My mother was the archetype “slow adopter.” If I wanted something for Christmas, I knew to ask for it sometime in June. Otherwise in her mind, it was an impulsive thing. When I’d mention new technology her response often was, “Oh just one more thing to dust or one more thing to break.” We never did have an automatic dishwasher. She always said she had three, and then she named my brothers and me. It was the downside and the upside of having a parent who was a child during the Great American Depression. She made it clear that we could do fine without plenty of things. On the other hand, she had a way of making sure we knew what things were worth. So when the idea of guitar lessons came up I knew the acquisition of the instrument itself might be the deal breaker.
Dinnertime conversation each night was a debate over whether the acquisition of a guitar was a good investment or throwing good money after bad. Mom reminded me of the flute in my closet. I reminded her of the fact that I got it when I was barely 9 years old—at her request—and that I quit the band on doctor’s orders. One down. Score 0 to 0. No progress on the guitar or the lessons, at least that’s what I thought.
But stealth-fighter mom also had a way of using her slow-adopter status to test my personal investment—or was it to give herself time to think? There was more to my mother than one could read on the surface. Later that week she came home from my aunt’s house with an ancient, Adele classical guitar, probably worth all of $5.00 at a flea market sale.
“Your Aunt Mary sent you this,” she said. “It was your cousin, Paul’s guitar. He played for a few months. It’s been in her attic for 20-some years.” Her point was clear. “Play it for a while, and then we’ll see about a new one.”
Anyone who’s not first born knows what it’s like to suffer the sins of all of the children who’ve come before them. Maybe first borns do too, but I can’t believe they suffer as much. Whatever any previous child did in the past, I had to prove twice over that I would never do it. As a kid it seems awfully unfair. As a parent, it’s learning from previous mistakes.
Still I was determined to learn to play. I had songs I had to write. I went to my first lesson, feeling self-conscious for this small classical guitar that looked as if it had never been loved. I thought the case would hide it. I didn’t realize the cardboard case just underlined what was inside it. On the other hand, no one was actually looking at me or the guitar case. I really was wound up over nothing.
Guitar player walking. I made the walk up, up, up. The studio was above the hardware store—32 steps up a narrow corridor like an Amsterdam apartment. It was late in August. The corridor had no air conditioning. So with each step the temperature rose as my body got higher. My face had broke out in the “strawberry birthmarks” of heat prostrastion. I read the door that said “Evelyn Brue Guitar School” on the frosted glass panel like in a 50s black and white movie, and pushed it open. Cool air dropped upon me and I swear music from heaven began playing. I was in a display room of beautiful electric and acoustic guitars. My hands wanted to touch everyone of them, even though I didn’t know the first thing about playing them.
Evelyn came out, introduced herself, and the lessons began. Soon enough I was working on that classic “Malaguena.” It was progressing. Evelyn seemed pleased with how things were going. One day she excused herself for a moment and brought back a beautiful full-boxed, top-drawer Gibson guitar.
“Try this out,” she said. “I want you to play the song you wrote in the recital on this guitar. So you can take it home to practice on.” I was blown away.
“Sure you can,” she said. “And maybe after your mom sees you practicing, she might decide to buy it for you for Christmas.” Evelyn smiled conspiratorially. This was October. It was well past time for that. Oh God, I thought this woman doesn’t know my mother. I’m in the middle of a mess now.
What could I do? I took the guitar home and practiced every night.
Each week, I dreaded the question. Evelyn would ask, “Do you think your mother will buy it?”
I’d look at the floor and quietly answer in the negative. I couldn’t explain why the idea was impossible. She just didn’t know my mother.
Time passed and Christmas came. My brothers arrived from Wyoming and South Carolina with their families. Typical pre-Christmas events came and went. In keeping with tradition, we opened presents from our sibling and one from parents on Christmas Eve, saving the rest for Christmas morning.
The one gift from our parents that year was not in a box but an over-sized greeting card envelope. Inside the greeting card was a bank book for a savings account that my mother had kept, individual accounts for each of us, until she could get mine even with my brothers. Apparently this was the year that happened. But with my bank book was a note that read,
“This account is yours minus the cost of the guitar that has also been yours since last October.”
Was I surprised? Yeah you could say so. I had tears in my eyes to think that beautiful instrument really was mine. It was the first time in my life I cried with joy. The sounds that that guitar could make. I knew I would hardly be able to sleep that night. No one else in the room seemed to understand why I was so moved. In some ways, I suppose no one still does.
Some folks even think that I was tricked. That’s just because they didn’t know my mom. I was tricked with love.
She had a way of making sure we knew what things were worth. She gave me music. She knew what she was doing. I'll never forget how stunned I was that someone would do that for me.
Yeah, I still have that guitar.
—me strauss Letting me be