workers started to ease the package down the ramp and Dad started taking the front door off the hinges. Mom twirled us around in the yard, by the chokecherry bushes and the weeping willow — laughing with glee, crying like a baby.

It took a while to move the furniture . . . the big, clunky wooden couch and the coffee table. It took a while to pick up all the toys that had been scattered around. As far as my mom was concerned, we could have thrown everything else away and put the piano right in the middle of the room.

When the piano emerged from the cardboard, it brought more tears, more awe. There it was — a brand new, modern piano.

“How can we afford it?” she asked my dad, who assured her that it was all taken care of. He didn’t believe in credit, or even loans, so it became clear that he’d been tucking away money for a very long time. Probably the entire decade of their marriage.

She ran her hands over the shiny wood, the beautiful white keys, the sparkling black ones.

“Play something,” Dad said, as my sister, Nancy, slid onto the bench next to her.

And she did — right then and there. She exploded with some recital piece she learned when she was a child, and we marveled at her talent. For the next hour, she played what she could remember while telling us where to look for her old music books. No one cared that the garden work wasn’t getting done, or that Dad was running behind on chores before he had to start milking cows again. This was all about the moment that my mom was once again a star.

But later came the instructions and the rules — no banging on the keys (that was more for more Dad’s benefit), no objects of any kind could be set on top of it (especially water glasses), and it was to get a healthy dose of dusting on a regular basis with Lemon Pledge.

So began the regiment of having that piano in our household — us kids took lessons on Saturday mornings, practiced a half-hour every day after school and gently dusted it twice a week with Lemon Pledge.

When I started to know more on the piano than my mother did, after years of lessons, she decided it was time for her to catch up. So she enrolled in lessons herself, becoming the oldest student of all time to take instruction under the famous Elaine Hubel down the road. She took her turn every Saturday morning and started to overtake her daughters.

Elaine was planning our annual recital and asked my mother if she wanted to perform as well. At first, my mother said she couldn’t possibly — here she was, well into her 30s, among her student peers that ranged in age from six to 16. But Elaine was persistent . . . just one song, she asked my mother. Just one.

And there was always just one song my mother wanted to master — “The Entertainer.” Elaine promptly presented her with a complicated, multi-sheet piece of music — that just happened to be duet. She said I could play the low part, Mom could take the high part. It was much more complicated than either of us was ready for — but we had six months to master it. And so we started.

Every night, we played that theme song from the movie, “The Sting,” and every day got better. So the regiment was again set — play “The Entertainer,” dust the piano with lemon Pledge, move the toys off the bench . . . and get ready for the recital.

The day came — Elaine’s livingroom was filled with neighbors and grandparents. All the kids took their turns, with varying degrees of ability. And then, the last presentation of the day was upon us — the mother and daughter team were up. This was it. We sat down on the bench, with dozens of eyes staring at us — I saw sweat on her brow and told her we were going to do it up.

And we did. Page after page, stanza after stanza, key change after key change, we played that piano until the cows came home. And when it ended — my mother received a standing ovation. Her dream had come true.

That year for Christmas, we bought her a wind-up music box made of metal . . . of a man in a hat, sitting at a piano. And of course, it played “The Entertainer.”

This past weekend, I decided it was time to do a good cleaning at my house. So I started to dust — of course, there’s a can of Lemon Pledge under the sink. And I started where I always start — at my mom’s piano. It’s made the trip with me everywhere I’ve gone, when we moved it from the farm to the house where me and Jerry raised the kids in Elgin, and then to our house here in York.

As I sprayed the Lemon Pledge on the cloth, I realized I still dusted this piece of musical magic in exactly the same way I did when I was 10. The keys are yellowed now, it needs to be tuned . . . but it’s still a wonderful part of my life because it came from her life.

I also realized I do the same thing when I’m finished — I wiped the last of the Pledge across the bench and then reached up to grab the music box. I wound it up, turned the key — and listened to the “The Entertainer.” I couldn’t stop myself from smiling — with the sound of that wonderful song and lemon scent in the air.



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