Family Heirlooms, Antiques, and the Price of Sentimentality
Updated: Sep 17
When your grandmother bought her piano, the salesman probably told her, "This will be something to pass on to your children." And it's true! The piano was high-quality and she did indeed pass it down to her children, your mother, who had played it happily as a child. Then your mom grew up, stopped playing piano, got married, and had you.
Six years later, she mentioned to your grandmother that you were destined for piano lessons. Your grandmother suggested that the "family piano" be moved in to your home for the benefit of the next generation. Your grandmother remembered the salesman telling her that the piano would be an item to pass down for generations to come, and your mother forgot how terrible the piano sounded last time she played it and could only picture nights at home with the family listening to her young daughter make beautiful music.
So there you are, taking lessons on a piano that is difficult to play and hasn't been tuned in about 15 years. You aren't really interested in the piano and only take lessons for three years before you convince your mother to let you pursue soccer instead. You grow up, have a kid, and suddenly recall pleasant memories of your mother playing on her mother's piano making beautiful music. You regret picking soccer over music and are determined that your child won't make the same mistake. You call your mother and tell her that it's time for your daughter to start taking piano lessons and ask to have the "family piano" moved into your home.
The "family piano" arrives and you immediately realize that you are supposed to tune pianos every now and then, so you call a piano technician to come tune it explaining that you know it's probably not in great shape, but it's a family heirloom and you'd like to make it work.
I arrive, open the piano, take one look inside and say, "I'm so sorry, your piano is dead."
You look at me blankly. "But it's a family heirloom. This was my grandmother's piano. It's an antique!"
To which I respond, "Yes, it's a very old piano. That's why I can't fix it."
You are confused. "I thought pianos were supposed to last forever!"
"Why do you think that?" I ask, genuinely curious.
You pause momentarily. You thought your piano was worth a lot of money. Scanning your memory bank you were sure that your mother said pianos would last forever, or wait, was it your grandmother who said it? Or didn't you read that article one time talking about how pianos could last forever? Surely it was the last guy who tuned it that said pianos could last forever...?
Suddenly, you realize you've been thinking the word forever several times now it starts sounding strange in your head. Does anything last forever? Why would you think that any object in life could possibly last forever? You catch yourself starting to mouth forever the way the kid in Sandlot does and you realize that there was never any discussion of the piano being a family heirloom. Your grandmother never said that the piano would last forever, nor your mother, nor anyone else on the planet. It's the same reason you don't have your grandmother's refrigerator or your grandfather's TV, and why your childhood pet fish isn't around anymore. Because nothing lasts forever.
Feeling a bit dazed, you tell me, "I don't know."
I say kindly, "Neither do I. Can I help you find a piano for your daughter?"
"Yes," you say, feeling relieved to have uncovered that bit of poor logic in your brain and corrected it. The new piano arrives in your home a few weeks later, and your daughter, who was averse to the old piano, is suddenly magnetized to the new piano and you find yourself wondering how long you can endure her endless practicing day in and day out.
Let me explain this whole forever thing. This is a simple case of confusing sentimentality with value.
Pianos make music, music makes memories, memories stir up emotion. When your mother suggested you move the family piano to your house for your daughter, she wasn't thinking about the piano and its ability to create music. She was thinking of her mother playing the piano and likely experienced strong emotions tied to that memory. In that moment, sentimentality was assigned to the piano without any thought of the actual, real-life condition of the instrument. Sentimentality will always say, "This item is priceless because of what it means to me." Value will always say, "Is this item of use to me?" This can be hard for some because value has a colder perspective of functionality than sentimentality does, and the results usually differ.
If you have your grandmother's piano, you are likely going to end up in a difficult position soon. Our grandparents' instruments were never built to last this long and are likely hanging on by a thread. As hard as it is, you have to try to separate the memory from the item, understanding that your grandmother didn't give you a piano, she gave you the gift of music. The piano is just the vehicle for musical expression, and if the one your grandmother had can't sing anymore, you should get something that will do your grandmother's memory better justice.