I stood before the judge representing myself in a Chicago court in 2001.
My cousin Roberta died two years prior. An accomplished contralto classical singer, she traveled the world and collected furs, fine China, rugs, and jewelry. She cooked goose, made waffles from scratch, and held close a sweet potato pie recipe. Our family watched her sing in a chorale and solo on Sunday evenings at Chicago’s orchestra hall on the local PBS station.
She shared her love of music with the family. She introduced me to the piano. Suddenly she was gone and her absence thrust me into a painful, emotional fight for a sentimental object legally mine. In her will, Roberta left me her ebony upright Mason & Hamlin piano. Her second husband, also a musician, contested my inheritance. He claimed Roberta bequeathed the piano to him.
I flew in from St. Paul, Minnesota, where I worked as a newspaper reporter. No one expected me to show up for the court date. Not Roberta’s widower nor his lawyer. The judge raised his gavel for a continuance.
No, I told the judge, shuffling papers. I have a story.
Years ago, Roberta owned another piano and gave it to my parents to put in the dining room of our South Side Chicago home.
As a little girl, I sat on the piano bench banging the keys, convinced it sounded melodious. My parents took that as a sign that I wanted to learn. At age five, one of Roberta’s former students, Ruth, came to our house weekly for my lessons. On the first day she asked me to find middle C. I guessed wrong and she showed me how to identify it on any piano going forward. The other clear early drill from Ruth was her scribbling “every good boy does fine,” the mnemonic used to remember notes on the treble clef.
I was a committed student but never daydreamed of pursuing a career as a professional pianist. To be clear, I was neither a child prodigy nor classically trained. I discovered a hobby I enjoyed. Ruth didn’t push classical music on me, except Beethoven’s “Für Elise” because I asked; I only desired to master 1980s music — Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” and TV theme songs like “Hill Street Blues.” Many a song I requested she told me would be terrible on the piano. Ruth was right. High-pitched synthesizer tunes don’t sound pretty on the piano.
When I was 10 years old, Ruth asked me to play the piano at her wedding. What an honor that she trusted me. I was thrilled and practiced a lot. I asked if I could play a song from my favorite chanteuse at the time, Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You.” Ruth said no, it wasn’t an appropriate wedding song. I didn’t understand why — after all, Houston belted lyrics about love, but I didn’t question my teacher. I chuckled many years later after realizing the ballad is about an affair with a married man. Totally wrong for nuptials.
Leading up to the big day, my parents closed the door and held a private conversation with Ruth about whether the responsibility put too much pressure on an elementary-age child. I’m not sure exactly what Ruth said, but I went back to practicing. On her wedding day, my freshly pressed hair cascaded down the back of my rose-colored taffeta dress. A corsage on my wrist. I looked like Easter Sunday. I played multiple songs during the ceremony, including the traditional Wagner’s “Here Comes the Bride” and Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” for the recessional.
Roberta showered me with attention and mature gifts. She never bought toys. I received jewelry.
In the 1990s, I graduated to R&B staples like Jodeci and Anita Baker on the piano. In hindsight, I wish Ruth pushed me more on music theory. Really, I should be a better player after all those years of lessons. I belatedly learned how music and math are intertwined when I got a new piano teacher my senior year of high school. She taught me “Moonlight Sonata” but I never mastered it beyond the first movement. But Ruth — in her twenties with long fingernails and punkish hair — allowed me to foster a love for piano. She didn’t emphasize competitions or recitals and opted to let me tickle the ivories in a pop music cotton-candy bubble. Sometimes I burst that bubble. I also played tame gospel hymns at church. In high school, I played the piano for an English teacher’s wedding. A couple from high school got married after their graduation and asked me to play. I performed the same song. Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” never goes out of style.
Off to college I went, occasionally going down in the basement of the fine arts building to play songs from the Best of Luther Vandross songbook.
I always felt like a grown-up around Roberta because she didn’t treat me like a child. We had a special relationship.
She nicknamed me Skye when I was a baby because she said I always looked up at the sky. She never had children and her first husband died. Roberta and my paternal grandmother were first cousins and grew up together in Springfield, Illinois. Born in 1928, she attended Roosevelt University in Chicago and majored in music, a feat for a Black woman in that era.
