So today, 114 years ago, this woman was born. She is Grandma Mitchell. The guy in picture is her son, my dad, Larry. The scary clown paintings in the background tell me this was taken in my Aunt Mitch’s basement circa 1970-ish.

Both of these people have passed, but here’s something I’m thinking about (this is going to be long so please skip out now). My grandma had a pretty crappy life and she was a pretty amazing pianist. Being Irish/Catholic/Drunks who in the Mitchell traditional never talk about bad things, we don’t know the whole story, but something happened early on when she was a little girl and she got orphaned.

Let me back up by going forward.

When I was in second grade, I started crying to have a piano. My father let me cry for a year before he gave in (my Mom still has that piano). It was delivered by two heavy sweaty guys I’m convinced were both named “Ed.” Of course I couldn’t play it.

And of course I had this sweet old grandma who was just that grandma who “didn’t do anything.” The piano came in ’71, yet she came over (she was always old — she looked as she did in this picture when she was 40 and when she died when she was 90 something). She sat down and BURNED THAT FUCKING PIANO. She played like seven pieces after not touched a piano in decades, like Chopin, and did some stride. Pieces I still can’t play today. I was amazed and inspired.

Meanwhile my parents had a sweet gig. Grandma Mitchell would come over to “babysit” me every Saturday night (my siblings Tim and Laurie were a bit older than me and out doing god knows what teenagers did in 75). My parents would go out to parties/bars. Grandma Mitchell and I played cards, would have toast and tea at 10:25, and then watch SNL. After that, why not? Let’s watch channel 30 which played Road movies with Bing and Bob until 2 in the morning. I was 12, an altar boy, due at church the next morning early but fuck it.

I asked her how she got so good at the piano, and being Irish/Catholic/Drunks, she didn’t go into details, but somehow as a little girl she ended up with an evil aunt and uncle. Total Cinderella without the happy ending. She was that indentured Irish slave, and her cousin was a girl her age who was savagely mean to her. They had a piano that she loved and they didn’t let her take lessons, and YELLED at her when they caught her playing it. Still, she managed to teach herself to read music and play well.

At 16 she married to “escape” that, but she married a guy that was kinda funny but couldn’t hold a job and, being Irish/Catholic, took a swig too much. That part was bad, it was a struggle, and she had escaped one bad situation for another not so great one. She never drove a car. She never worked outside the home. But she had two kids, my dad and my aunt, who was named after her, Lillian, but called Mitch. That gal was amazing but back to grandma Mitchell. My dad turned out really well too, considering. Didn’t graduate from high school but really funny and well liked. Always wanted to play the piano.

Grandma Mitchell was one of the several strong women in my life that shaped me.

Her life ended as much as she lived it, sad and painful. She was in a crappy nursing home and completely out of it, and in a lot of discomfort. I was in studying at the KC conservatory and the woman I looked forward to hanging out with on Saturday night I now dreaded visiting on my visit back home. I would sit and try to talk to her and she would not know who I was. At the end, she would see me, roll over, reach out, and just say, “help me. help me.”

Finally I said fuck it, and when I would visit twice a semester, I’d bring my piano music. I would make the nurses get her into the dining hall where there was an old piano, horribly out of tune. And I just fucking played for her. I played her old shit. It was One Flew Over the Coo-Coos Nest, with crazy people dancing and singing in the background, but she would smile.

First you put your two knees close up tight,
Then you sway ’em to the left, then you sway ’em to the right,
Step around the floor kind of nice and light,
Then you twis’ around and twis’ around with all your might,
Stretch your lovin’ arms straight out in space
Then do the Eagle Rock with style and grace
Swing your foot way ’round then bring it back,
Now that’s what I call “Ballin’ the Jack.”

I would play for 30 minutes, kiss her, and leave. I did that for her last three years.

God bless you Grandma Mitchell. Happy birthday wherever you are.

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