In 1973, when I was ten, I convinced my mum to buy me a guitar at the church rummage sale. It likely cost no more than five dollars — if that. I thought it was beautiful. It was an acoustic guitar, black with brown burnished details and a white pickguard that provided just the right amount of contrast. The strings were all broken and there was a hairline crack along the side, but I was convinced that it would be the instrument for me. We then had to purchase a soft sided case for it, new strings, pay for tuning, and of course, guitar lessons. Did I mention that I couldn’t read music?
I took lessons around the corner from our apartment building once a week in the music store that doubled as a hippy hangout. It was the 70s after all. The smell of incense was overpowering but I thought I was so cool to be learning guitar and wearing bell bottoms. I never really thought about the fact that I would have to practice. Practice? Put some effort into learning how to play this instrument? I think the lessons lasted about three or four months until my father declared that I had nothing to show for the investment and that the five-dollar guitar had been a waste of time and money.
I had no discipline. I didn’t understand that if I wanted to play the guitar it would require commitment both of mind and body. I didn’t like the way my fingers hurt from pressing on the steel strings and I certainly didn’t like sitting in my room trying to create chords. I wanted to play! What were these dumb black blobs sitting on lines that I had to decipher? Where were the songs I expected to be strumming? How come I couldn’t just sit down and play “Delta Dawn” or “Leaving on a Jet Plane”? I gave up.
My great aunt died when I was eleven leaving me with her double keyboard electric organ. The keys lit up from beneath, it had foot pedals and two rows of knobs and buttons that allowed it to sound like anything from a jazz guitar to steel drums. When I spent weekends with her at her apartment, I used to perch on the music bench and pretend that I was playing for a big audience. I could easily use the music books that came with it because they had letters above the black blobs that matched the light up keys. I could “read” music.
Once the organ was moved into my bedroom, I convinced my parents that the keyboard would be different. I would practice. I would learn to read music. Back around the corner. My piano teacher spent a great deal of time teaching me that “All Cows Eat Grass” and that “Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always.” I would go home and transpose the blobs into letters so that I could memorize my homework with the lights of the keyboard. Unfortunately, there were no lights on the piano around the corner when I returned the next week. “Start at D Marilyn and continue from there.” I was lost. The organ stayed in my room until it was passed along to my younger cousin. It did serve as an excellent clothes rack for most of my teenage years.
We have three guitars in our basement. Remnants from days when our youngest daughter and my husband attempted father-daughter guitar lessons fifteen years ago. Don’t ask what I paid for the electric guitar that I bought him. It didn’t even come with a case. I was so enamoured with the fact that he mentioned he might want to learn how to play that I forked over the cash with the biggest smile on my face to a man with an even bigger smile. The lessons lasted a season. Father and daughter now share a love of quirky videos, a great sense of humour and excellent taste in music. The guitars look really cool on their stands.
When COVID hit in March 2020 and we were in lock-down, our oldest daughter and our son-in-law moved in with us for two months. I asked him to bring his guitar so that he could teach me how to play. He is a fabulous musician and I reasoned that being cooped up in the same house with nothing to do would be the best time to take up the guitar again. I hauled up an acoustic guitar from the basement, he tuned it, set me up in the den and began the lesson. I lasted two, maybe three days. My hands hurt, my old brain could not decipher the blobs on the page, and it did not bring me joy. I gave up.
I hadn’t thought much about guitars or music or dedication to acquiring a new skill until a post appeared on Instagram in June 2021. Woven into the post were the words “Picked up the guitar a few years ago and leaving here some modest proof that old dogs can learn new tricks.” I clicked on the accompanying video and was mesmerized by the talent of a neighbour who I only knew as being a wonderful parent, as someone with great athletic ability and having a super sense of humour, but… now this! I had to know more.
I wrote to his wife to ask how long her husband had been playing the guitar. It turned out that the guitar had been a gift from her close to twenty years ago but that he had only really dedicated himself to learning how to play within the last five years. Since then, he had also acquired an electric guitar and was also sharing his riffs on Instagram. I listened to him sing along with his guitar several times that night. I clicked on his “Riffrences” and appreciated his growth and perseverance over the 126 weeks of video clips that had accumulated. I have since learned that he taught himself to skate at a later age — and he skates incredibly well. He finds something that he wants to do, hones in on it, and accomplishes it. I wondered what lived within him that wasn’t inside me.
I thought of how his actions have influenced his children — likely through osmosis. His two sons practice their sports tirelessly outside of their house. Whether it’s slapshots on the backyard rink in the winter, shooting hoops in the warmer weather, or throwing a baseball or football in the summer, his boys are constantly improving their skills. Do they expect to be professional athletes? Likely not. Does their dedication bring them joy? I guarantee it.
I have been thinking about my neighbour and the words to the song that he was singing in that Instagram post four months ago. Written by Tom Petty, performed by Rod Stewart, it’s poignant, sad, and so much can be read into it. But one part of it hit home for me.
“So, leave Virginia alone
Leave Virginia alone
She’s not like you and me”
I’ll never play the guitar. I likely won’t be fabulous at any one thing. But I am inspired by those who have the dedication and determination to do so. Left to my own devices, I will continue to plug along, hone my modest skills at writing, and in that I find my joy.