My grandparents lived in what is called a split-level home in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia for the better part of their marriage. It is the only house I remember them living in, but they also lived on Center Street in Rossville, and according to my birth certificate, I lived there when I was born.
Granny and Pa’s house was one of my favorite places in the whole world. From “red”, “gold” and “blue” bedrooms to the framed replicas of Pinkie (Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie, 1794, Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas) and Blue Boy (The Blue Boy, 1770 Thomas Gainsborough, oil on canvas) hanging in the upper hallway, the concrete water fountain complete with cherub pouring water into the basin which sat in the foyer, the kitchen full of some favorite foods from my childhood, and the piano in the living room—it was a veritable treasure trove for a little girl who lived in her own world so much of the time.
In the Gold Room, otherwise known as my Uncle Steve’s bedroom, my grandmother had shelves of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and various books such as Dr. Benjamin Spock’s THE COMMON SENSE BOOK OF BABY AND CHILD CARE (1946) and I’M OKAY-YOU’RE OKAY, by Dr. Thomas A. Harris, M.D. (1969)
I spent a lot of hours perusing those books and encyclopedias, running my fingers over the spherical globe and feeling the raised marks where the Smoky Mountains and Rocky Mountains etched across North America. Granny Marie also had an old typewriter in there, and I punched those keys until my fingers ached. It was completely manual, probably circa 1930, with a fabric ribbon that wrapped around a cylindrical platen, and the carriage was manually shifted back at the end of each line. The “Ding!” made me laugh every time.
My next favorite room was the living room where the Baldwin upright piano sat, beneath a painting on the far wall. The painting depicted a woman standing at a late-Victorian grand piano, her dark hair up in a modest bustle above ivory shoulders, in a burgundy dress with full bustle and long pleats. Next to her a man smiled at her, leaning at the piano and giving her his undivided attention, wearing a tailored waistcoat and cuffed sleeves under a long coat with tails much like a tuxedo coat one would see worn today.
I sat at that piano many hours playing various songs my granny and great-grandmother taught to me, scales and notes, Treble Clef —“Every Good Boy Does Fine” E, G, B, D, F as well as “FACE” (the space notes) generally played with the right hand and to the right of middle C, and Bass Clef –“All Cows Eat Grass” A,C,E,G and “Good Boys Do Fine Always” G, B, D, F A, generally played with the left hand and to the left of middle C—all on the “Stave.” I would caress the ivory and ebony keys, listening to the different sounds between C major and B minor. My grandmother and great-grandmother seemed to think I could learn to play the instrument quite well. Unfortunately, those expectations were not realized.
Another room I liked, but only when the music was playing, was the basement. My grandparents had stacks and stacks of old 45’s hanging on the far wall, and a stereo set up to jam! Most of those 45’s had a lot of Motown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Percy Sledge, Billy Paul, as well as Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Sr., Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Bobby Bare, Mac Davis, Brenda Lee, Connie Francis and Loretta Lynn. We often listened to the music from the old vinyl records or when our family friend Ivan Wilson came over with his guitar and sang for us. My granny and dad had beautiful voices, and often sang along, too. I would sit in front of Ivan or his speakers, or the stereo speakers, and soak it all up. Each note and lyric resonated deep within my bones.
We moved to Hixson when I was just turning eleven-years-old and starting sixth grade. Early in the year we were given musical aptitude tests. I was called to the music teacher’s office, the band room at Hixson Elementary, and given an envelope to give to my parents. According to the letter, my scores were very high and my parents were strongly encouraged to get me into music and start my music education. I was already in Choir and Key Club, singing lower range mezzosoprano and upper range contralto, so I was usually singing harmony vocals. Like so many other things in my life, I had very little confidence in my ability to sing. My sister was a songbird with one of the sweetest soprano voices and my family usually reinforced that she had the better singing voice. I wanted to do something musically that I could be good at, too. After some begging and pleading, I convinced my mom and dad that I was willing and committed enough to learn the clarinet.
We got the instrument used, a beginner Armstrong that was made of plastic. I thought it was the most beautiful instrument I had ever seen. After I learned to assemble it I caressed it from mouthpiece to bell. I learned to kiss the mouthpiece with correct embouchure, the reed resting against my bottom lip while my top lip curled up and pressed downward, to bring my chin and mouth in correct position with upper teeth on the top of the mouthpiece. I made a lot of racket with my beloved clarinet in the beginning, but eventually, I learned to play some sweet and pure notes.
As much as I loved learning music theory and how to play the clarinet, I was not able to continue past the second year. Later, during seventh grade, mom and dad moved us south into Georgia and we started school at Gordon Lee in Chickamauga. When I asked if I could resume band and music there, my dad said no. I began to play sports and increased writing my short stories and poems, entering some contests as well. However, my dreams of being a musician died.
