“Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of a song.”
— “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael
Her memory isn’t what she’d like it to be.
Her glasses don’t seem to work as well as they once did.
And there are those pains that arrive with the cold fronts.
At age 92, none of that prevents Irene Davenport from having a following.
They find her at four places in Oakwood Village: The dining room of the care center, where the higher-need residents live; the elevator atrium in the heart of independent living; the fireplace room in assisted living, where she now resides; and in the area just outside her room.
All four locations have pianos, the last a particularly treasured one for Davenport, as it was a gift from her late husband.
She insists that she plays only when she feels like it these days. But to the good fortune of all, that’s almost regularly enough to set a clock by — a measure of dependability perhaps exceeded only by the quality of Davenport’s playing.
“I always know when it’s Irene,” said Assistant Administrator Annette Turner, a pianist herself.
The graceful transitions, the tasteful chording, the use of a walking bass and rhythmic variations that can morph a ballad into a dance tune — all are there on the tips of Davenport’s fingers even on days when those fingers feel numb.
“She plays very smoothly,” Turner said, “and it’s really calming.”
Davenport started playing during a childhood spent in a house on Rural Route 2 near Lawrenceville. Although one of the few black families in the area, the Higginbothams felt right at home among the Kaffenbargers, Circles and Timmonses.
Davenport prefers the term people of color to black, saying “that’s what we all are, people of color.”
Her father worked at White Motor in Springfield, having left Chattanooga, Tenn., a place where the rules of segregation were posted on public signs. He and his wife settled in a house on two acres on Troy Road, where she got up at 3 a.m. to make his breakfast before he looked in on the chickens and reported to work at 5 a.m., driving a small car they scrimped to buy.
In it, he took his daughter into Springfield for her first piano lessons with Mrs. Ada House, who had studied music in college.
Years later, after she’d married a man 11 years her senior at age 23, Davenport herself taught piano in the house she and her husband worked hard to pay for in Cleveland. Her contributions came from the lessons and the work her pianist fingers did at the keyboard of a typewriter in a government office.
Like many details of the 40 years she spent in Cuyahoga County, the particulars of the job now escape her. And although what she had for breakfast or lunch can sometimes elude her, she’s not forgotten the route to the pianos at Oakwood. Nor did surrendering her walker for a wheelchair halt her travels.
As for the music — her memory seldom falters, and, if it should, the well-worn songbooks stowed near the pianos allow her to leaf back in time and pick up where she left off.
Dressed in aqua pants, a lighter aqua print blouse and wrapped in a thick off-white sweater the day we talked, she seemed equally at home with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Sunny Side of the Street” and the bouncy “I Can’t Give you Anything But Love, Baby,” as with more subdued moods of “Deep Purple,” “Then There Was You” and the Burt Bacharach tune “Close to You.”
In the last mentioned piece, she inserted a downward glissando after the lyrics “in your golden eyes so blue.” The sweeping of notes represented a concession to age, her nonagenarian fingers no longer dexterous enough to hand runs of individual notes.
On the other hand, much of her repertoire has ripened over time, allowing her to close her eyes, relax and drift through memorized arrangements of her own making — arrangements worked out and practiced for so long that they’ve become like good friends.
While in the presence of her more formal musical companions (the classical pieces), Davenport continues to show the proper respect, arching her fingers, straightening her spine and raising herself to her full attention before the first note is played. Regardless of the style of music, at song’s end, the notes resolve into the contented look on Davenport’s open, friendly countenance.
“She’s constantly pleasant, even when she’s ailing,” said Oakwood Administrator Jamie Houseman, whose office is steps away from the piano in assisted living.
Davenport is so constantly pleasant, in fact, that Houseman worries prospective Oakwood residents, who often tour at one of Davenport’s regular playing times, suspect she is a “plant” on the administrative payroll.
Not so. And there are, in fact, days when Davenport finds it hard to face the music.
“All at once, something just aches in there,” she says, lifting her arms. “There’s nothing I can do about it. So I just have to keep going.”
Playing not only helps her do that but provides her with something that can erode with age: a sense of purpose.
“Otherwise,” she says, “I wouldn’t be able to do much of anything.”
Playing is so much part of her life that when Davenport occasionally worries about her resources running out, she tells her power of attorney, Veatrice Smith, that she’d be happy to live along the banks of Buck Creek so long as a piano is within reach.
Oakwood residents continually enjoy Davenport’s performances, often applaud and sometimes sing along. I’ve done all three during the past year when I’ve been on my way out the front door at Oakwood at night and found her at the baby grand near the front entryway.
Houseman and Turner, who say music is often used to calm agitated residents in Oakwood’s dementia unit, Heritage Pointe, are sure that Davenport’s playing is therapeutic for residents and staff alike — and at the level of being a blessing.
Just so you know, Irene, we visitors feel the same way.