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We May Have Played the Same Piano

AS a boy, I felt as though I knew Richard Nixon. Not just because he was regularly in the news in the late 1950s, nor because I saw him right in our family room - 5-o'clock shadow and all - debating John Kennedy on TV. But mostly because his aunt gave me piano lessons.

The Beesons, an elderly farm couple whose first names I never knew, had lived in the small Central Valley town of Lindsay for decades before my family moved to that corner of California. It was an agricultural setting: citrus and olives along the eastern rim of the valley, then cotton and grain as you drove out toward its midsection.

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The Beesons had a very simple farm with a house, a barn, a chicken or two, and a cow. Nixon's own parents may have lived briefly on the family land there too, according to biographers. But their roots were in Whittier, hours to the south across the Tehachapi Mountains.

Mrs. Beeson, the sister of the future president's mother, was a short, gray-haired lady with a wonderfully kind manner toward children. She also was a committed, disciplined teacher of music. Her firm admonitions to practice and her reverence for fingering drills left their mark on countless local kids who had even the slightest inclination toward Beethoven and Bach.

My own inclination was slight indeed. My three years - or was it only two and a half? - under her metronome were sustained less by a love of tone and melody than by the feast of cookies and cakes that always accompanied recitals at her home.

That venerable house, as I recall it, was sheathed in white clapboards mellowed by years of assault from the late-summer winds that brought the inner valley's dust our way. It was a typical farmstead of the area, tucked close against the rock-capped foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Lindsay's ocean of orange groves started just across the narrow paved road that ran in front of the Beeson's place; not far behind the house snaked the Friant-Kern canal, which made the waves of green possible. Nature's plan would have left the whole region an arid, sun-baked basin.

Orange ranching - Lindsay's bread and butter - wasn't Mr. Beeson's line, at least during the few years I knew him. He, too, was kindly, short of stature, and attired in the well-worn work clothes familiar to farmers everywhere. He once led me over to the tall, weathered barn to observe the milking of their cow - a Holstein, I believe. I got a try at it myself, with Mr. Beeson coaching me on the fine points of gently squeezing with the fingers as you pull down.

Back inside the house, as warm breezes billowed Mrs. Beeson's lace curtains, nothing quite so fascinating awaited me. The scales and etudes were preparing me for a lifetime of enjoyment at the keyboard, and my teacher more than once commented on my long-fingered pianist's hands. After a brisk performance of some now-forgotten march at one recital, she even went so far as to wish aloud, to all those well-dressed townsfolk squeezed into her parlor, that all her students were as prepared as I had been. For once, I guess, I actually had practiced.

But even that memorable praise faded before the fare awaiting us in the next room. For most musicians aged nine or 10, walnut cookies rolled in powered sugar gave real meaning to an evening of piano. The musical talent in our family, I had conceded even then, was my sister - also a Beeson student - not I.

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After a lesson ended and Mrs. Beeson had turned from her mahogany upright for a chat with my mother, I might glance around the room, taking in the Victorian furniture, the knickknacks, and perhaps some family pictures. I'm sure her nephew Richard was among them. She probably taught him piano when that branch of the family came up from the south for a visit. And I have faint recollections of her talking about how she always knew he'd go far.

My contact with the Beesons as a child gave Richard Nixon a little different tone than what most of my generation came to hear. Somewhere in that very complex man was a strain of simple American virtue, mixed - maybe almost lost - in a diapason of darker, heavier themes.

We moved from Lindsay long before Watergate left its indelible stain. By the time that wrenching national drama had played out, I imagine, the Beesons were probably gone too - and with them the unburdened country life they led, modulated by milking times and the often ill-timed notes of young pianists.

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