When Papa Plays Guitar

Play, Papa,'' ordered Chelsea, my youngest grandchild, as she and her compatriots Cameron and Zoey, my other grandchildren, deposited a decomposing cardboard guitar case at my feet.

Inside the case lay my 1960 Gibson flattop, which the kids had discovered in a spider-webby corner of the basement. I hadn't so much as looked at it in the last 15 years.

Strings were missing, the neck was warped, and the bridge had pulled away from the body. The instrument was beyond repair. The kids were keenly disappointed, especially after my wife told them I used to play professionally.

``Why in the world did you quit playing?'' my wife suddenly asked. ``I bet you haven't played that guitar 10 times since we've been married.''

She was right. Discarding a guitar after marriage is a trait I may have inherited from my paternal grandfather Salvatore. Nearly every evening after dinner in the summer of 1904, Salvatore filled the Italian neighborhood in Aurora, Minn., with strains of familiar Neapolitan love songs. But he was a man of limited repertoire, and his daily rendering of ``O Sole Mio,'' and ``Come Back To Sorrento,'' soon irritated neighbors. He accompanied himself on an ancient guitar and had difficulty fingering diminished or augmented chords, which enhanced the auditory assault.

The intended audience for Salvatore's serenades was Amelia Fulchi, a recent immigrant from Rosarno, Calabria, where Grandpa was also born and raised.

This romantic ploy of music and song worked, for Salvatore and Amelia were married at the end of August, bringing the nightly concerts to a merciful finale. @bodytextdrop =

Having won Amelia's hand, Salvatore promptly sold his guitar. None of his nine children or 19 grandchildren ever heard him warble a note or strum a chord.

Among Salvatore's and Amelia's offspring, only my father seemed drawn to music. Dad eventually became a charter member of the Duluth (Minn.) Symphony Orchestra. His instrument, however, was the French Horn, and my mother never heard its warm tones from the street below her window during their four-year courtship.

It never would have occurred to my parents that music in the moonlight, played beneath the window of one's beloved, might enrich the relationship. Certainly not if the musician were a swarthy, mustached man with a French horn, blowing Mozartian fugues in Duluth's Scandinavian neighborhood.

In the early 1960s, I became enamored with folk music. I never learned the songs that wooed Grandma, but was greatly attracted to the music of Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs.

After learning a few dozen chords, I managed a quasi-career as a performer in coffeehouses and campus clubs for a few years. Hope for a durable tenure in music or show business was dashed by my inability to truly master the guitar. Like Salvatore, I found diminished and augmented chords difficult to fret. I also possessed a voice that the owner of a St. Paul coffeehouse once described as like the sound of a goat tangled in an electric fence.

But I persisted with the instrument long enough to find the woman who would become my spouse. Like Salvatore, I played and sang for her, until, like Amelia, she relented. Drawing on my grandfather's modeling, I also put the guitar away, mostly out of sight and neglected until discovered by the grandkids.

Last Christmas I purchased a new one. My grandchildren seemed as delighted with it as with any of their presents under our tree. ``Play, Papa,'' they cajoled, and I did. I was surprised at how quickly whatever facility I possessed many years before returned.

The kids weren't interested in my renditions of vintage folk songs, though. Their music was on Barney, or Raffi, or Sesame Street. I didn't know these songs, but I'm learning. The four of us actually belted out a pretty neat interpretation of ``All God's Critters Got A Place In The Choir.''

This year, because of our daughter's economic reversal and failed marriage, my grandchildren now live in our home. In my middle age I'm parenting young children once more.

The kids and I strive to get along in cramped quarters, to respect each other's space and belongings and habits. Once again I'm attempting to impart values, this time through grandfatherly homilies, lectures, and music.

The youngsters may not always listen attentively, but they don't interrupt as my own daughters seemed to when they were growing up.

For their part, the grandkids are giving me a chance to observe and appreciate their stages of development. I savor that now in a way I couldn't, or didn't take time for, when I was a young parent.

So this time around I'm learning their music. ``I love you, you love me. We're a happy family....'' And teaching them some of mine. We laugh and giggle over, ``On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese. I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed.''

Mediocre music, maybe. But then, I was never more than a mediocre musician.

It doesn't matter. When Papa plays his guitar, what's important is that the children know we're gathered as a family in a place where there's love. They're a rapt audience. And there's no mention at all of goats or electric fences.

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