My sister was insistent. There would be no better time. And because she’s older than me, well, like a good, dutiful little brother, I did as I was told.
I bought a plane ticket.
Actually, the airfare had little to do with any overt goodness or sense of duty. My sister is one tough chick. She’s a former ex-pat who once lived in Greenland. While there, she ate raw whale blubber with the natives. Legend has it she even wrestled a polar bear and won.
So I didn’t want to discover if she could still flip me face down on the ground, yank one of my arms behind my back, and force me to say a humiliating remark about my manhood. Even though she’s 60 and I’m 55 — and on a good day I’m a whole inch taller — some childhood family pecking orders never change.
What my sister wanted was for me to fly home to Michigan, but not just for a weekend visit. She had an urgent mission of vital importance: With Mom now in an assisted living center, the condo, which had been her refuge since Dad died in 2005, had to be sold. Mom didn’t want to lease it, either.
Already several days into June 2014, and other nearby condos selling fast, my sister felt the heat to erect a for-sale sign. But there was a problem: Before Mom’s condo could be sold, the furnishings that remained had to be inventoried, wrapped or boxed, and shared with family.
Hence, the phone call from my sister for me to come home. And hence, her request for me to perform one small task: Rent a 15-foot U-Haul truck and fill it with Mom’s treasures and drive them 1,500 miles across America’s great Midwest back to Utah. While en route, I’d make a brief detour from Interstate 80 to my sister’s daughter’s home in Colorado. Whatever was left in the U-Haul after that would find a final home with me. Thankfully, my niece’s apartment was near Denver and not Duluth.
The biggest item Mom wanted wrapped and delivered was her beloved electric piano that Dad had bought for her years ago. But she didn’t want it to go to anyone who would let it sit in a corner unused. My sister didn’t want it, and since I hadn’t played a note of music since the eighth grade, I winced when Mom asked me. But my wife is the singer and musician in our little family. Of course, she wanted it very much. That bit about me buying a plane ticket without any overt goodness or sense of duty — was about my sister.
So that June a year ago, I entrusted my life and a small suitcase to Southwest Airlines and flew home on a late afternoon flight. After landing at Chicago’s Midway Airport, I rode a bus the 90 miles to my hometown in Michigan and walked through my sister’s front door long after midnight. She cheerfully greeted me despite the hour. So too did our cousin who was there visiting from Denmark. My sister had also convinced him there would be no better time. He would help load the U-Haul and join me on the drive out west.
“It’s good to see you, little brother,” my sister said while giving me a hug. “Are you hungry? I got to keep you strong. You have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
She hadn’t exaggerated. After breakfast, my sister went off to work, and my cousin and I went to Mom’s condo to determine how much stuff had to be loaded. There was a lot.
The first piece we moved into the U-Haul was the electric piano. We carried it up the ramp and set it against the wall behind the cab. We wrapped it from top to bottom with thick blankets to protect it from trailer rash, then tied it down with straps to stop it from tumbling out the back and becoming a hood ornament on somebody’s Civic.
We next packed tables, chairs, lamps, and an assortment of odds and ends. This took us deep into the afternoon, but we finished before sunset. After cleaning up, my sister, cousin and I drove the 28 miles to see Mom at the assisted living center and took her out for dinner.
It was a happy, yet emotional meal — and not just for her. For both she and I knew that my mission there brought closure to a part of her present and past. The treasures that were loaded into the U-Haul, items that she had made or bought and always cherished, she would never see again. It was palpable yet unspoken that my trip was the last page of a chapter in her book not many pages far from the epilogue.
I had a lump in my throat when my cousin and I left the next morning. It wedged in there the night before when I said good-bye to Mom. As we embraced, she said how she wished I could have stayed and visited a while. The tears dropped freely, and I thought, I may never see Mom alive again.
That thought and many others passed through my mind as we made our way west on I-80 across Illinois, over the Mississippi River, and on into Iowa. For late June, the usual high humidity and high heat were conspicuously absent. In its place, was a cool, northwest wind, fragrant with smells of farm and field from rolling Iowa turf.
By twilight, we had left Lincoln, Nebraska behind and were crossing the state’s interminable flatness and endless fields of corn. Lightning bugs, thousands of them, flickered in the fading light. As usual on I-80 during summer, we entered another of the day’s numerous construction zones. The interstate’s rough surface made the U-Haul truck buck and bounce in an aggravating tempo that at times punched us upward. If not for seatbelts, our heads would have clunked against the cab’s ceiling more than once.
Worried about the piano in the back, I began to complain about the rough ride — but then shut up at the thought of something.
Inside the hallowed Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum in Tooele City, rests a piano that I have long admired. An information placard on its worn wooden top claims it to be the first piano brought to Utah in the mid-1800s by LDS President Brigham Young. Before being donated to the DUP in 1919, it had been owned by a man named Charles Taggart — a blind piano tuner. John and Agnes Smith bought it from him in 1880. They later gave it to Harriet Love Sagers, wife of Wallace Sagers.
But what makes the piano’s story even more intriguing is how it got to Utah: by ox team. Which means it took weeks or months to get here — not a few days. And the men and women who brought it didn’t use an air conditioned U-Haul that can cruise at 70 miles per hour. Nor did they have the luxury of I-80 upon which to travel.
I thought about that, with a twitch of guilt, as the rough interstate went smooth again thanks to a fresh layer of asphalt. Not far from the Platte River and the trail itself that Mormon pioneers and other emigrants used to reach Utah, I realized the old DUP piano likely traveled a parallel course to our U-Haul about 160 years ago. My cousin and I were now doing the same — well, sort of.
I reached down to turn the air conditioning off and opened my window, as some kind of paltry act to cut back on the trip’s comfort and convenience, and to show respect for those who traveled here long before with a heavy wooden piano in a wagon pulled by oxen.
I got my mom’s electric piano home without a scratch, and my wife plays it often — thank goodness. So the trip was worth it. And my sister was right. There would be no better time.