Some words are too large. Simple six letter words, too massive to describe well; too important in undefined ways. I have pondered what other small words have meant to me; words like mom and family and faith. I’ve allowed those words to hover over me while I examined them, the way I watch hummingbirds near the glass bulb feeder filled with red sugar water on Grams back porch. I have held very still and examined such things. But I am surprised by this word: guitar. It is so familiar, so every-day in my life and in our house. And yet I have not yet stilled myself in a purposeful way to focus on what this one thing has done in my life.
Christmas morning, 1971. I cannot recall all that was nested under the fragrant blue spruce arranged with beads and lights and tin icicles on the thin slatted wooden floors of our living room. Somehow Mom always seemed to find enough to make that moment magical, and, even if it was purchased on credit, there was abundant treasure to be found on Christmas morning. At thirteen I was no longer the girl who wanted Chatty Cathy or and Easy Bake Oven. And yet we had not discovered what it was that my maturing spirit wanted to grasp onto; what gifts or interest or talents were bubbling inside the cocoon of adolescence. So I suppose Mom guessed; and on that blessed holy morning I found under the tree a golden hued Yamaha guitar, cradled in its open case, angled to reflect the colored lights strung around the tree. Bright golden wound bass strings and virgin translucent nylon treble threads stretched from the bridge to the headstock. An exact replica sat nearby, with Libby’s name attached. We sat cross legged on the floor, holding them the way we had seen our brother do with his electric one. We muted the strings with our left hands and slapped the fingertips of our right hands back and forth across the strings, closing our eyes and pretending to be rock stars, our heads banging to some undefined beat, my unbrushed Christmas morning mop of hair flopping back and forth. The poor thing must not have known what hit it when my teenage hands took hold.
It was nearly a year before I actually tried to play it. Mr. Cameron had come to Pleasant Hills Middle School when I entered 8th grade. His office was in the back of the choir room. I can’t recall if he was a band teacher or an assistant choir teacher. He was a slight man, though sturdy enough. Young, with hip clothes and short cropped curly brown hair. When the school newspaper came out in September there was a notice that Mr. Cameron was starting a Guitar Club after school. My best friend Betsy, who sang with me in Mini Singers and also had a Yamaha guitar, tugged my arm when the sign up sheet came around in choir. On Tuesday’s and Thursdays Lib and I trekked up Old Clairton Road and down the steep driveway to school, our midi coats flapping against our calves as we walked, the black shapely cases of our instruments making us feel much more cool than we ever were. We sat three or four seats apart from each other on the multi-layered choir risers, our cases open at our feet, our guitars nestled against our budding breasts, our lengthening awkward arms stretching around their curved bodies. We willed our fingers to follow the patterns he taught us. Commanded our picking hands to do their thing. It reminded me very much of that trick where you pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. Some people could not do it. But I could.
I could! I found that my left hand and my right hand could obey different sets of orders. I learned rather quickly what shapes to make my fingers take against the fret board; where to place my thumb on the back of the neck. I learned to make the fingers on my right hand dance in complicated patterns near the sound hole. Pivotal in all of this was the fact that Betsy learned at a similar pace, probably faster than me. We sat in the choir room long after the others left. We spent Friday nights at each other’s houses, learning tunes from Betsy’s Simon and Garfunkel album. We began going to school early, pulling the cold and heavy front doors of the school out into the dark early morning air, making our way down dimly lit empty halls to Mr. Cameron’s office. There in the tiny office about the size of mu upstairs laundry room he gifted us with Blackbird, and Stairway to Heaven; Dust in the Wind and If You Could Read My Mind and American Pie. Taught us to pluck our strings cleanly and succinctly. Showed us how to love the music in the way he played his own instrument. Betsy started calling him by his first name, Denny, when we jammed together. I just couldn’t. By the end of 8th grade, when we left the familiar space of the Middle School and entered the halls of Thomas Jefferson High School, I had learned basically everything I now know about guitar. There was no guitar club at TJ. No guitar class, and no Mr. Cameron.
Wherever you are, Mr. Dennis Cameron, I hope that the angels you brought to me are watching over you. Thank you. So much of my self definition involves what you gave me, unpaid, and likely underappreciated at the time. All teachers who give such gifts to their students…thank you!
