Segment from DaVinci Weeps
It was somewhere around the summer of 1977, I think. I was in Toledo, Ohio visiting Grandma Schmutzer. I always loved hanging with her, especially when it was just the two of us with no other pesky family members cluttering up the scenery. Don't get me wrong. I loved my family, still do, but there was something so special about me n' Gram having alone time. It didn't even matter that she called me by every other grandchild's name - eventually she swung back around to Barb again.
Grandma's house, easily 60 years old by the time I came along, was a place of magic. It had funny little rooms, a creepy cellar, and an attic that felt like an attic out of every book I'd ever read. The doorway to it was off of a tiny, maybe 6'x6' room that had once been the kitchen. The steep stairs leading up to it were treacherous and seemed to end in an unknowable gloom. It was one of those places that didn't get any less gloomy once the single bare light bulb was switched on. It was unfinished and complete with creaky floor boards, a couple of chests, and other "old" things. But I loved it up there. It felt like a secret place.
But, it was Grandma's kitchen that held the true magic of her house, and in her kitchen she was a thaumaturge worthy of laud. The kitchen always smelled of old grease (in a good way) and paprika. There was always wonderful bread of some sort, always leftover chicken, always some kind of baked goodie, and always, always, always butter. Real unsalted butter. It is the stuff of my childhood and all the dreams therein.
All that is to say that there was a door off of the kitchen leading to a back porch and a handkerchief sized backyard. The porch was where we found ourselves one overly warm day. Grandma rocked in a chair and crocheted, as always. Lena, Grandma's elderly roommate, fanned herself with a paper and watched birds flit. I sat strumming my 12-string Gibson and singing Neil Diamond and John Denver songs. It was music that was likable by just about any generation and easy enough for me to play. I never thought Grandma paid close attention to my songs. I never thought she saw my music as anything more than pleasant background noise made by her granddaughter. I was wrong.
I finished strumming a tune and was mindlessly plunking away at the strings. Grandma looked up and said, "Play dat von abouta Grandma feddah bed. I like dat von." She was talking about another John Denver favorite, Grandma's Feather Bed. Happy to oblige Grandma (she who never asked for anything), I smiled and began to strum a little vigorously, nodded my head in time as the music flooded me, and sang, "When I was an itty bitty boy, just up offa the farm..." Lena kept fanning herself and tapped her foot along in time. Grandma stopped crocheting and hummed along somewhat tunelessly, throwing in the words, "Grandma's feddah bed" whenever appropriate. I finished. They clapped. I blushed. Grandma said, "Play dat von again." I did, gladly.
In all my teenage angst and feeling of being an outsider in this world, I'd found a place where I belonged. It was right there on Grandma's porch, strumming my guitar and making two old ladies smile. They looked young that afternoon, the ghosts of pigtails hanging over their stooped shoulders.
A long time ago my piano teacher, a practical woman, said, without much tact or compassion, "Face it, Barb, you'll never be a concert pianist." Before I could crumble entirely from the withering comment, she added, "However, if you learn to play well enough for your own satisfaction, and to a point where you can entertain company, you'll never regret it." A wise woman, that one. It's advice that I took to heart and thought of and applied to lots of different things over the years.
I may never strike it rich with any of my endeavors. I may not become famous or win any gilded awards. Who the hell cares? I once made a couple of old ladies grin like carefree girls.