Van. A household name, well, for me anyway. Growing up, my siblings and I just referred to him as Van. He was the greatest pianist in American history. He was a Cold War Hero. We knew who he was and, most importantly in our home, what he had meant to our mother. He was filling the stages and concert halls that she too was trained for. Trained alongside him, but, she had chosen to take a different path. A path that included the musical training, only for a “higher purpose”. Mom was trained with Van by his dear mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn.
Mr. and Mrs. Cliburn came into my grandfathers life as customers in 1934. Mrs. C was pregnant with the miracle baby. Daddy Jack, as we called my grandfather, built them a home in the Broadmoor section of Shreveport, Louisiana. When he found out that Mrs. C taught piano, he made a deal with her to teach his little girl, my mom, who was only 6 at the time. As the story goes, Mom would go twice a week on her bicycle laden with 2 bottles of “Millie’s milk”. Millie was her cow that she milked every morning. She would arrive out of breath yet relieved, if she arrived with both bottles intact, as she had been chased all the way by neighborhood dogs. Mom would tell us that Millie’s milk was good because it grew strong fingers on Van. She too had the strongest hands on any woman I knew. More likely the piano work made them strong – sorry Millie. But, thanks to that infamous cow, my grandparents had the means to secure the best piano teacher in the city – probably the country – for their daughter. Mom had the opportunity to be eye and ear witness to the beginnings the greatest pianist ever known from America, her “dear Van”. After Mrs. C would give Mom her lesson, Mom would watch over baby Van as the other students came through. At the age of about 3, he began to go to the piano and play, by ear, the songs that he had heard the other pupils playing. He was a prodigy. His mother had to have been an incredibly wise woman to have been able to capture the gift and then, personally train, mold and shape it. It’s a very difficult thing for parents to be able to do this with their own children. God was obviously with her. My mom always said they (the Cliburn’s) were good Baptists and she, Mrs. C., was a very prayerful woman. Mom also said, when Van began performing on big stages and in concert halls, Mrs. C would always be with him. She would sit back stage where she could see his hands, and pray the entire time. She loved her son. We all did.
Mrs. Cliburn’s praying reminds me of my own grandmother, Mimi, telling how, when pregnant with my mom, she would sit with one hand playing the piano and the other on her swollen belly, and pray. She believed God told her that the babe in her womb would be a pianist so she “marked” it with prayer. It worked.
It seems to me that God took the gift of Daddy Jack’s construction business and used it to connect with the Cliburn’s. Then, the gift of the cows milk was used as payment for piano lessons for the girl who had been prayed over in the womb. The marked girl began piano lessons by a woman whose womb had been barren but now pregnant with a gifted son. His gift was used to open lines of communication between two nations. Her gift became used by the creator of all nations to open hearts to Him.
Today as I hear of the death of the man, Van, I think of my own son who is in Russia as a student this semester. He may not have been given the opportunity to even step foot on Russian soil had it not been for Van. I am reminded to thank God for the lives touched by his life. Mine certainly was. Probably yours was too.
Rest in peace, dear Van. The music of heaven has never been so rich.