First, she would call up the stairs multiple times in that musical, sing-songy voice that was loud but not unpleasant, the one that changed a one syllable name into two. She began, as most do, with the higher tone and ended with a lower one, probably three to five pitches down on a scale. Then, after no response, my mom would grab a spoon or fork from the drawer in the kitchen and rap on the water pipes on the wall near the sink with a quick staccato burst. The plumbing went straight up to my big brother’s bedroom, and this rapid metallic tap, tap, tap oftentimes would be jarring enough to break through my teenaged brother’s deep, deep sleep. Other times, she would just stand there and bang the pipe with the fork or spoon at a steady but slower beat that would make any percussionist proud – donk, donk, donk, donk, donk for a minute or two minutes or maybe longer until you’d hear a harsh, loud, and anything but melodious “I’M AWAKE” roared from the second story.
But when it didn’t work, Plan C called for a run upstairs to yell my brother’s name and shake his shoulder to get him up. We kids performed this task and usually, after two or three tries, it was enough to elicit a mumbled response about “getting up now.” If my brother, tired from playing a guitar gig late at the supper club in a band with three other talented young men, and tired just because teens are supposed to be tired, only rolled over and continued his slumber, my mother would have to resort to the ultimate maneuver.
Enter my sister. Another talented young musician, she could play any song at all on the piano, in any key. She studied piano and music theory, and also played the fife in a marching band and had taken up drumming. She could sight read music, sing the lead, sing harmony, play classical, play modern, play boogie-woogie, play anything, and even arrange music. Ask her to play a song, and with no music, no practice, no hesitation, she’d play it perfectly. Expertly. With my brother on the guitar and my sister on the piano, there were plenty of impromptu jam sessions in our living room. Now I don’t recall my sister playing Elvis on the piano like my brother did on the guitar; he would entertain my younger brother and me with a great “Jailhouse Rock.” But she would play everything else.
So, when all else failed, my mother would request that my sister play the piano. Could it be that the shared love of music between two talented siblings created such a bond that my brother could not resist the opportunity to play guitar, to make music, even in a semi-wakeful state?
This is a teenager we’re talking about. My sister would sit down at the old upright piano that belonged to my mother’s grandfather, and start banging out “Downtown,” a fun, catchy tune sung by Petula Clark that was getting a lot of airplay. But was it enough to wake up my big brother?
No. We are talking about my sister’s foolproof strategy. She played the right hand, the melody, in one key, and the left hand accompaniment in another key. Sometimes she would sing, maybe in a third key, “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, You can always go… Down-town.” The whole experience was jarring. It was gut-wrenching. It was agonizing.
And after a brief musical introduction and only a line of the song, my brother would come barreling down the stairs, running and yelling, “Stop it.” “Stop it!”
And my mother would just smile.