How to Teach a Piano Lesson

“Joel, I’m going to the Christian Light Press in E-Town for some birthday cards, do you want to go along?”

“Okay, Mommy, do you think they have lollipops?” queried my mischievous son.

“I don’t think bookstores have lollipops at the counter like doctor’s offices do, but maybe they have other fun things to look at,” I said, thinking he would enjoy an excursion into town while visiting his cousins in Pennsylvania.

Entering the store, I spied precious novelties tempting to touch, a fact that struck me with a fearsome shudder because I had an 8-year-old in tow.

“Now don’t touch anything. Just look. Do you see the sign on the display? It says ‘If you break it, you buy it!’”

“Uh huh,” he said racing to the music boxes and other curios.

I turned to the bank of colorful greeting cards not far away eyeing cards appropriate for Mother and sister Jean.

“Squeak-thunk,” was the next sound I heard across the aisle, close to where I saw the top of Joel’s thatch of brown wavy hair.

Cards in hand I strode over toward Joel and saw him holding a toy baby grand piano. As I looked closer, I noticed the hinge to the piano lid was halfway broken off. Turning the piano upside down to reveal a music box attached underneath, I noted a sticker. The price tag announced: $ 13.95. Please understand, we were a struggling young family in the 1970s, my husband and I both teachers, so the money registered on my mental calculator as a staggering figure.

Right there and then I had a double D attack: disappointment at my son’s disobedience and dread coursing from head to toe knowing we had to face the owner and admit to the breakage.

My feet felt like lead as I led Joel by the hand and I trudged down the aisle toward the clerk/owner who appeared to be glowering at us behind a tall metal cash register with raised keys and a bottom drawer that slammed shut.

I approached the counter speechless but managed to turn over the music box revealing the price tag. Swallowing slowly I formed words, “I guess we’ll need to pay for this. My son broke it accidentally.”

“Yes, you will. You see what the sign says.” I knew the warning only too well.

Opening my wallet hesitantly, I shelled out the dollars and cents, Joel standing by my side his head hanging, embarrassed and chastened.

* * *

Leap forward over thirty years, and son Joel now has his own son Ian, also age eight.

Several weeks ago I presented Ian with this same piano that has sat on my bookshelves for decades, occupying space between American poetry and art history books. Because we are downsizing, I have been passing along keepsakes to the next generation.

Joel was privy to my intention and approved my gifting the piano that plays the Lord’s Prayer as a tinkling, lullaby tune.

The presentation of the bequest began with a sturdy, red shoebox surrounded by tissue and foam padding. And then the unveiling . . .


Turning the wind-up key, voilá – sweet music filled the air.

PianoTwist Key

I announced, “When, he was your age, your dad broke off one of the legs on this toy piano.”

“Oh, no, not a leg, the hinge was broken off,” Joel corrected.


My memory had played tricks on me and the cause of the accident had morphed into something else.

Memory can be fuzzy sometimes. It’s not fixed as a photograph / locked in an album, / but it changes, it develops, mixed with time,” as Barbara Crooker wisely observes in her poem, Not a Spoon, a Key. Sometimes memory can even be wrong.

Squinting now at the underside, I see the replacement on the left, slightly larger screw and bolt than those on the other side. Lid held up with two toothpicks.



And here it is, good as new!



Not a word was spoken about doing the right or wrong thing.

Words weren’t necessary.




Can you relate to my dilemma here?

Has your memory of family incidents every played tricks on you? Readers will enjoy your story and so will I.


Coming next: Raise a Mug to the Irish


My Day of CHANGE @ a Middle School

“Mom, would you like to volunteer for Challenge Day at Mandarin Middle School in a few weeks?” Joel asked.

“I probably would but I would need to know more about it,” I answered.

Then my son proceeded to tell me about an initiative at the school he helps sponsor, “Be the Change,” a movement to help students break down walls of isolation and loneliness and replace them with compassion, understanding and love.

My day of change came on a Tuesday, when student ambassadors greeted me at the door and pointed me to the gym, where I found my daughter Crista, also a volunteer.

Challenge Day Ambassadors
Challenge Day Ambassadors


Seventh and eighth grade students filed in under an arch of welcome, volunteers forming a path of entry with our bridge of arms. Later, we found out students thought doing this was hokey.

There were rules:



The facilitators, Chris (a guy) and Trish began with games: “Find 10 people you never met before and give them a high five.” All the students were strangers to me, so that was easy. The day proceeded with other forms of friendly physical contact: fist bumps and eventually hugs.

“Now, with your partners, slap the ball to the other side,” students stabbed at a super-sized beach ball to earn points. Music and dance underscored many of the day’s activities: Soul Train, Wildest Dream, Where are You Now? Time of Our Lives . . . .

Then the facilitators turned more serious, referring to parallel lines of blue tape they had previously attached to the gym floor.

“Cross the line if . . .”

  • you have ever been hurt by what someone said about your skin color, religion, or how you dressed.
  • you have been hit, beaten or abused in another way by a parent or other authority figure in your life.
  • someone you know hurts the family because of alcohol or drugs.
  • you have lost someone you loved recently or a long time ago.

Emotion was palpable as students and volunteers alike crossed blue lines. Viewing their somber faces, I intuitively felt students’ dawning awareness of similarities in the lives of their friends and classmates. One of the facilitators shared her challenging life story of abuse and neglect. Students sat agape, eyes transfixed as her startling story unfolded.

Before lunchtime we were assigned to family groups of 4 or 5, two boys and two girls. With guidance, each was ready to share something heartfelt in my group.

