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Love for piano remains many decades later

Mae Sharpe Johnstone learned to play the piano as a child in her parents’ farmhouse in Iron Ore, Pictou County. The tiny settlement no longer exists, not even on road signs, and the old home is in ruins, but Johnstone continues to play on.

Mae Johnstone learned to play the piano as a child, and, now 90, is still at it. ROSALIE MACEACHERN PHOTO

At 90 years of age, she has recently cut back a bit on her musical engagements, but she is still the official pianist for Club 55+ and happily plays hymns and old favourites for residents in her seniors’ complex in New Glasgow.

“My parents were both great singers and we had a piano at home, so I was anxious to play. I was sent for eight lessons and that is the full extent of my musical education.”

She was nine or ten when she travelled by horse and sleigh from Iron Ore to Stellarton with an uncle who brought butter, eggs and vegetables to town to sell on Saturday mornings.

“He dropped me at Langston Miller’s on Rundle Street and that’s where I learned all the notes. After that, it was just practice. I still play a lot by ear.”

Johnstone and her younger brother, Fraser, were often the entertainment at community gatherings on Saturday evenings in Sunny Brae.

“They’d pass the hat around at the end of the night and we’d each go home happy as could be with our few pennies. My brother could sing tenor from the time he was five years old and we loved to perform.”

In winter, she skied two miles to attend school in Glencoe and as soon as she was able, she played piano for the school Christmas concerts.

In those days, she said, winter began in late October, continuing until the first of May “before you could take off your heavy clothes.”

Her Scottish-born grandfather moved the family to Iron Ore because he believed the air quality in Westville was poor.

“He lost two children to tuberculosis while living in Westville and he always believed coal dust had something to do with their deaths, so he found a place way out in the country.”

Her parents moved from Iron Ore to neighboring St. Paul’s when she was 12 years old. She was soon called upon to fill in for the church organist, playing an old pump organ, which she noted is quite different from a piano.

She was always asked at the last minute, she said, and wouldn’t know what hymns were planned.

“I’d be looking to Mom and Dad in the choir to know what to do next because I was just a kid.”

She suspects it is because of those Sundays at the pump organ that she prefers to know in advance what she is expected to play.

Johnstone met Chalmers Johnstone of Cross Roads Country Harbour at an Easter Sunday get-together in Iron Ore. He was working in a lumber camp nearby.

“We were married when I was 18 and he was just four years older. He was a good husband and we had four wonderful children, but I would never advise anyone to marry at 18. I had friends marry at the same age, but we were all too young.”

Johnstone had a piano through most of her years of raising a family in New Glasgow, but did not play regularly, except for her own family.

“Raising kids is a busy time and my husband worked at the car works, so even when times were good, you always knew he could be out of work for months. You had to live carefully. Even when you thought you couldn’t afford it, you had to put something by.”

She was in her fifties before she took a full-time job.

“When the kids all flew the coop, I went to work at Glen Haven Manor and I loved it, every minute of it. I wasn’t there long before I wanted my own car to get back and forth to work.”

Saving the money for the car was one thing, but getting a drivers’ licence was another.

She used to drive her father’s car all over the East River Valley as a teenager, but didn’t have a licence, like many others.

“I learned to drive on a standard, so you’d think an automatic would be easy, but I couldn’t get the hang of it. It was discouraging, but I took some lessons and I finally got the licence. I remember the girls at Glen Haven gave me a big card the day I passed my test.”

That driver’s licence was something Johnstone came to treasure.

“My husband had a stroke and I don’t know what we’d have done if I wasn’t able to get him to appointments and therapy, as well as getting myself around. When he passed away eight years later, I was very glad again to have a driver’s licence because sitting home would have been too lonely.”

Within a year of her husband’s death, Johnstone took on a lot of volunteer work with community and United Church groups.

“I was involved with the Good Shepherd lunch program for many years. I will always remember a little boy, about nine years old, who ate a full plate of dinner and then, very quietly, asked me if he could have another. Anybody who wonders about the need should have been there that day.”

As it became known Johnstone was willing to play for choirs and musical groups, the requests started coming. She played for the New Glasgow legion choir for 14 years and out of that group a smaller group, Mae and the Guys, was formed. She also played regularly for the Singers of Praise choir and the Pictou County Ukulele Group.

A member of the latter group remembers an event at Salem when the power went out, but Johnstone just kept on playing in the darkened church.

“It must have been old hymns, music I knew very well,” laughed Johnstone.

Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Four Leaf Clover and Let the Sunshine In are among her most requested pieces, but she loves best the old hymns she learned as a child, choosing He Touched Me as her favorite.

Article by Rosalie MacEachern,,