Monday, September 16, 2013

The last time I saw Paris

... was the first time I saw Paris. It took me fifty years to realize a dream.

Four years of high-school French with a fiery little nun, Sister Zita Marie, had planted the seed. By senior year, we were only allowed to speak en Francais in the classroom. It was a heady time of hope and vision. We wrote glowing biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy, the elegantly bilingual First Lady, seated at the side of our handsome President.  Refrains of Camelot filled our innocent young minds. Somehow, teenaged illusions of mythic kingdoms and immortal gods provided the perfect backdrop for our newly "crowned" First Couple. They, and we, were invincible. Jackie took Paris by storm, charming DeGaulle. The French were in love. But, then again, aren't the French always in love? French class was the perfect place to nurture fairytale dreams of romance and happy endings. Paris, the City of Light and Love.

Sister Zita fanned the flame. Looking back, I am certain that the good sister had quite a history of her own. She, who warned us not to wear the color red nor patent-leather shoes, was a passionate woman at heart. I can see that now. It was just hard to picture any nun, almost totally covered in black, as a real woman. I suspect that my teacher had at least walked along the Left Bank with a lover before she took up her vocation. There was just too much life in the lady to contain her to rosary beads and the color black. Seriously, how did she deduce that "red excites men"? Oh, Sister, you were imparting much more than a French vocabulary lesson in that classroom!

Camelot crumbled on a sunny day in Dallas. Dreams and illusions of youth, romance, and enduring love dissolved in the wake of gunshots. Later, other assassinations would follow. As children of the '60s, we paid a terrible price for our coming of age.

Yet, my desire to see, to experience Paris, endured. It remained a distant possibility through many years of marriage, children, divorce, and new directions.

It wasn't until I found a group of younger friends online, that my trip to Paris became a reality. Oui, I spent one glorious week en Paris last November. It seems that some dreams do come true.

Look for a Paris Retrospective, coming soon!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Man with a banjo

My dad, Joe, was a banjo man. He lived through two world wars and a great depression. For him, music was a way to make sense of life's more painful and confounding moments. It was blue-collar therapy.

He was mostly self taught. The music was in his genes. He played through his sorrows but also his joys. I don't think I ever heard a more striking sound. It was a constant in my growing-up years. And, when I was old enough to learn a keyboard instrument, Dad was ready to teach me the songs of his youth: the depression-era jazz tunes, the bluesy sounds of New Orleans and, of course, the polkas and waltzes that were so much a part of our Polish American heritage. I learned gladly. This was something so special ... I on my accordion, dad on his banjo. He was passing down his favorite songs. We didn't need music books. This was just a hand-me-down form of fatherly love. I lapped it up like a puppy.

The years passed. I grew up, married, and started a family of my own. Dad became a grandfather. The music that was such a part of my early life seemed to fade away amidst the newfound responsibilities of parenthood. Dad, too, became more involved with his new role as "pop pop" and somehow did not feel the need to play his banjo anymore. It was put away. Sadly, I don't think the kids ever heard him make music. He died, quite suddenly, when they were still very young. And the banjo music was, indeed, forever silenced.

Yet, life is full of surprises and serendipitous moments.

The first Christmas after my dad's death, a close friend who was a social worker asked me to entertain at a Christmas party for a local housing project. There was such a void in my life that Christmas. I was still grieving my loss, missing Dad so much. Something made me take my accordion to this event. I figured that providing a bit of holiday music for others might help mitigate my own sadness. The only thing missing would be dad at my side with his banjo.

So I went. The party was a great mix of young and old, residents of the apartment complex and nearby youth centers. About halfway through my repertoire of Christmas songs, I noticed a silver-haired gentleman standing on the sidelines really watching me play and tapping his feet to the music. I smiled and he came over to talk. He was about 60-65 years old and shyly asked if he could join in.

His name was Joe and he played the banjo.

Once I nodded an okay, he went up to his room and came back in a few minutes with his instrument - a tenor banjo, just like my dad's. Now that the kiddie Christmas music was mostly done, we tuned up and started to play one song after another. It was like we had been playing together for years. All the songs my Dad taught me, this Joe also knew. We played on and on. It was such a gift. I felt like my dad was there with us, just lighting up the room with his smile.

The party ended. Joe and I packed up our instruments and shook hands. I told him how much his music meant to me and why. He just smiled and seemed to understand. And then he went back to his room at the project and I went home to my life as a wife and mother. We never saw each other again.

Many years later, I watch with pleasure as my granddaughter, Sophie, becomes very interested in learning the ukelele. Playing the strings seems to come to her quite naturally. She is with me when I take my dad's old banjo to a family friend, a master woodsman, who actually restores the instrument to its former glory. He offers it to her to pluck a bit. She plays some chords and smiles shyly back at me. I have a lump in my throat.

There is something about a banjo ...