I wrote my first song on that Yamaha guitar under the stairwell next to our apartment on East Bruceton road. “I Love You Mama”. I sang it, hesitantly, quivering with fear of rejection, for my mom on Mothers Day that year I was 15. She must have approved enough for me to want to try again. I wrote my second song in the same place, tucked there under the steps where someone stored their bike. The acoustics in a stairwell are fabulous. I have always had a need to compose in complete privacy. I sang so softly no one would hear me outside the thick firewall doors, and I kept one ear always open to the sound of a door opening in the ten stories above me. Then I would stop abruptly, nearly stop breathing as well, until the person had exited. My second song, Nativity, was a Christmas gift for Mom that year as well. That old Yamaha must have felt a sense of completeness when it was played on Christmas morning. My most recent composition, commissioned for the Clytie Adams Ballet School recital, actually uses the same chord pattern as that particular song written all those years ago.
There are many, many words that want to fill this space, telling about the places I have played, my first love songs; performances and late night rendezvous with my faithful wooden friend. She gave me voice, not just from within my throat but from the pit of my stomach and the inner chambers of my heart.
She took the anguish of my young girl life and let it swirl around inside, then spit it out of the sound hole and into the universe. She allowed herself to be held by that stunningly beautiful dark haired man who met me in the lobby of the dorms at Slippery Rock College. We took turns playing for each other, allowing the exchange of songs to fill the awkward space of flirting. We sat, just he and I and one guitar, until just before the sun rose. The next summer we both played that guitar for the people we love most in the world, all gathered around us, the layers of white lace in my dress cradling her like a cloud, the frothy net of my veil laying softly over her shoulder as we sang to each other, “I’ll walk in the rain by your side….” I found lullabies in her, and stories that came out in rhyme and meter with lilting melodies. My friend Merlyn found the harmonies from within her chords.
One year, when my third baby was newborn, David gifted me with a treasure beyond treasures. A 1953 Martin OOO18. Steel strings, with wood that had vibrated long enough to make her sing exceptionally well. David had recruited the help of my gifted guitarist brother, John. He found the perfect instrument in Boise and secretly snuck it down to Dave for our anniversary. It was my first beloved steel string acoustic. Like a child, I held her against my chest, feeling her heartbeat, aligning my breathing patterns with hers. Songs were born from her, songs incubated like chicks waiting to hatch, carefully plucked out and refined in my quiet places where only my guitar could hear as I stirred the simmering songs: The Builder, Heavenly Choirs, You Would Have Loved This, The Old Singer Sewing Machine, Pontiac Rocket. Songs of that place where I had first held a guitar: Sleepy Little Town and Is It Snowing Tonight. Like a faithful and tired grandmother, my old Yamaha found rest in her hard black case. Never to be sold or given away, though she has been lent to virgin hands occasionally. It was that old Martin that carried me up the stairs to the next level, who allowed me to stand before a microphone and risk my heart. That old Martin allowed herself to be used and abused by a young boy’s curious hands. She gave release to my boy, the sound of her drifting up to me as I laid in my bed at night. Later she released the magnificent voice of my Kate, easing the way with the safety of chords plucked from her strings. Sarah and annie, both gifted on the piano, also learned the basics on that old Martin.
I acquired new guitars from my gifted friend El McMeen; a massively lovely jumbo bodied Franklin, custom made of beautiful Koa wood. My shoulder struggled to fit around her large body and ended up with calcium deposits. So El took it back and sent instead a sweet little Collings that I use to this day. I found other songs in her: One Small Boy and Broken and Memoria and so many others. John also found my happy and dependable Taylor guitar for me. There are different songs in different guitars. I must remind myself of that. I love them all, my children made of wood and steel and bone.
I must make my way down to the basement and dig out that beautiful, faithful old Yamaha and see what songs she has been saving for me. I must find her, and free her from her tightly hinged case. Give her some air, and some light, and some space. Give her a fresh new set of strings and a reverential rendition of Blackbird for old time’s sake. Then maybe she will warm her wood, free the sweetly silent notes from her strings, and embrace me once again.