For as long as I can remember, Grandfather was making music. His voice filled the whole room when he sang and he caressed the keys of his piano like nobody else. Whether it be “Mac the Knife” or “Jeepers Creepers” or “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” Grandfather would break out into song at the mention of a phrase or name. Everyone called me John, I mean, that’s what Mom and Dad named me, but to Grandfather, I was always his Johnny. “Johnny be good,” he’d say.

Grandfather didn’t have much hair left, and he had a great big tummy that hung over his tanned leather belt and eyes that twinkled like a starry, starry night. But boy did he have the most beautiful voice. When you walked into Grandfather’s house there were always the sounds of music whether it was from his Louie Armstrong playing on the ancient-looking stereo or even the good, old, trusty record player. When I was really, really little Grandfather used to play Swannee River on the piano and sing along with it. That used to be my favorite.

Grandfather would take my brother and me fishing at the lake house in the summertime. Grandfather loved the lake house. We’d sit for a long time on our wicker chairs until the fireflies came out, rocking back and forth, steady, steady, on the porch of the lake house. Grandfather would tell stories but sometimes we could just listen to the sounds of summer, changing from day to night as we creaked to and fro on our porch chairs: the chirp of the crickets, the buzz of cicadas, later the hoo-hoot of the night owl. Sometimes a breeze would brush the wind chimes hanging from the ceiling: ting, cling, clang, ding, and Grandfather would croon, “The summer wind came blowin’ in, across the sea . . .”

Of course it was Grandfather that showed me how to play. When I was six I remember climbing onto the bench of the Steinway in the living room, plunking out notes one by one with my pointer finger: plonk, clonk, plunk. My feet didn’t even touch the ground I was so little. Grandfather sat down next to me and showed me how. “So Johnny wants to be a maestro, eh?” To show up his show tunes and Sinatra, he played a Chopin Nocturne and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. The melody rang true and sad and perfect. I mean, I was only six, but grandfather was sure good at Chopin. I wanted to play Chopin. I wanted to be a maestro.

You just couldn’t take the beat out of Grandfather. At Aunt Susie’s wedding he was the best dancer you ever saw, real light on his feet, and a regular gentleman. He danced with Aunt Susie and spun her around and led her all around the dance floor, sweepingly, like they were floating. “Women are angels, Johnny, treat them like you would treat an angel. You’ll think you know ’em, but boy you’re wrong. When you dance on that dance floor, just remember you’re dancing with an angel. Feel that music, Johnny? Feel your heart beat and dance with the angels.”

Christmastime, well, there is nothing else like it in the whole world. And Christmas Eve at Grandfather’s house was always warm and bright and happy with food and gifts, and the family gathered around the Steinway for carols. Grandfather would lead us in all the fa-la-la-la-la’s and jingle bells and glorias, and the piano chords and joyous melodies filled the room as our voices sang together, maybe not perfectly, but in a sort of harmony. Grandfather could make everyone sing, from Uncle Ed all the way down to little Frankie.

When I was nine, I played Fur Elise for Grandfather. I was so excited, I rushed and rushed the tempo, my hands moving faster and faster, speeding up with each bar, accelerating with the melody.

“Maestro, maestro,” he pulled my hands away. “Slow down, Johnny, where you rushing to?”

He opened the small wooden box above me on the piano and adjusted the metal slide. The metronome rocked back and forth in a Poco Moto tempo, tock, tick, tock.

“There ya go, maestro. If it’s steady-steady see how you can enjoy it? It’s alright to take it a little slow sometimes; you get to see all the beautiful things.”

Sometimes when Grandfather would play for me he’d leave the tocking-ticking metronome on. It was almost magnetic, hypnotic. Sometimes my heart k’thumped with the rocking of the metronome and the music of Grandfather’s piano.

When Grandfather got sick, we couldn’t keep him from singing. His sweet old tenor could echo through the house even though the doctors told him to take it easy.

“They can never take my voice away Johnny,” he’d tell me. And with that he’d burst into “I simply gotta march, my heart’s a drummer. Don’t bring around the cloud to rain on my parade . . .”

Mom said that maybe an upright in his bedroom would be better for Grandfather, since he wouldn’t have to walk down the stairs to play and maybe it’d give his voice a little rest. Grandfather missed the baby grand downstairs, but I brought that metronome up for him. Now when I came over to visit, the house was quieter, no more old stereo blaring or resonance of Grandfather’s tenor voice. As much as it took, Grandfather still loved to play for me. He’d muster up all his might and make his way over to the Baldwin upright, slippers scuff-a-shuffling, across the wood floor, cane tap-tip-a-tapping to the piano. Grandfather played slower now, the metronome was usually an Andante, slower clicking ticking, but still rocking, always rocking back and forth.

When Mom told me that Grandfather was really, really sick, I said it wasn’t fair. Grandfather had weakened to a tempo gentler than anything he’d ever played and I told her it wasn’t fair. Still, I played. I played in that bedroom of his all day. I played all the boys – Beethoven, Bach, DeBussy, Schumann, and Mozart – with all the sforzandos, legatos, mezzo pianos and fortes, una cordas, and rubatos that Grandfather taught me.

I remember the last time I played for Grandfather; I was just twelve years old. It was an autumn night, one of the first chillier nights of the season. The days were getting shorter, and as I sat on the piano bench in Grandfather’s room, the sun sank and dusk approached. I clicked on that metronome; I watched it, left to right, back and forth, tick and tock, Grandfather’s pendulum. Then I played that Nocturne, Grandfather’s favorite. Grandfather wouldn’t say much since he was real tired, but Mom said his eyes smiled and opened wide when I played that Nocturne. She said he could’ve lit the whole room up the way he beamed. But with the ritenuto, Grandfather’s eyes slowly closed and his lips parted. Grandfather’s heart had stopped, but the metronome clicked on and on that night. Mother doesn’t understand it the way I do, she just doesn’t see. The way I see it, Grandfather’s heart will beat on and on with mine, in time with the piano, forever and ever.