‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’

So my grandfather was a country musician in his day. He just turned 79 a couple of weeks ago, and for his birthday, mom gave him a little amplifier and got his guitar out of storage. He is getting new strings put on the guitar right now, and he’s excited and nervous about trying to play again after a good number of years of being out of practice.

And his hands — the hands that used to pick me up and twirl me in the air when I was a little girl — are getting older, along with the rest of his body. He’s so hopeful that he will be able to strum and play a few melodies, but he knows he may not be able to do much of anything. For his sake, I hope he can play the way he did when he was my age. I hope it all comes back to him and that his hands don’t betray him because music was such a love of his.

He was never taught how to read music or sing or play — he just figured it out on his own. He started out after the war (World War II), playing guitar and singing backup in a local (Pittsburgh) country band. So the story goes, he would take over more and more lead vocals, to the point of annoying his friend (the lead singer) because people would cheer for him and request that he sing a few songs.

And the songs he wrote! I don’t know what happened to all of them — throughout the years, when my grandmother got sick, Mom had to throw out a bunch of things. We’d been renting a house in White Oak (we rented a lot of places when I was growing up; I’ve learned to move around a lot myself now that I’m an adult) when the owner died and his kids gave my family 30 days to pack up and leave. I’d been at college and was working two or three jobs to stay alive, so I was of no assistance. My grandmother was bedridden after a stroke and diabetes hit simultaneously (although her mind was as sharp as severed glass), and my grandfather kind of mentally checked out for awhile over that and some crazy legal issues that turned out to be nothing. So, Mom had to find a place, get the money together, decide what could go to the new, tiny apartment and chuck the rest. Years of furniture, artwork, memories … down the shitter. It still eats away at her, knowing that my grandparents watched her drag the tangibles from her parents’ life together out to the curb.

But the guitar? Kept it. You never saw my grandfather without it. And even though it’s been in storage for the past near-decade, my grandfather has always known it would be for them when he was ready for it again.

And now he has it — it’s in pristine condition and it has been waiting for him to remember it, of that I’m sure. We spoke last night, and I have to say I’ve never heard him so excited about something … he will get to be creative again. He told me a story about when I was a wee lass, how he wrote a song about little girls, just for me. He said I started crying and couldn’t stop sobbing, and he was so devastated that he’d made me sad. I asked him if it were maybe just his singing that had driven me to tears. 😉

Recently, I’d spoken with someone about country music, and I think I may have surprised this individual with the fact that I am a fan (shit, just check the “On iTunes” signoff line at the end of every blog entry — you’ll see country, R&B, chick music, pop, rock, etc. — I love it all!). But what I felt bad about was that I never thought to say how much of an influence my grandfather had on me in that regard. My girlfriend A. and I, to this day, will get together and sing Barbara Mandrell songs in the car (we also sing songs about grammar and, yes, we are easily amused!). Recently, I got my hands on a crapload of country songs from my formative years, and I enjoy belting out tunes by Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis and many others for my neighbors to not enjoy.

Creativity runs through my immediate family. My grandmother had brilliant penmanship — I learned how to do calligraphy by watching her. She always made sure I had the pens and proper stationery, along with anything she thought would help me to stimulate my brain. Anything from Barbie dream houses to paintbrushes to any writing utensil I ever wanted, she made sure I had it. My grandfather gave me a guitar when I was younger, but I got very frustrated because I couldn’t learn how to read music and there went that hobby, sadly (I also played in the school orchestra and sang in the chorus — but 12 years of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day killed THAT off, not to mention that I could only sight-read the music).

But I did start songwriting, and that I loved. Mom is completely the artist of the family — I have never seen somebody tackle large-scale art projects with such fervor, with only a vision in her mind (never a sketch), and with such love. She gives away everything she does. I have a fantastic holiday wreath she made recently — I keep telling her she either needs to make stuff and sell it on eBay or she needs to open a catering company. From her, I got a knack for throwing parties and making sure my guests go home with full bellies and doggie bags full of leftovers for the next day’s lunch.