My Pa Johnson, my mom’s father, and my dad both had a guitar when I was growing up. Pa would play when my great uncle Hoyt would visit from Fort Worth, Texas. Uncle Hoyt had a banjo, and the two of them would play for hours. Sweet bluegrass could be heard from the tiny little house on Browntown Road in Red Bank, Tennessee. I sat before them, transfixed, watching their fingers and traveling with them on the Orange Blossom Railroad. Dad learned to play a little Jim Croce on his guitar and we would sing together, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “Operator” while dad tapped his foot and I danced around the living room.
Along with dreams of a happy and whole family, my own dreams of playing a musical instrument were soon lost in the ether. As I became a mother, I found I enjoyed singing to my babies and writing little songs for them, which I called their Name Songs. Each of my kids had his or her special song. During the course of the bedtime routine, after baths and stories, I would sing to all of them from the hall that connected their bedrooms as they drifted off to sleep. I wrote sporadically during this time as well, some poetry and short stories, and entered a couple of contests and actually won first place a couple of times, too. However, my children were growing up and my focus was on them, so I put away my girlish notions of being a musical star or famous author.
About five years ago I began to write with a vengeance. My therapist gave me the idea to use writing as a tool to heal from trauma and to discover the truth of my existence so I could come to terms with my past. My writings were mainly therapeutic but they began to transform into creative nonfiction and narrative essay pieces that weren’t half bad. In April 2013 I screwed up my courage and submitted a piece to a magazine, and it was published.
Also, about four years ago, my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas and the answer that fell out of my mouth was, “A guitar.” We looked at several and settled on a cheap Mitchell from Guitar Center. No one heard me complain! Some did hear me struggle as I learned cords and strumming technique, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly. When I met my husband I had written a handful of songs and could play a couple of them, too.
John has been my champion from day one and encouraged me to write, play my guitar, and sing. He believes in my abilities more than I do most of the time.
Last year he surprised me with an early birthday present and gifted me with a Li’l Martin, a parlor size guitar. I had been coveting it and others like it for months as I haunted the local guitar merchants from time to time. I named her Marty, and she’s a sweet-sounding little thing. Despite my insistence that I do not deserve such a fine instrument, my husband disagreed and equally insisted that yes, I do.
This year I found my own birthday present. John and I have been steadily patronizing McKay’s in Chattanooga for A LOT of used books and a few used DVD’s. On our last visit, I had found the books I wanted within the first few minutes so I was aimlessly looking around when I spied the guitars hanging on the far wall in the front. As I approached the counter, I noticed there were some other instruments for sale. I saw there was a violin hanging next to a banjo. On a table below them, I spied a sweet tenor saxophone, a couple of flutes, and a piccolo. The price tags were like neon beacons, bold marker on poster paper cut into jagged star shapes. Some of them seemed reasonable. For instance, one of the flutes was priced at $149.99. However, I had no affinity for that particular instrument.
Bored, I began to turn around and go back to the Modern Literature section when I noticed another instrument at the end and on the right of the display.
It was a clarinet, in its case and disassembled. It looked almost exactly like the one I had in school, and the one my son used when he was in middle school. I looked for a price tag but could not find it.
I asked the clerk if I could look at it. After examining it more closely, I asked about the price. He searched for the tag and finally found it behind the case. To my disbelief, the instrument was for sale for $29.99. I smiled as I thanked him and walked away.
Gliding on air through the store, I made my way back to the Military section where John had set up camp. He could see by the look on my face that I had found something. When I told him about it, we walked up front to look at it together.
After a more thorough inspection which involved assembly, John asked me if I wanted it. Of course I wanted it! I declared that this was my birthday present and showered him with hugs and kisses.
I’ve put it together a couple of times since we brought it home. Though I may never learn to play it well, my clarinet sits next to my guitar in the corner of our bedroom. Knowing the instruments are there gives me a sense of satisfaction. Somehow with their mere presence, they provide a balm for my creative spirit. Holding them brings back all the hopes of a girl whose only desire was to be heard—be it through music, song, or the written word.
Like holding a seashell to my ear to hear the ocean, when I hold this clarinet or my guitar I can hear the sweet voices of my family, all of whom have been gone many years, singing and tapping their feet to the rhythm of a song. They are smiling and laughing as they watch me dance to each tune without any inhibitions. For that wisp of a moment I can hear my purpose rise up clear as I remember my song of hope, so buried by time and scars, and I know who I am and where I belong.
October 5, 2015