Although my parents wanted to give me jewelry when I graduated high school, I asked for a 12-string Martin guitar. From that point on, the guitar never left me. If I went on vacation with friends, the guitar came along – those were the days when sending through luggage on airlines was more reliable – or perhaps the days when I didn’t think about things like theft or lost baggage. I spent hours in the stairwell of my college dorm – playing the Martin where the steely acoustics were just what I needed for sound quality, and the solitude for writing songs and singing at the top of my lungs was perfect. I wrote well over 50 songs – yet all but three are left on a small cassette in a strong box. The others vanished from my possession in 1977 when I left my life and first marriage in Florida. It never occurred to me when I left that the songs would ever leave my memory.
When I met my husband, the one whom I have been with now for more than half my life, I stopped singing and playing. He wooed me with his guitar, playing covers of Jackson Browne, The Eagles, and The Beatles. Our styles were different, and my lack of confidence in my folksy finger-picking and original melodies and lyrics, and the notion that he and I were afficionados of different kinds of music left me unable to bare my soul.
We married a year after we met, and babies came one, two, three within the ensuing four years and the guitar was retired. Leisure time when the babies napped was consumed with necessities – laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking – and straining our dinners for the kids in a coffee bean grinder.
When we moved last month, on February 28th to be exact, I took the guitar and placed her in my office – the sanctuary I have longed for since we left the suburbs in 2006. Our younger son, Ben, plays both guitar and piano. His room is a veritable music studio filled with his instruments and those of my husband’s. My husband plays occasionally with our son, and one night several months ago, I picked up a guitar and played (poorly) with our son – only to find my fingertips bleeding and sore the next day. After a week of healing, I didn’t pick up the guitar again – fearful that I wouldn’t retrieve the skills from long ago. But last week, when the move was over and done, I had a manicure – with nails cut down to guitar-playing length. I look at the guitar in her case, and wonder when I will have the courage to tackle her again. First, I have to take her to a repair shop: her bridge is damaged and her neck is slightly warped. And she’s the one I want to play – not one of the many others. I vaguely remember the ease with which my fingers once flew up and down the frets, the reach I had, the swiftness with which I plucked her 12 strings. And I don’t think either my husband or children believe me when I say that I once played.
One upon a time, my dream was to be on Broadway – singing and dancing (I took dance classes every night from the time I was 17 and singing lessons until I was 17). I continued dance classes after I was married, pregnant, and even dragged the babies to the studio’s babysitting room. As a matter of fact, I went into labor with my first when I was dancing. My parents wouldn’t support the early Broadway dream: My mother felt that being an “entertainer” was not a “proper” life.
“Write prose,” she commanded. ” Be a journalist. That’s self-expression for you.”
I suppose I should be grateful on some level, but I always wonder “what if.” This is the reason I want my children to chase their dreams, never squash their possibilities or give them fodder for what if’s. I must confess, it is mostly Ben, and remains Ben, who is the one with the artistic bent – the one whose grandparents feel “The Arts” is “not in his best interest.” He speaks of law school now, and although I believe his imagination and artistic temperament will make him gloriously interpretive should he choose law, a part of me hopes that he never stops singing, playing, and writing…even if he gets the law degree.Don’t be like me, I want to tell him. Never stop what speaks to your heart and soul.
I need to play the guitar again, although writing more than satisfies me. I am at a greater loss these days without my laptop than I am without my guitar. But lately, I feel compelled to recapture in general. The generation who is one step ahead of me is becoming frail and old – and there is no way to escape that grim reality. And I am in my middle years where time feels of the essence.
Last night I dreamed that I was in love with a very young man. He was cooking dinner for me, and we were planning to spend the night together until someone told me that the relationship was doomed because I was far too old for him. And in the dream, I felt the injustice of chronological age despite the fact that in my dream, and in my heart, I remain a “girl” despite the responsibilities and duties I have as a wife and mother to twenty-something’s, and all the literal trappings that come with middle age including the care of aging parents. My dreams are all too telling and vivid. My subconscious is hardly “sub.”
And so, I am hoping that in the next few months I can pick up the 12-string once again, and that perhaps some of the original and cover songs buried in my brain will re-emerge. And if they don’t, then perhaps there will be new songs learned, and I hope that my fingers fly as they once did. And if they don’t fly with immediacy (and they won’t), I am promising myself to stay at it until, at the very least, I hear a melody.