And I guess creativity never goes away, no matter how much we try to squelch it or how much the world strips away our former abilities. When my grandmother had her stroke, she couldn’t really write on paper, so she skywrote. She was ambidextrous (and so am I, although I favor my right because it’s just quicker), and when she lost the use of her left hand, she would write her name and whatever she was thinking in the air. And you could just see the swirls and curls that would have accompanied any correspondence she would have done on paper. She swore like a sailor, but she had impeccable taste that made her such a brilliant dichotomy — and I, as a Gemini and her protege on many levels, have become a modern-day version of her. She was defiant and unapologetic; someday, I will be like that again, because being like her was never a bad thing, in my mind’s eye.

I guess the lesson I take from all of this is to enjoy being alive and energetic and able right now in my life. My creativity that is all my own is writing volumes — whether journal entries, blog entries, poems, books, greeting-card one-liners, etc. Those came to me on my own. And I am glad to have them and to combine them with my grandfather’s love of rhythm and verse, my mother’s knack for pulling together masterpieces from a thousand otherwise small details and my grandmother’s flair for making ordinary things extraordinary. I like to joke with my family about how I inherited all of their *bad* traits, like contempt for boundaries and oftentimes authority, a need to do things in my own time — whether it’s instantaneously or whenever I fucking get around to it, and a need to let everybody know exactly what I’m thinking in no uncertain terms and often with whatever sailor-speak I feel like using. But, you know what? Creative people get away with that kind of stuff. Editing oneself is bad for the creativity, I believe.

The thing I’ve found about being creative is that it gives me a better grasp on reality. Or, maybe it just gives me the courage to face life because I know that it’s my escape — that I can go bury myself in a project that is done on my terms — work for which I don’t have to apologize. Sure, you can read my journal or a poem, for example, and get pissed off because you believe you see yourself in it somewhere. Guess what? I cared enough about you to write about you, or I cared enough about you to not kill you and instead channeled my fire into a written work that will surely go up in value once this tortured artist leaves the planet. 😉

In any event, I don’t want to be lying in a bed, wishing I could still write. I don’t want to be 80 years old and hoping that my weak hands will be able to produce something beautiful again. I don’t want to be so consumed with what I could have been that I never took advantage of who I was. I. Don’t. Want. To. Be. Forgotten.

And my job is to make sure that this name will be up in lights, with fireworks (or photographers’ cameras) flashing all around.

And, if ever I lose my senses and decide to have a kid (where’s that Prozac dispenser? I done lost my mind!), I know that he will be able to write, sing, dance, cook, paint, draw, dream, live, love and design a rocket that will take him to the moon, if that’s what he wants to do. But one thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t let him waste a drop of his genius on trying to live a quiet life. Perhaps the greatest talent in my family is quietly setting aside one’s gifts to instead support the talents of the youngest generation — perhaps that is the greatest sacrifice made in every family. Maybe that’s why I’ve not been overly inclined to have kids (yet, anyway) — I have a lot to give this world, and my hope is to meet someone just like me so that we can spin this planet off its axis and change it forever with what comes naturally to us.

My friends are few, but they are dynamic. And so will the person who will eventually capture my attention … someone gifted who will encourage me to keep up with him … someone I can eventually inspire, too. Maybe that will be my greatest challenge yet … and it’s one to which I look forward. And I will owe any and all successes to my family who gave me the gifts that might not have come wrapped in a big bow but that grew with me and want to be shared with anyone brave enough to want to experience them.

On iTunes: Barbara Mandrell, “If Loving You is Wrong”

5 Responses to ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’

  1. Pratt :

    beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. A.McSholty :

    Girl, sometimes the similarties between us frighten the boojabbers out of me.

    My grandaddy made guitars. As in, went out chopped the wood and shaped it into the musical instrument. He had an amazing singing voice, with a penchant for Bluegrass. But his greatest gift was that of story telling.

    I remember as a kidlet, sitting at his knee, staring intently at the smoke from his cigarette spinning around his head as he was spinning a yarn.

    Usually, my grandparents house was a chaotic place full of rowdy grandchildren and even rowdier aunts and uncles, but all that stopped when Junior started telling one of his stories.

    And, you my dear, are as good as he was at spinning a tale yourself. So keep up the good work.

  3. Dawn :

    Thanks my darlings. 🙂

    Amy, I had you in my head as I was writing that one. I love your style, and I am honored to scare the boojabbers out of you because we are so alike. 😉

  4. --J :

    Very moving. You really should print this out and send it to your mom and grandfather to read. It would touch both of them deeply.

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