Posted by: Phil Anderson | November 10, 2013

How We Remember

You’d think that a lifetime would be long enough to know a person pretty well.

I’ve known my grandma since I was born, but at her funeral this week I heard things about her that I never knew or had forgotten. My view of her was expanded by hearing from people who knew her differently. As a grandson, my own image of her is slightly different than that of my younger cousins, my older cousins, and especially my aunts and uncles, her own children. She was 100 years old, but if any friends or co-workers were still around they would have yet another perspective.

It makes me stop and wonder about the people around me, people I think I know well. There is more to them than what I’ve experienced. Others see them in a different light. What aspects of their character am I missing with my limited point-of-view? How do people, my friends and family and acquaintances, see me?

piano

As a tribute to Grandma and her generation and their influence in my life, here’s a memoir I wrote on the morning of her funeral. It’s based on memories from over thirty-five years ago, so some of the details may be wrong, but the feeling and sentiment are 100% accurate:

Jam Session

 The family was gathered at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. My parents and brothers, some of Mom’s siblings, my cousins, and a great-aunt and -uncle or two. It could be any occasion, maybe a holiday or weekend or no occasion at all.

Dinner was over. People were talking and joking and laughing. I was probably reading a book.

Then Grandma sat down at the piano and started to play. Her brother, Uncle Charles, joined in with his fiddle. Grandpa or an uncle or two picked up the guitar and the banjo and followed along.

Uncle Charles’ wife, Aunt Mattie, also joined in. She didn’t play any instruments, but she didn’t need to. She could whistle, strong and loud, with vibrato and flourishes, better than a bird.

My mom or an aunt eventually took over at the piano, and Grandma switched to the xylophone or marimba, playing chords with two mallets in each hand.

There was no songbook or hymnal, just music. Everyone seemed to know every song, or played by ear as if they did.

An uncle opened a homemade instrument case and took out a violin bow and a saw. Sitting with the handle between his knees, he bent the saw blade with one hand while drawing the bow across the smooth side of it, creating a mellow, slightly eerie tone that warped and wavered with the angle of the cambered blade.

The accordion made an appearance, and perhaps the mouth harp or nose whistle or harmonica. Or one of my favorites: the bones. Grandpa had four slightly curved pieces of wood (or maybe they were actual rib bones, I don’t know). He would hold a pair just so in each hand, and waving his arms and shaking them produced a rattling, clacking rhythm to accompany whatever upbeat song was being played.

Rarely did anyone sing, or even mention the name of a song. Someone would just start and the rest would join in or follow along. I recognized a few old-time popular songs and some hymns from church, but mostly it was just music, pouring over me for hours until I couldn’t stay awake any longer and I drifted off to sleep.

The rhythm and improvisation, melody and harmony still echo in my ears.

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