Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Musical Cat...

T. S. Elliot   (A.K.A. The Worrier )
Sitting atop the Butler's table.

When I was around eight, my sister decided it was time I decided on an instrument to play and land on it, instead of constantly sneaking her guitar out of her room, and to the third floor of the barn to practice on.

Much to my mother and sister's surprise, I chose the trumpet.

A Little Worse For The Wear

My father was the only one who immediately understood.  Being children of older parents, my sister and I had attended more funerals in our young lives than most would before turning forty.  At one in particular, my mother, sister and I sat in varnished pews, under enormous, ornately carved arches, sun casting all hues of the rainbow through the stained glass windows, while the priest finished his sermon. After blessing the draped casket, a soft, clear voice resonated throughout the church with the beginnings of Ave Maria.  I was stunned as a tear dripped from my eye.  I glanced over to find my mother and  sister fishing through their purses for tissues.  My sister answered the confused look on my face by stating, " It's the music." 

Later I attended more than a few military funerals with my father.  He would stand at attention in his uniform during the twenty-one gun salute.  Then slowly, always perfectly off in the distance, Taps would begin to play, and tears would always flow from maintained, respectful expressions. 

I had planned on entering the military.  I wanted to be the one who played Taps. It was such an emotionally fitting send-off and I wanted to be part of it. If one learned the trumpet, the bugle came naturally ( it's true ).  

My mother and sister had been positive I would select the banjo because my grandfather had taught me cords before he left us for that great Bluegrass Band in the sky.  He had learned from his mother.

As a toddler, my grandfather would sit amongst wooden bushel baskets of ironing, while his mother stood at the fabric-covered, wooden ironing board. Nearby, a simple pine table held the electric hot plate that served to heat the cast iron 'laundry press.'

When the iron became too cold, no longer providing the knife-like edges demanded of it, she'd place the iron on the hot plate, and reach behind the dining room door for her banjo.  She would sit on the old braided rug with my grandfather, and it was here the content of her perfectly played notes not only shaped his mind and temperment, but his soul.

Alone, that banjo was a thing of beauty.  When the sun streamed through the windows catching its highly varnished black finish and sterling silver hardware, it was music for the eyes. There would be a flash of silver, as pinks and light blues reflected from the mother-of-pearl insets giving it a heavenly appearance before a single note was played.

George MacComber Gifford
My Grandfather

His mother would sing bluegrass songs for him, teaching him the words as well as the cords necessary to play them.  Often it was late in the day, and in the midst of a musical interlude they would miss the shuffle of heavy work boots on the sidewalk outside.  They wouldn't hear the soft closure of the pantry door, never feel the presence of my grandfather's father until a pure, clear tenor issued forth from the kitchen, joining in the song of the moment. Work boots left behind in the pantry, he'd pad into the dining room in heavy work socks, and  cuddle up to his wife and son on the braided rug to sing until dinner time.  It would be the music that floated from their home the neighbors would recall most fondly.

The Resonator

It was on that same braided rug my grandfather had begun to teach me to play that gorgeous banjo.
Later in life I took up the banjo again.  I worked an overtime shift to buy my first.  It looked nothing like my grandfather's, but the sounds it made were just as fine.

The Old Kent

Even much later, after arthritis began to cripple my fingers so badly I could no longer push hard enough on the neck of the banjo to maintain a cord, I bought the old Kent.  It had a higher lift on the strings which I thought might help.

Last week while watching the news, I heard a strong, clear note from a banjo string.  Remembering my banjos were in the downstairs hallway, I quickly dismissed a haunting and went down to investigate.  On the way down the stairs another deliberate note followed the first.

What I found was Elliot, sitting directly to the left of the old Kent, staring intently, and while I rounded the banister at the bottom of the stairs, he lifted his paw and strummed another note.  I was too enchanted to run and get the camera.  It wasn't until his claws began breaking strings that were snapping and hitting him in the face did he stop playing music.  You may notice in the above photo there is only one string left.  Strings can be replaced.  A cat's - or a child's for that matter - interest in music cannot be replaced, once discouraged.

I have since learned to play this.

It Is Played With A Bow

It was made by a man who lived across the street from me a few years back. His little factory had specialized in handmade dulcimers, as well as various other similar instruments for years.  When his wife died, he sold his factory.  Huge semi's came and loaded all the machinery onto flatbeds and headed out to some place in Indiana.  What they left behind was sold at a tag sale.  I bought this for five dollars.  It is signed and dated on the inside.