  • My parents fight all the time and I think they might get divorced.
  • I don’t know who my dad is and my mother left. I live with my aunt and cousins.
  • My mom died last summer and then we had to put my dog to sleep.

Tears flowed. Each group leader doled out Kleenex tissues.

There was share time, with scenes similar to this photo clip from a Challenge Day video in Michigan, which appeared on Oprah’s website.


Most of the students who grabbed the microphone at Mandarin Middle confessed to prejudice or bullying and then publicly asked for forgiveness. More hugs and tears.

The day closed with students writing a thank you note to express gratitude to a special person in their lives. Most chose their mothers. One girl in my group wrote two notes!

* * *

Rich and Yvonne Dutra-St. John are co-founders of the innovative Challenge Day program and the Be the Change Movement. Rich is a former high school teacher and championship wrestling coach. Yvonne is a gifted speaker, educator, and program designer.

Mark Twain joked, “When a child turns twelve you should put him in a barrel, nail down the lid and feed him through a knothole.” I’m suspicious of the quote because I couldn’t find the attribution on, a website I trust. Yet, these lines survive in pop culture as does its sequel: “When he turns sixteen, seal up the knothole.”

The leadership at Mandarin Middle School, including my son, doesn’t believe this quip. And neither do I.


  • Have you heard of this program or one similar to it?
  • How have you made a change, major or minor, in your life?


Coming next: Are You Too Big for Your Pot?

The Wonda-Chair and the Heirloom

Did you as a baby sit in one of these?

Did you buy one for your child?

Image: eBay
Image: eBay

Produced by Babyhood Industries of Shrewsbury, MA, the Wonda Chair was “a do-it-all, all-in-one, convertible wonder. As the seller mentions, the multi-piece furniture/stroller kit mixes and matches to create the following: Hi-chair, youth chair, chair and table, dressing table, desk set, rocking chair, stroller, baby carriage, basinette, and cradle.”

As expectant parents, we fell prey to this marvel and sunk hundreds of dollars into this magnificent wonder, the Wonda Chair. We used it mostly as a high chair and stroller for our children. Later, Crista and Joel pushed each other around on the sidewalk with the stroller base. Here they are improvising their own version of a horse and buggy with a dog and Wonda Chair carriage wheels.


Recently, we have been going through Mother’s things in her attic and came upon this 19th century marvel—a high chair that converts into a baby carriage—hand-made and still serviceable.



Mother was the first daughter in the family after four brothers, so she is the fifth in her family to use the chair. It is vintage, however, and probably handed down to the family from the previous generation, frugal Mennonites who valued quality and heritage.

Mother in high chair, 1918
Mother in the Metzler high chair, 1918

Two wonderful chairs – the Wonda Chair and the heirloom . . .

*  *  *

Your turn: Take your pick – The Wonda Chair or the Vintage chair?

Or tell your tale of special pieces handed down in your family.


Come to the Storybook Chair, the Storybook Chair . . .

So now it matters almost not at all to any of them except as a storybook matters; loved in childhood but outgrown in adolescence, it still matters, still instructs, still is part of what the adult becomes.

Phyllis Tickle, The Graces We Remember: Songs in Ordinary Time (126)

When our children Crista and Joel were little, a prelude to nap-time was their mother chanting in a sing-song voice: “Come to the storybook chair, the story book chair, the story book chair, and we’ll read . . . .” Hearing that, they’d head for the rocking chair and climb on my lap for colorful Richard Scarry pages or the clever tricks of a George and Martha book. I’m carrying on a tradition that began with my mother who read to me from picture books, and also recited poetry from her school days.

My journal tells me (and it does not lie) these are the poems by Robert Louis Stevenson that Mother recited to me in 1999 from her memories of Lime Rock School near Lititz, Pennsylvania in the mid 1920s.

Ruth Metzler  Lime Rock School  1920s
Ruth Metzler            Lime Rock School             1920s

The Swing PNG image


Illustrations from A Child's Garden of Verses, John Martin's House, Inc., circa 1945
Illustrations from A Child’s Garden of Verses, John Martin’s House, Inc., circa 1945

She also recited the verses of “My Shadow” from the “Golden Book of Poetry” 1947 with the familiar first two stanzas:

My Shadow png

At the beginning of second grade, the summer I turned seven, I had my tonsils removed and among my memories (besides drinking chocolate milk through a straw and trying to swallow smashed bananas) is reading the poem “The Land of Counterpane” under a quilt that probably matched my own upon my sick-bed.

Land of Counterpane_6x6_300

LandOfCounterpane png

What are your early memories of reading? Did a friend or family member recite poetry or other words of wisdom to you?

Coming next: The Wonda Chair and the Heirloom

Happy Birthday to My One and Onlies

birthday cancle


My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.     Boris Johnson

*  *  *

July is the birthday month for four our immediate family. If you count our extended family, there are three or four more birthdays this month.

This month I celebrate the birthdays of three of my one and õn-lies:

The Inimitable Mother Ruth Metzler Longenecker

Mother and her morning ritual, reading her Bible
Mother and her morning ritual, reading her Bible, age 96

My One and Only Son

Joel with wife Sarah at cousin's wedding
Joel with one-and-only daughter-in-law Sarah at cousin’s wedding

My One and Only Grand-Daughter Jenna Skye Dalton


July Birthdays

July birthdays in our family span four generations. Apparently, I tried very hard to become my mother’s first birthday present after her marriage the previous year, having missed being born on her own birthday by just one day. Our son and grand-daughter are birthday presents to me – Joel born two days after my birthday and Jenna preceding my birthday by a mere five days.

Who are your one and ôn-lies – birthdays or otherwise? 

*  *  *

Coming tomorrow: Birthday Butter Shake Sequel