The Piano

By Tessie Ruddy 2008

I grew up in a small “paper” town in Northern Ontario during the great depression, as they called it. Strange in way for us because although things were tight we never felt depressed. We didn’t have much in the way of marvellous furniture or possessions, but we had some marvellous times. When I was still almost a baby, I would sit on my mother’s knee in church (they had no nursery rooms) and hum along when the organ was playing. We went to halls where other cultures played their music and in particular at Christmas. We heard bag pipes from Scotland, balalaikas from Polish and Ukrainian people, the flute from our Jewish neighbours and fiddles from the French Canadians and Irish.

We had a radio and listened to the Grand Old Opry fiddlers, gospel music, the American Stallions Nashville and others. We got those signals over the radio so strongly that we could hear them playing from Nashville and other parts of the U.S.A. coming to us over hundreds of miles in distance over the frozen airwaves. It was great to hear all that country music from the likes of Roy Acuff and the Smokey Mountain Boys playing The Arkansas Traveler and other square dance tunes. I remember my father’s show was on at six o’clock in the morning. My father Jack turned the radio on in the kitchen at a very high volume so that we would here it upstairs while still in bed as we were not invited to get up yet. We were five little girls in the room awake but simply resting and listening while not making a sound. So, this went on as a routine. We also had an old wind up gramophone that played over and over Polly Wollie Doodle and Who Broke The Lock On The Hen House Door as well as many Irish songs by John McCormack.

There was no kindergarten in those days so we started right into grade one and learned to read and actually write. I recall the most outstanding thing I noticed on my first day of school was “The Piano”. I had never seen one up close before. There it was a big black carved piano being played by quite a large and robust teacher who smiled as she played tunes like English Country Garden. We sat in our seats and listened intently. Although I decided that I liked school a lot on that first day I really fell in love with “The Piano” and all of the singing we did around it.

From that time I wished and longed for a piano but of course all in vain. The depression was still on but the paper mill in town was running although only five days a week. Tim Buck was getting strong at that time and there was lots of excitement while happily my father was kept on to work at the mill. Finally somehow daddy had saved up one hundred dollars. What had that money been put away for you might wonder? Well, it was set aside for a washing machine for my mother. She always had to wash with a wash board. The decision that had to be made was left up to my mother. Did she want the new washer to make life easier or a piano for us girls? Momma decided that piano was the better choice.

We sent away for a used piano from The Family Herald and Weekly Star newspaper. It arrived on the freight train F.O.B. (freight on board) on Christmas Eve. I was fourteen by this time and the second oldest of five girls.

From the train station a man, who was a friend of my father’s delivered the piano safely packed into a wooden piano box on a very low sleigh pulled by two work horses. The piano arrived on a very cold dark Christmas Eve and the snow was actually up past the windows of our house. Alas, on arrival at our front door we discovered it was too big to move in. This created a lot of noise, fuss and swearing as the delivery men and my father looked for a solution. They decided to take off the front door, open up the crate and roll the piano in on its casters. The horses waited patiently outside in the freezing temperature and snow with frost on their manes and whiskers. Nobody cared enough to cover them with blankets or melton cloth and I wondered at that. The piano was old but magnificent, it was dark brown wood on casters and made by Bell. I t was stunning with ivory keys.

Fortunately our teachers had taught us a bit of music theory, so we were able to play with one hand to start with. So, that Christmas Eve we took turns at playing Silent Night. My father could plunk a few lines of dance tunes as well. The evening was a joy with all of us taking turns banging away at the new piano.

The next day it was Christmas. My father had invited some Italian friends from work to come over for a visit and to enjoy some Christmas cake and tea. We all sat around and listened to them admiring “The Piano”. My father claimed proudly, “Tessie can play”. Well, yes I could play alright but only one hand and a line of Silent Night so I did that to please them and hit any note to fake my way along as my sisters sang quite loudly to give me cover. The elderly Italian fellow by the name of Joe cried and clapped his hands as he was so happy at our little production of Silent Night. I knew then that we could all accomplish just about anything if we tried. I also knew that I loved the idea of performing.

As time went on we were able to take lessons for 25 cents a week from an elderly French lady that lived near by. We learned with her teaching us chords and her son accompanied us on the fiddle. Before long we could play a tune with the right hand and chord with the left. We played some popular dance tunes like Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet and Red wing as well as a few hymns like Nearer My God To Thee.

We had lots of visitors to hear us play the piano as word spread along the block. Every Sunday afternoon we all played and sang and danced as we tried to master the songs made popular by the war. My mother produced fudge for the occasion and she and my father danced around the small kitchen and living room to songs like After The Ball and To Feather Your Nest.

I will always remember “The Piano” with all of its ornate carving and yellow ivory keys. It was the centre of attraction when we growing up and then when we came home to visit with our own families. Other homes had pool and gaming tables and all sorts of entertainment but the Dunn household had “The Piano”. Thank God to Daddy and Momma for that.

The End

A little about Tessie Ruddy. She was born and raised in Iroquois Falls, one of five daughters of Jack and Margaret Dunn. Her sisters include: Emily (McGrath), Sarah Paquette, Rita Elliott and Celia Mercier. She became a teacher and taught initially in Monteith and then Iroquois Falls. She married Harvey (Buck) Ruddy and raised a family including: Terry, Celia and Iris. Terry is a world renown doctor and heart specialist married to Cathy who is also a doctor. They have two sons Brendon and Christopher. Brendon has an interest in music and Christopher is studying computer technology. Terry and Cathy reside in Ottawa. Iris is also a medical professional and has the speciality of working in Infectious Disease Control. She lives in Kitchener/Waterloo and has one fabulous daughter, Sarah who is an accomplished dancer and currently studying in University. Sadly, Celia and Harvey have passed on. Tessie taught school for many years and it was her great joy to pass her passion for music and the creative arts on to many students through decades of her career in education in Northern and Southern Ontario. She is an accomplished pianist and at 81 years of age she is still active in her community of Cambridge where she participates with many volunteer organizations and seniors groups. Happily, she continues to this day to delight people with her skill at the piano.

Below she is seen in a photo playing the piano with her sisters Celia and Rita during the celebration of Celia and Johnny Mercier’s 50th wedding anniversary.

Tessie at the piano with her sisters Celia and Rita

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