Saturday, June 24, 2017

Come to think of it, the whole thing started with a guitar

When I was fifteen, my sister taught me to play guitar. I've always said my instrument is my voice, but I needed some accompaniment if I was going to sit around in a circle with my hippie friends and sing "Blowin' in the Wind," so guitar was the best (coolest) option. We went to the swap meet, picked up a nice little folk guitar for 30 bucks (my birthday money), and so it began.

It only takes three chords to play "Blowin' in the Wind," although if you play it in C you have to play an F, and that chord gave me fits until I finally conquered it. Of course, a hundred more songs followed. But, one year later, it was that song, "Blowin' in the Wind," that I was singing the day my eventual husband walked up onto my lawn where I was sitting placidly, playing, singing. We'd never met. He lived in the neighborhood. I'd seen him around. But that day he heard me singing and simply walked up and sat down, listening quietly until I finished.

Six months later, for Christmas, he bought me a guitar. He had told me repeatedly that I needed "a good guitar," a steel string acoustic. Although I had told him I was perfectly content with the guitar I had, as an axe-wielding teenager, I would've loved to have had a Martin (sort of the equivalent, as guitars go, of buying a Landrover). Realistically, given my socio-economic level, I could only dream about owning such a fine instrument. (By the way, "axe" is a euphemism for guitar. The etymology of the term is fascinating, so Google "Why is a guitar called an axe?" sometime just for fun.)

However, on that Christmas Day in 1971, I opened a large cardboard box the size of a small refrigerator to discover a guitar case, and inside that case, a very beautiful guitar. Not a Martin. An Ibanez. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. Now, don't get me wrong. Ibanez makes some really fine guitars, and this one was no exception. But... this was definitely not my dream guitar.

[Quick side note here: Inside that guitar case, in the pick box, was a small jeweler's box. And inside that box was a ring. A thin gold band. "It's a wedding ring!" the man said—in front of my entire family. "Put it on!" That was his proposal. I should have seen monumentally huge red flags unfurling so rapidly they blotted out the gorgeous December-in-Southern-California sun. But I didn't.]

My response to the guitar, I think, was, "Um... ... .... It's nice." I just didn't know what to say. It was huge, a "D" size (no, ladies, guitars don't come in bra cup sizes, though that might've helped), and far too big for me. And it was a "dreadnought" shape (see photos above and below). And it was a light wood, spruce. None of these are characteristics I would have chosen for myself.

And I couldn't play it. At least not yet. No "set-up" had been done on the guitar (sorry for the jargon), so the strings were too high, and they were steel (as opposed to the more forgiving nylon strings I'd learned on), so pushing my fingers down to make chords felt like jamming on razor blades.

"The neck is solid rosewood!" my now-fiancé beamed. He loved that guitar. And what I came to realize is that he bought the guitar that he wanted. No consideration had been given to what I might have wanted (which, no surprise, ended up being a theme in our doomed marriage).

But it was a nice guitar with a beautiful sound, and he had it worked on so that it would be more forgiving on my fingers. So I played it. And played it and played it.

(I'm the one in the middle.)

For forty-five years—at church, in countless weddings, for several funerals, someone's baby shower, several luncheons—I have played that big, loud, sweet-sounding guitar. What a trove of memories we've shared... both good and bad. The good ones involve happy weddings and informal gatherings like my brother's birthday a few years back when he, my sister and I all played our guitars and sang the songs of our youth. Perfect day.

But the bad ones... well, they're pretty bad. Because I mostly sang in church. And I suppose I should mention here that the man I married, the one who bought me that guitar, became the pastor of a church (despite being an atheist when we married). As the pastor's wife, certain things were expected of me. I didn't mind singing; I loved it. But, after eleven years, I just couldn't remain married to... him anymore. (For a list of all the adjectives I just deleted in reference to him, you'll have to private message me.) I separated from him, and when I did, I was asked to leave that church. I went anyway (when he wasn't there), and when I showed up, I was escorted out by deacons and told not to come back. In the years following, while my children and I lived at the poverty level (because their father refused to pay one dime of child support, and he never did), there wasn't much time for singing or song writing or guitar playing while I hustled and struggled to raise four kids on my own, make ends meet, attend college classes, and try to make sense of what had happened. And frankly, I was so grief-stricken over my failed marriage and the treatment I received by the people I thought were my friends, I didn't much feel like singing anyway.

Eventually I began again, picking up the guitar every once in awhile, singing for special events on occasion. But every time I pulled that guitar out of the case, I drew out a swath of bad memories a mile wide along with it.

What to do?

You know, I'm here to tell ya, life is tough. We often wish we had a reset button to enable a do-over, but really, when you knock over hurdles in the race, you don't get to go back, set them back up, and try again. You just have to keep moving forward as best you can.

Having said that, though, I will say this: I accept that I cannot fulfill all my life's longings. I'm resigned to the fact (now, finally) that I'll probably never marry Robert Redford. Sigh.... I won't get that interview with Oprah about my great-grandmother. But damn it, I'm not ready to stop singing. In fact, now that I've retired from teaching, I find myself singing quite a bit.

Which is why I bought a new guitar last week (at The Fret House in Covina). It's a Martin 00-15 mahogany beauty with tones so deep and resonant it nearly makes me cry when I play it. I spent weeks researching what I wanted, and with the help of a few old friends and some really cool new ones (thank you, Doug, Tom, Rick and Jorge!), I bought the guitar I've wanted all these years. (See photos below.) And oh Lordy, am I ever ready to make some new memories.


  1. Beautiful as always. I will share this with my son who play guitar.

  2. I think I see a song in that tale. Isn't it amazing how supposedly good friends turn on you when you get divorced. Even family. Love the guitar. Always wanted to play one, but just never got around to doing it. Perhaps because I'd sing along with playing and that would ruin everything. ;-)

    1. Art, one of those friends I mentioned in this piece has six guitars at home--and cannot sing a single note on key. But he still plays. Amazing, huh?

  3. I love this, many layers of information and connections. What to do with things that have passed through good and bad times? And what if that thing is you? Reconciliation of the good and bad is never about the object but all about our reaction. You found the right tune. Keep on singing 🎶

    1. Thanks, Judy, that's so true. My friend Jim used to say that the worst part about breaking up with someone is that it ruins all the songs you both listened to together! Ha! It is definitely all about our own reaction. Thanks for your kind words.