Learning the stories of a man's life though his music
Each person has a lifetime of stories to share. As a child of divorce, I got
to know my father when I was 16, and that was the summer he shared his love
of guitar and music with me. I began to hear the stories of his musical
I spent many evenings listening to dad play, the music he wrote and the
pieces that had inspired him, stories of his musical past spinning in the
air like sparks from a campfire. We talked music theory like it was tabloid
gossip and we made music together until the sun was long past set and our
fingers were worn.
My father's family, taken in 1973
after he'd grown up and moved away.
There were some stories I never learned and I suppose he always thought
there'd be time to eventually share all the details that made his past up. I
sometimes wonder what interested him in guitar and how old he was when he
first strummed the strings: E A D G B E. I suppose he learned it from his
mother when he could barely speak, as she herself played. There are old
recordings with the children strumming vaguely familiar German folk songs,
singing words I don't understand.
I frequently imagine my teenaged father at the end of a line, flanked by his
six younger siblings lined up tallest to smallest, all of them dressed in
clothes made from drapes. I've added the dramatic climax where he decided to
leave the family production, making a symbollic leap from "The Sound of
Music" to "A Hard Day's Night."
Dad did share the story of when he discovered the raw sounds of the Beatles
and Led Zeppelin and abandoned his classical studies. Around that time he
left home and met my mother. He grew his hair out and learned the chords to
songs that would make his parents' toes curl. He must have mellowed with
age, because since I met him he had returned to his classical roots.
The guitar of my father's dreams
Dad always had a quirky dream to play an electric guitar with a classical
width neck, a Frankenstein of an instrument that would merge his love of
classical and classic rock. So for two years he and I watched a luthier turn
a shapeless chunk of wood into a stunning instrument. My father loved that
guitar like a soulmate and played it for hours at a time. Then for a long
time his heart wasn't in it and the guitar gathered the dust of loneliness.
Cancer came into his life and the guitar was summned to duty again, it was
his life jacket. He played his music on good days and the guitar waited when
he was too weak. Last September it was displayed beside a wreath of flowers
and my father's ashes. It returned to its case and wasn't played since.
As I grieve from losing my father, I am consoled by the stories other people
have about my father. My mother recently shared her story from a time when
she and he were first married and before I was born. She described how he
sat cross-legged and hunched over in their tiny apartment, leaning into his
guitar and strumming softly. She says he always had a distant look of
concentration as he played his way through a song, like a scientist bent
over a microscope working things out.
That is how I remember him best, playing his music.
Losing my father made me aware that every family has a thousand stories
bursting to shared. It was time for me to share my father's stories with my
four-year-old son, Ryan. Time for him to understand our love for music and
why I wept at night.
It was like the guitar was waiting for me this whole time, hoping I would
pluck its heavy strings and pull out the notes that were my father's life. I
picked it up and held it close; so much heavier than my hollow little
violin. Large fingerprints on the varnish that won't be imprinted ever
again, a scent of cigarette smoke in the leather strap. I fumbled over a few
chords I learned from watching him play so many summers ago.
Ryan watched mesmerized, a familiar intensity filled his eyes and he
understood what I was sharing with him. His sweet voice swept away my pain
as he asked gently "can I play Grandpa's guitar?"