Grandpa’s guitar.

October 28, 2012 § 10 Comments

The first guitar in my life was an arch-top Harmony I visited on occasional weekends. It belonged to Grandpa and stood in a dark corner of my grandparent’s living room.

In my memory, my grandfather was a taciturn, disappointed man, but in an earlier time, Grandpa and his brothers had had a dance band called “Carl Fogelin and the Nighthawk Ramblers.”

The days of playing local fire halls were long past when my sister and I used to put the guitar across our laps and pull out the pick that was always woven between the strings.

We would assault those strings with that pick and sing loudly, taking special delight in making what we called “Chinese music” plunked on the short ends of the strings up by the tuning pegs.

I don’t remember ever hearing Grandpa play, and in his chronic silence he scared me a little. My sister recently told me she took walks with him when she was small. These memories are dear to her because they prove the two of them had a bond.

My closest bond was with his guitar. When the one-time bandleader died my Dad inherited it, but I was the one who picked it up and learned to play it, not well, but well enough to develop a fierce affection for it.

Playing in my room, I’d put my ear on the flank of that guitar and the only thing in the world would be the sympathetic ring of the steel strings and my voice singing along. Held close, that guitar had a good smell, like attic dust and time. Its satiny side felt warm. It reverberated as if it were alive.

Harmony never made great guitars. The company was bought out by Sears in 1916 in an attempt to corner the ukulele market, but it made lots of guitars, even violins.

Grandpa’s Harmony was an inexpensive everyman’s guitar, and like anything made out of wood it had warped over time. The action was so high it hurt to play. In response my fingers developed callouses I was quite proud of.

That guitar and I went everywhere together. I’d haul it up to the roof and serenade the sky, amazing the kids across the street who looked up and found their babysitter singing on the roof.

I’d sit in the grass with my back against the wall of the house and play “Suzanne.”

And I saved my babysitting money.

As I remember it, my boyfriend and I took the bus to New York and bought my second guitar, a blonde and beautiful Guild. Although it was much easier to play than the Harmony it was hard to abandon that old guitar. Kind of like dumping a good friend.

Years went by. The Guild traveled with me, but less and less as a close friend, more and more as baggage.

It sat in a dank locker on our boat when we lived aboard. It came out a few times when we were moored beside a hotel bar. There were always a few guys with guitars who were up for an evening  of Jimmy Buffett and yowling at the moon, but I wasn’t much into either.

And no one lives aboard a boat at a bar for long.

Without ever consciously deciding, I opened the guitar case less and less often, until the Guild and I had accumulated thirty years of silence.

Four years ago I began singing again and the latches on the guitar case opened with their familiar click. I dragged a finger across strings I’d put on a lifetime ago.

Just like Grandpa’s Harmony the neck had warped, the action gotten high. But I played it. My hands, wrecked by years of typing, seemed to like the change. The callouses came back. And the guitar, making music for the first time in years seemed to like the change as well.

I had work done on the Guild, but the action remained high. What the heck, it was my guitar. It seemed as if the decent thing to do was to grow old together.

Then, for my birthday, Ray insisted it was time for another guitar. I would never have thought of it, but once I had, I realized I really wanted one. My singing partner, Craig, got into the act. Photos of locally available used guitars began arriving via email. Finally, the three of us went shopping.

Although I tried a few sad, abandoned pawn shop guitars. the guitar I brought home was the first I played, a Mitchell.  In terms of pedigree it is not a Martin, or even a Guild–it is probably much closer to a Harmony–but it has a bright, ringing sound and I thank the craftsmen in Indonesia for the care they put into making her (her, because I named the guitar Joni).

My grandson, Matthew, calls it “Grandmon’s Kitar,” and it will be his someday, but he won’t remember it standing in a dark corner.

He will remember Grandmon playing it and playing it, making up for lost time.


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