Roberta showered me with attention and mature gifts. She never bought toys. I received jewelry. I still wear a jade ring she gave me decades ago. All her cards were signed “Cousin Bertie.” She took me to steak restaurants and filled me in on family history and gossip over a meal. We lived less than a mile away and as a little girl I liked going to her house and even asked if I could wash the dishes. Roberta traveled with me and my mother on a Girl Scouts cruise to the Bahamas.
She left me her Buick Regal sedan and Mason & Hamlin piano. Her husband obstructed by contesting a lot in the will.
She could be mercurial. When there was a falling out with the family, I was the only one who attended her wedding to her second husband. Touched by my presence, she bought me a Coach purse my next birthday. Family fences were mended shortly afterward and we commenced to eating her oyster dressing again at holidays.
Roberta died in summer 1999 after a short illness she told no one about. I flew home from Washington, D.C., devastated. She loved attention, but, in her final days, declined it.
Her will listed an array of material items to designated far-flung relatives. Roberta often changed her will over the years and added codicils, legally binding amendments to the document. And she didn’t shy from writing people out of her will in a fit of anger. In a last capricious move, Roberta designated the ex-spouses of my aunt and uncle as the executors of her estate. My name was clearly there. She left me her Buick Regal sedan and Mason & Hamlin piano. Her husband obstructed by contesting a lot in the will. The rest of my family let it go, instead letting him keep whatever he wanted. To them, a diamond ring wasn’t worth the drama.
But I knew she wanted me to have the piano, and I had a sentimental connection to the instrument. If it weren’t for Roberta, I would’ve never played the piano. I wrote letters to Roberta’s husband’s lawyer. I got advice from lawyer friends. The car would’ve been nice as I was starting a new job and needed to buy my first vehicle as an adult. I didn’t bother fighting for the Buick. Fine, let him have it. But the piano belonged to me. Roberta’s husband said that when they got married he got rid of his piano to move hers into his home. He argued their agreement was whoever died first would keep the piano.
A part of me felt icky for contesting. How ugly is it to fight over a deceased loved one’s possessions? Feuding and fighting after a funeral is a cliché plot device, and here I was starring in my own stage play.
And that led me to the county probate court in 2001. I represented myself because I didn’t have money for a lawyer. I asked the judge if I could speak. In a steady voice, I pointed out that Roberta added codicils to her will after she remarried. If she truly wanted her husband to have the piano, why didn’t she write me out the will and put a codicil stating that he keep the Mason & Hamlin?
The judge looked up and asked if the parties could go in the side room and work this out. We did. I never had beef with Roberta’s husband, whom I previously regarded as a sweet old man. I cried. He relented and said he’d never forget how I came to their wedding. He backed off and said I could take the piano.
Weeks later, the lawyer called to ask me to sign a document stating I received the piano. “No sir,” I replied. “I’ll sign when the piano gets delivered.” I spent $600 — from some of the valued savings bonds Roberta gave me as a child — to ship the piano from Chicago to my St. Paul dining room.
The day the piano arrived in 2001 felt like Christmas morning. My friends Aida and Rochell were at my apartment. The first song I played was Luther Vandross’ “Here and Now” as Rochell sang off-key. We cracked up.
I worked part-time as a server at a jazz club. My favorite piano player gave me a few lessons and emphasized playing by ear and memorizing the scales. I heard improvements. Playing or figuring out a song is like mastering a puzzle.
That piano goes wherever I go. It’s my prized possession, my favorite object in my home. I am Berniece in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. A beautiful piece of furniture, an heirloom, a conversation piece, all in one. My piano endured four movings since Minnesota and weathered a few nicks. Never hire a non-piano moving company. A crew, some with dangled cigarettes in their mouths, almost dropped mine coming up three flights of stairs.
Today it’s in the living room of my apartment. I still love playing Anita Baker songbooks. I taught my oldest stepdaughter Sydney how to play. My husband and I got married in that living room and Sydney played a song on the piano. Roberta’s picture is framed on the Mason & Hamlin.
My daughter Skye is three and expresses an interest in the instrument. Sydney plays and Skye twirls. I’ll wait until Skye’s five for formal lessons. In the meantime, we belt songs from the A Star Is Born sheet music I downloaded. And I showed her how to find middle C.