I do recall leaving the case open for one reason or another at one time, only to return and find a string snapped.  I chaulked it up to age, but now, I think it may have had something to do with a certain orange musician who simply cannot resist the lure of musical strings...


  1. what a great post!. and yes,when taps is played or ave maria- the water works flow! far as your kitty- did he jump at the sound he produced? how sweet...

  2. Hey Hi! Just catching up, have been so busy with the surgery kids! No, Elliot just sat, strumming with his right paw, then listening as the sound faded away. Right up until the next to the last string snapped and got in in the nose. While I was taking the pictures for this post, he couldn't resist and played a couple of notes while I was making sure the lighting was just right. The strings all need to be replaced on the mini as they are the originals and the date inside says something like 1982. In the meantime, I am perusing musical toys for children, there has to be something he can't break and still play!

  3. What a delicious story about musicians of all stripes (smile). The kid next door has taken up the trumpet, and I'm afraid I'm all too familiar with how it sounds when one is learning. The banjo seems a much better idea!

  4. Oh, poor you! I almost hate to tell you this, but while my son was learning the sax our german shepherd ran away from home. The local gas station owner found him in his doorway at seven am the next morning...howling in C-Minor....!

  5. try the thrift stores/goodwill, i am sure u can find some Fischer price music toys.

  6. I just read your hypo comment on best friend blog, OMG that would creep me out too WTF WTF WTF

  7. I started playing the tenor banjo in high school but switched to the 5-string when I saw John Hartford on the Glen Campbell TV show starting in 1969. I played the 5-string in a trio in college. But over the years the thing sat in the case under the bed in move after move. It's not a very good banjo, it was one I made in college.

    Still, I keep thinking I want to pick it up and learn all over again. Seems I always find something else to fill my time than playing that banjo. Maybe someday.

  8. Oh gosh, you actually made a banjo, that is the neatest. Do play. When I started again after so many years away it did something to my soul, brought back some sort of weird sensory/emotional happiness only the sound of a banjo can elicit.

  9. And yes Thrift Stores a great idea! Need to go to the city again to borrow cages again soo. I am thinking one of those little Fischer Price pianos......something he can touch but cannot break!

  10. What a great story! You write so always just lures me right in. I was looking for an email to send you something, but I couldn't find one...Did you know you can have your blog made into a book?
    I saw this post on Melanie's blog (Whimsical Creations)...

    Have a great night! :) Paulette

  11. Oh Paulette, dear you, confession time. I started a book fifteen years ago that I promised my Harvard Prof, my mother, my sister, and finally my beloved brother-in-law, in that order, that I would finish. Unfortunately life threw itself at me with the force that only the deaths of so many loved ones, in such quick succession, can attain. A wise blogger familiar with such things advised me to start a blog, and wise he is. It has served to uncramp the writers cramp that has plagued me all these years, though I am still not where I was and wish to be again. I have alos been forced, due to the tragic circumstances, to change the entire format, which basically requires an entire edit. Exhausting but coming along.

    Its a memoir of how I survived not only being a poster child for the medical field of the early fifties, but not dying by my sister's hand. She was tried her darndest to murder me from the day I was born, for you see I invaded the quaint little LONE nest she had made in our parents house for the first eight years of her life!

    I still miss sitting around the table with my mother, her best friend Mary McBride, and my sister, laughing hysterically over my sister's failed, and oft times diverted by pre-emptive strikes, attempts to do me in. Swear its the only reason I have survived this long.

    So Thank You for your encouragement, it has made my heart positively glow.

  12. P.S. I have yet to figure out how to put the E-MAIL ME thing on this bog, any suggestions on what to 'click' keeping it simple. I have problems with clicking. Once I start I can't stop and usually mess everything up...

  13. Hi there,
    first off, thanks so much for signing on at my blog and commenting. I came over to check you out. I really like what I see. This story is really good! The photos make it fantastic! Add to that, the fact that you seem like a cat person, and I'm sold! All of our kids but one played instruments growing up. If you don't mind, I'm going to tag along (I just signed on).

  14. Dear Pat,

    I am delighted to have you 'officially!' It is a compliment I hold with high regard, only just below your compliments, which along with the others have encouraged me to continue on to my goal. (And I adore the model site -- Tom-Boy that I was I had WWII plane models I made hanging from my ceiling as a kid.)

    I only hope to be of continuing interest amd amusement to all.


  15. It almost started sounding like a ghost story...until you got to the cat plucking at the strings. A lovely post. Thanks for sharing your rich family history.

  16. You are such an eclectic writer, your words literally energize my daily life. You are such a special person and I look forward to reading more of your whimsical interludes. You certainly are a gift to your family

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