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The Mighty Wurlitzer

By Melissa Young

I wrote this a few years ago but decided to post it today in memory of my grandma, who passed away Sunday evening.

It used to be a chicken coop. That’s how the history always starts, a history that sounds almost like a legend because it has played in my ears for as long as I can remember. The black and white photos along the narrow entry hall verify the unlikely beginnings–showing how the chicken coop evolved into a dance hall. I often stared at the pictures, trying to feel the walls of that coop around me. I usually couldn’t.

The Organ Loft of my childhood was more exotic than the modernized version that exists now. It had dark red, casino-style carpet, with red flocked wallpaper. Small whiskey flasks were always arranged neatly behind the bar. It felt wicked in a wonderful way, all scarlet and dim. And there, at the center of everything, was the organ—the mighty Wurlitzer. Somewhere between blue and purple in color, with gold trim, the organ shimmered under the spotlights. I loved to put my nose up to its lacquered finish and just stare at the glitter. I loved sparkle, and that organ was full of it.

We would go for private concerts, the personal guests of my grandmother, who worked there for years as an organist. I can still feel the rush of air as the organ would breathe to life—a familiar, soft whoosh. Windows surrounded the perimeter of the room and through them you could see the pipe chambers. Rows of square, wooden flute pipes and lines of metal pipes curved up and down with different lengths. The tiniest pipes were smaller than my pinky and slender as a matchstick. The biggest towered like trees. Windows below the pipe chambers showed the trem bellows, shivering up and down. White bulbs lined the windows, blinking and glowing with the music, chasing around the frame.

If you stood on the dance floor and looked above, the percussion ranks were visible in an upper terrace. Xylophones, glockenspiels, cymbals, drums, and whistles all danced together like animated puppets. An old black upright piano sat in the front right corner, also controlled by the organ. Some of Grandma’s best stories involved drunk men and that piano.

Sometimes we would go there to swim. There was a small oval swimming pool and hot tub in the back. We always had everything to ourselves—the bathrooms, the pool, the organ, the dance floor. I thought it was just for us. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much it wasn’t.

It’s strange how a place can be so a part of you and yet so unreal, so untouchable. I have danced on that floor, played those keys, run through those halls. I have touched the pipes and seen the rivers of wire that connect them. My grandma’s picture is on the wall. The organ is in the background of my parents’ wedding photos. I know the feel and the smell of it. And yet I have never experienced it as most people know it. I have never been there for the late parties, the silent movies, the public face. Another person who knows the Loft would not know it as I do, and I would not know it as they do. Perhaps it is best that way, because then it can remain as private as it is in my memory. But I wish that I could somehow mark it as my own—prove that I am a part of it, just as it is a part of me.

Places are difficult that way. Sometimes they stay the same as we change, and revisiting favorite old haunts can be like stepping back in time. Or places can change. I once stood outside my childhood home, knowing that I knew it, and yet fearing that I didn’t anymore, not knowing which reality to embrace.

The reality of the Loft will likely fade for me; it was a part of my grandma’s life more than mine. And yet I know that it used to be a chicken coop. I have played the mighty Wurlitzer. I know its sound. I know its glitter. I can feel the floor under my feet and the rush of air. I have listened, watched, danced. The memories are mine, even if the door is locked.

About Melissa Young

(Emerita) is a native of Utah and lives in Cache Valley, Utah, with her husband and three of her four children in their emptying nest. She has an MA in TESOL from Brigham Young University and currently volunteers with the English Learning Center.

14 thoughts on “The Mighty Wurlitzer”

  1. Reading this make me think of a childhood place of my own. All through my childhood, my older brothers mowed the cemetary that sat behind the old Wesley Chapel and school every week during the summers. I spent many afternoons there. We'd meet them there for picnic lunches. I played hide and seek with the other "little" kids- the ones who were too young to help with the mowing. I looked forward to when I would be old enough to help out on occcasion and have a source of income. We made "stew" in the old flower pots left around the headstones. I didn't think of it as a graveyard; it was a playground. I was as comfortable there as many children are at their neighborhood park. As I got older, I began to read the names and dates on the stones, and think about the lives of these people. I'd feel sad at the sight of a freshly dug grave, and strain to read the writing on the oldest of stones. Cemetaries don't scare me. Instead they are tranquil places for me that I actually enjoy visting (I know, I'm kind of weird like that). I find it interesting that when I was first married and still at BYU, my husband and I made our first home across from the Provo City Cemetary. It was a great place for Sunday afternoon walks. And now, with our children, we have been known to stop alongside the road when we pass a small cemetary, just to wander around.

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  2. Melissa, this was such a gorgeous piece of writing—so evocative, with such lovely, concrete details and poetic phrasing. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    I, too, am so sorry about your grandmother. Much love to you.

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  3. I appreciate the thoughts and support, everyone. How fun, sar, that you've been to the Loft! It always makes me happy to run into someone who knows it. Charity, I love cemeteries too. We used to live by one and I went walking there all of the time. Cemeteries are so peaceful, and I always leave feeling like I can face my life again.

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  4. This was beautiful and a lovely tribute to your grandmother – I felt like I got to be in your inside world for a moment. It reminds me that there are some memories that need to be written down.

    Most of the places I lived as a child have changed dramatically and they don't exist now as they do in my memory. I find it bittersweet to own something that no one has experienced quite like me, but know that I can't ever go back.

    We just got back from a trip to Holland where my husband grew up. He was so excited to see his house and visit his old haunts, some have changed a bit. It was important for me to see the place that shaped him so much as a person.

    I am sorry about your grandmother. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. The last line sucked the air out of me in a long, low "ohhhhhhhhhhhhh…" Lovely.

    I'm sorry to hear about your grandmother, and wish you comfort.

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  6. I'm sorry for your loss. Death is hard.

    I love your experience with the organ and this private world your Grandmother created for her family "backstage" at the Loft.

    I'm thinking of how much it struck me when my grandmother passed away last fall, how her ideals and choices and committments created a beautiful life.

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  7. Oh I loved this. It makes me lonely for the places of my childhood that I fear to revisit because I know they have changed.
    I'm sorry for your own loss.

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  8. Sorry to hear about your loss.

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful piece. I love how places can shape us. I love how you've reminded us of our own places with the insightful sharing of your personal story.

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