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Still stroking the keys to life
At 102, Merle Bean shows off her piano skills
Merle Bean looks up at sheet music Tuesday as she plays a favorite tune at the Country Heritage Nursing Home in Flowery Branch. Bean is an accomplished pianist, working as a former lounge and club pianist and even as a theater musician during the silent film era. She turned 102 on Saturday. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Some memories from her long life are fading, but ask Merle Bean to play a song on the piano and watch as her eyes brighten and her hands brush gracefully across the keys

The Los Angeles native, who turned 102 this weekend, entertains a small audience now at the Country Heritage personal care home in Flowery Branch.

But the crowds were bigger at different times through her life.

She tickled the ivories in lounges and at parties. And, as a youth, she played for silent films — an era broken by talkies in 1927. She sat in a darkened theater without sheet music, playing to the mood of scenes as they played out on screen.

Bean still has that knack of improvisation today, putting her skill on display during a meeting at Country Heritage last week.

"You see the horses going," she said, playing to conjure up the animal's gait.

Changing the tune and tempo a couple more times, she said, "Here come the horses again."

A darker theme emerges. "That's the bad guy."

"I just played what I knew and made up stuff," Bean said, after finishing up and swiveling on the piano bench toward the small group that sat around her. "I played loud and bangy when it was bad stuff. Whatever the mood was, you played that kind of music."

Music was always a big part of her life, from her youth in Hemet, Calif.

"We were way out in the country," Bean said of her early years. "Shoot, I can't remember all that. That was a long time ago."

With her daughter, Janet Plumlee of Flowery Branch, filling in the gaps, Bean recalled a life playing the piano and raising four boys and two girls.

"She started taking piano lessons early and I think her sister did too, but (Merle) took off," Plumlee said. "She was just really good."

"When I got a little older, I had a very, very good teacher," Bean said. "We went on the train 25 miles every Saturday to have music lessons."

She said that "whenever they needed anybody to play at school, they'd come and get me — out of class or anything — because I could read music and also play by ear or play from memory. It was a tremendous gift. I'd play for my own pleasure."

Bean was later paid for her performances — and not only at the movie house.

"She played at dancing schools and all kinds of performances where people needed an accompanist," Plumlee said. "She played at lots of weddings. She played the organ too."

Bean also played violin "whenever they'd let me off the piano," she said. "But I was not a real good violinist — I just wanted to play the violin."

As for favorite tunes, none in particular stand out.

"At every phase of my life, I had a favorite song, but I don't remember what they were now," Bean said.

Today, she trots out songs onto the piano like others might recall a funny story or eventful moment in their life.

"I was a good memorizer. The minute I could play the tune, I could play it without the (sheet) music. That's a real gift," Bean said.

She and her husband moved to Lawrenceville in 1978, after Plumlee's family moved to the area.

"We followed them," Bean said, glancing at her daughter and laughing.

"I have the youngest grandchildren, so she wanted to be with us," Plumlee said. "So, we made that arrangement, and they came."

Bean, whose second and last husband, Zealand, died in the early 1980s, has kept busy through her golden years in other ways.

She graduated from a civilian-style police academy in her 90s.

"That was an exciting thing to do," she said.

Her daughter jogged her memory a bit.

"You got to ride in a car and learn similar things that policemen do," Plumlee said. "(Participants) had to shoot at a target and she hit the target right in the heart. Everybody about fainted, I think."

Bean has lived at Country Heritage for a couple of months.

"She was in a house by herself and we were all concerned about her being there by herself," Plumlee said.

She didn't just bring her musical talent with her. Bean's sense of humor is intact and she doesn't mind poking fun at herself.

At one point, Bean deflected a question to her daughter.

"Don't ask me," she said, laughing. "I either say ‘I don't know' or I give the wrong answer."

Bean's family planned to throw a party for her on Saturday — her actual birthday — with Country Heritage following up with a celebration today.

"She's been a real inspiration to us — her music, her smile and her sense of humor," said Ann Walton, the home's owner.

Asked about the secret to a long life, Bean said simply, "One breath after another." She paused, then added: "And don't wait too long between breaths."

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