Friday, March 28, 2008
The Ghost of Pop-Pop's Banjo
This story is in memory of Harry Brower.
There are pictures of strangers hanging up on my walls. People come in and say, “Oh, is that your great grandmother?” I say, “I don’t know who she is but her eyes follow me when I am vacuuming. I think she likes me.”
If her spirit is floating around, she knows that her picture will never be discarded again. Now that I have her, she’s mine. She might as well be my great grandmother.
I don’t have anything from my family. My mother should be the poster child for the throw-away society. She’s not sentimental about things like I am. I don’t have a single rattle or a ruffled dress from when I was a baby. Not a tooth, not even a lock of hair. You’d think she would have at least saved some hair since she always talks about the hair: “She came out with a head of black hair. I mean a head of it. The nurses put a bow in it and handed her to me. I said, ‘Whose baby is this with all this black hair?’ Then Nana pointed out, ‘You know, your in-laws have dark hair.’”
The only thing I have is what I personally saved from high school. Which wasn’t easy because she’d get rid of things when you weren’t looking. Everything else, gone. I might as well have just been hatched and dropped onto the earth yesterday because, except for photos, there is no documentation that I ever existed before I came of age and left home.
There are no photos of ancestors like most people have. There are no hand-stitched samplers, homemade quilts made with the torn sleeves of brothers and the hems of Sunday dresses or crystal punch bowls heavy with lead. In my mother’s defense, we lived in tiny apartments in the city. We lived in four railroad rooms with a fire escape we kept the broom and mop on and pots and pans that were too big to keep inside the oven. There were no closets. There was no place to store anything. But you’d think she could have at least saved just one of my school papers. A mimeographed connect-the-dots on a sheet of paper or a multiple choice test with my name scribbled in backhand like the way I used to write it, full out, including my middle name, Debra Frances Kelly, until Sister Grace Gabriel put a stop to that nonsense and I learned I might as well be a left-handed dunce if I kept it up.
Before my mother gave away my pop-pop’s banjo, I used to wonder how these things, the pictures of the strangers that I buy, anniversary plates with gold bands and hairline cracks, crocheted doilies shaped like snowflakes, got into antique shops. Who would part with such treasure? Sometimes there is no family left and the real estate agent calls in someone to come and clean out the place. But there can’t possibly be so many family-less dead people to explain all the antique shops packed to the gills, so clotted up with the evidence of other lives you clutch your purse to your breast so you don’t knock anything over and maneuver yourself through goat paths to try to find a piece of jadeite someone overlooked or a great deal on something because the shopkeeper didn’t know what he had.
Then my mother, under the pretense of being fair to all the grandchildren, gave Pop-Pop’s banjo to her cousin Billy, who lives somewhere in another state. No one knows where because no one really knows him. I’m sure he’s a nice enough guy. He seemed nice the one time I met him. But no one’s met his wife. No one’s met his kids. No one has any idea how to get in touch with him if we wanted to check on that banjo to see how it’s doing. Which was why my mother did it. Control. We all went a little crazy when my mother gave that banjo away. But there was nothing we could do about it. She was in charge and that was that.
You might be thinking, what’s the big deal about a banjo? When I hear a hundred songs, I think of my pop-pop playing that banjo. At every shindig, every family get-together, every party, that banjo would come out. On Saturday nights at Nana and Pop-Pop’s house the kids clamored for it like they begged for Mister Softee if he didn’t take it out soon enough. Pop-Pop sat in his chair, propped up against the bathroom door, below the iron door knocker of a little boy with his pants down. He’d sing Pennies from Heaven, Ain’t Misbehaving and When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. His daughters, our mothers, would cry, “Sing Daddy’s Little Girl!” We never saw any other banjos. No one played the banjo. Only Pop-Pop. This was up north.
And then it was over. Pop-Pop keeled over while playing bingo at St. Catherine’s Hall and Nana didn’t last a year after that. The family kind of grew apart. There was no reason to get together. I never heard a live banjo again.
Then I came down here to Heaven on Earth, Virginia, and I found out that I am in a big bluegrass area. I am in a place where there are banjos galore and every time I turn around I see the ghost of my grandfather’s banjo, sitting on his lap, and those first few chords, dun, dun, dun, dun. I think, if I had the time, or if I had the banjo, I would like to take lessons. Nana and Pop-Pop would love that. They’d love it down here. Not only for the music. But this farm. How my crocuses are coming up outside my kitchen window just like Nana’s did. All the Irish and Scotch people—I had no idea—and their food, some of it disgusting, just like Nana’s—pig’s feet, ham sandwiches on white bread with both butter and mayonnaise, fish cakes. Laundry on the line in order by color and type. Lawns that look like they are cut with toenail clippers. Rocking chair porches. I look around and I think, oh, they would love it down here.
One day I saw a banjo in an antique shop. It hung upside down by two nails driven into a wooden beam. It was stringless and slung with cobwebs. I thought, this is going to happen to my pop-pop’s banjo. The cousin who acquired it is elderly himself. What happens when he dies? His grown kids have no connection to that banjo whatsoever. They don’t know how important it is. They probably don’t even know where it came from. When they empty out the house, they’ll call in a real estate agent who will ship all the stuff to the antique shop and there it will sit, in some dusty corner, where someone will almost knock it over with her pocketbook and she’ll wonder how a special thing like that got into such a place. Maybe, if she’s like me, her heart will break a little and she’ll buy it.