A Tale of Two Grandmothers

by cindy

In a recent burst of energy (or mania, not sure which) I attacked a couple of closets in an attempt to clean, sort, and toss a significant portion of stuff that had accumulated over time. Indeed, many things of little or forgotten value were either donated or dumped. In some cases, the decision to do this was difficult, but onward I forged, confident in my effort to de-clutter our home.

Then, in one dark corner, I discovered this:

This is my guitar. For all intents and purposes, it was my first, and oldest, lover.

Of six strings, only four remain. The neck is loose, which makes it impossible to tighten the existing strings and also makes it pointless to replace the ones that are missing. Though it can no longer be played, there are far too many memories associated with it to let it go. Not only does this guitar hold memories of my adolescence, it also holds fond memories of my two grandmothers each of whom played a role in my love for this instrument.

My grandmothers were wonderful women, albeit as different from each other as day and night. One was city-born-and-bred and the other was salt-of-the-earth-country. The one thing they had in common was their utter devotion to their grandchildren. Theirs was a love that could never be questioned.

Grandma Crowe was actually my mother’s guardian, not a direct relative. She and her husband took my mother and her brother into their Baltimore home, raising them after their parents died. Tall and thin, she carried herself with an elegance and reserve that was quite sophisticated—at least in the youthful eyes of this granddaughter. She always dressed “to the nines”, wearing tweed wool skirts and silk blouses (which she sewed herself), cashmere cardigans and wool caps (complete with decorative hat pins). She dressed this way even on trips with our family to the beach—in mid-summer. She was a quiet and gentle woman and, as kids, we never thought to question the wisdom of her beachwear.

Mom-mom Randolph was my father’s mother. She was short and round; her ample bosom would swallow us whenever she hugged us (which she would do a lot). Exuberant and feisty, full of spit-fire and sass, she had a quick wit and a bawdy sense of humor. She would readily share her opinions whether or not they were sought (and woe to those who dared to disagree). Unless she was headed to church, she dressed ready for her work in the kitchen or the garden: her cotton print housedress was covered by a full apron made of an altogether different print. Her hair was usually askew and sometimes her teeth were out. When she and my grandfather accompanied our family to the beach, Mom-mom was in the water as often as we kids. There was no sitting in a silk blouse for her. I don’t think “silk” was something she cared much about, on the beach or at home in West Virginia.

I had longed for a guitar, endlessly trying to negotiate the purchase of one with my parents. Eventually they relented, agreeing that I could choose one as a birthday gift. I think I was, maybe, fourteen at the time. That’s one detail I seem to have forgotten. Many other details, however, are still vivid.

I remember being in Baltimore, having accompanied my parents on a trip. The day was gray and gloomy, perhaps rainy too. On their way to an appointment elsewhere in the city, my parents dropped Grandma and me off downtown, right in front of the music store. How my grandmother knew where we should go will forever remain a mystery. There certainly was no easy way in those days to investigate places that offered guitars or other musical instruments. And to my knowledge, she was not musically inclined herself.

I remember entering the musty old store. I remember the rows of guitars lined up on shelves and hanging on the wall behind the counter. I remember the clerk being a bit impatient when I couldn’t answer his questions: “What kind of guitar, kid?” I didn’t know there was more than one kind. “Well, what do you wanna do with it?” I mutely shook my head and wondered how I could escape this interrogation. My grandmother certainly had no clue how to guide me in my selection but her steady presence calmed my anxiety. Somehow, we stumbled through and eventually the clerk handed me one guitar after another until I found the one that felt right. We bought it, carried it out of the store and into a cab, taking it back to her home to await the return of my parents. I was grateful beyond measure for her help.

Once I returned home to West Virginia, I set to work figuring out how to play the thing. In reality, I am no musician. Not even close. I have always loved music, however, and found this instrument far more enjoyable and manageable than the piano. I taught myself basic chords with which I could accompany myself as I sang. And, if you must know, I am no vocalist either. Most of my “playing” or “singing” was done quietly in my room at home. Occasionally I would play for friends but mostly the guitar WAS my friend. My quiet alone-time friend.

Several months later, on a lovely, sunny spring day, we joined members of my father’s family for a Sunday picnic. My older sister was close in age to our two cousins and the three of them spent time together doing whatever older teenagers did. My younger siblings were all closer in age so they scampered off to play like little children do. Stuck in the middle, I retreated to the back yard with my guitar where I played, perhaps humming along. I doubt I had the courage to sing with relatives sitting nearby. I was happy in my own little world, amusing myself with my friend. And then it happened. “Cindy! Come over here and bring that thing with you!” My grandmother, Mom-mom, had called me over to where she and the other adults were sitting. I was sure I was about to be embarrassed. Maybe even humiliated. What could she possibly want with me and my guitar?

I remember going over to her side. She was sitting in the sun in one of those webbed lawn chairs. My parents, my grandfather, and my aunt and uncle were there too. Their conversation had stopped. All eyes were on me as I handed Mom-mom the guitar. She placed the instrument on her lap, her left hand gripping the neck, her right hand on the strings. And she began to play.

None of us knew that she could play the guitar. But she could. And when she was done, she taught me all that she knew: she had one set pattern of picking, allowing the notes from each string to be heard separately in an amazing rhythm. All that she taught me is all that I know to this day. But it was all that I needed to know to enjoy playing.

Over the years, I played more frequently in the presence of others. I never took lessons. I don’t think any were available. Besides, I was satisfied with what my grandmother had shared. I played simply because I enjoyed doing so. My children might remember that I played for them when they were very little—too little to know how little I knew. Peter, Paul, and Mary. Bob Dylan. Joan Baez. Woody Guthrie. Pete Seeger. I still have the sheet music somewhere, probably in another closet in need of cleaning.

For now, my guitar sits near the doorway of my studio. Every time I go in or out, I see it. And I smile. I remember the hours of joy it brought me as a young woman, trying to find her place in the world. I remember the hours of pleasure I felt as a young mother, sharing the joy of music with her small children. And I remember the two grandmothers whose love for me made that joy possible. Though the guitar now sits silent, it will always stand as a reminder of their love.

I am a grandmother now. Perhaps, someday, one of my grandchildren will want a guitar.

We’ll be ready.