My Long-Sought Pleasure: A Silent Musical Treasure

To most people, an accordion is an instrument with about as much class as a nose flute. Concert sites tend toward veterans' halls and parking lots. Dress-up to aficionados means dirndl skirts or lederhosen. But in spite of its cheesy reputation, I wanted an accordion, badly.

For years I scouted garage sales. A couple of squeeze boxes turned up, but one sprouted mildew in the folds of its bellows and the other was priced at $150, too much for a whim that clung like a barnacle. Finally, about a year ago I was driving with my kids on a suburban road not far from where I live, when I spotted an estate-sale sign. Almost of its own accord, my foot slid from gas pedal to brake. The boys squawked a little at this detour, but a $2 budget mollified them. We trooped into the house, past stacks of decades-old National Geographics, and there, propped up on the harvest-gold sofa, flanked by Melmac plates and ceramic greenware, was my accordion.

It was gorgeous, a real eye-catcher in its crushed-blue-velvet-lined box. It reminded me of a tuxedo with its ebony plastic casing and white bellows edged in black. Shiny steel script spelled "Enrico Rossetti" next to an Art Deco-style grille. Other accordions I'd seen, garishly tramped-up with fake mother-of pearl and red accents, were so tacky by comparison. This one was restrained, sophisticated - and mine, if I could just play it cool.

I let the kids pick through the merchandise a while before I sauntered over to the next-of-kin selling off Grandma's earthly possessions. How much? I asked, tossing in a chuckle, as though the accordion amused me but certainly didn't interest. "Fifty bucks," snapped the inheritor, turning back to another customer and a hot deal she had going over a stack of glass dessert bowls. A shiver fishtailed down my spine. Without hesitation, I whipped out my checkbook. Forget dickering; I'd pay and scamper out the door before it dawned on anybody that I was getting a steal.

With the accordion safely loaded in the back of my station wagon, I rushed home. My kids, of course, accepted the purchase with only one question: "Can we play with it?" They got their money's worth in a rubber band ball and an incomplete set of poker chips. "You play with your toys," I said, "and I'll play with mine."

Breathless to share my happy news, I called a friend who regards herself as an "artsy" type trapped in the suburbs. "I found it," I bubbled, "my dream accordion!" The line nearly crackled with silence. Upping my enthusiasm a notch, I gushed about the accordion's luster, its color scheme, my years-long search. The concept hit my friend's finer sensibilities with a thud. She just didn't get it. Same thing happened with my best friend, Elaine, who knows enough about music to sing in the symphony chorus of a major city. "What are you going to do with an accordion?" she asked, perplexed. "You don't even play." And I thought she knew me.

Finally, I called Susan. She's an artist who stockpiles mummified rodents as models for sketching. A lovely person, really, with her own student-sized accordion slashed in a closet. "Fabulous!" she said. "Tell me all about it."

At last. In a show of solidarity, Susan sent me a book of beginning accordion songs. Only problem is, I don't know how to read music. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Spivey, saw to that when she socked me with a "D" because I failed to catch on to musical notation.

OK, so those Philistines I call friends have a point: If I don't play the accordion and never intend to learn, why do I love it so? Two reasons: 1) A design so impractical, so anti-elegant that one can't help embracing the instrument like a homely but endearing dog. And, 2) nostalgia.

This accordion lust traces back to my pre-Beatles elementary years in the early 1960s. Every Wednesday after school we Catholic kids headed off to catechism while several Protestant classmates hauled their accordions to lessons. I'd watch jealously, pining to sling those felt-backed straps over my shoulders and heft that wheezing one-way ticket to popularity.

Someday, I dreamed, I'd walk into a seventh-grade boy-girl party, coolly hitch on my accordion, then galvanize the crowd with a hip rendition of "The Beer Barrel Polka." It had worked at my cousins' weddings. We kids, the up-and-coming generation of polka fiends in my German-American extended family, would grab each other to twirl and stomp across the floor, swept away in an accordion-fueled frenzy. On the bandstand, guys with shaving brushes stuck in their green pork-pie hats pumped like crazy, muscles popping under their white short-sleeved shirts.

I've found accordions alluring ever since, like batons for twirling and tap-dance shoes. In my family (I was the fourth of eight children) there was no money for these kinds of lessons, then considered character-rounding extras for girls and talent potential for Miss America pageants.

As a kid with only five cents to spend, I imagined growing up, walking into a candy store, and slapping down enough cash for a grocery-bag full of Tootsie Roll Pops, Pixie Stix, and Mars Bars. I also craved a horse and a cowgirl's life, but made do with circular pony rides at the county fair and plastic broncos on my birthday cake. Eventually, I outgrew those fantasies.

But not the accordion.

I'll never play it. Someday, though, I'll hang my Enrico Rossetti on the wall - if I can figure out how to keep it up there without it tearing off the wallboard.

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