When I was four years old, I asked everyone to call me “Cowboy Bob.” I can hear myself pausing indignantly and growling, “Don’t call me Lucy. Call me Cowboy Bob.” I cannot recall how long this phase lasted, what prompted it to start nor what caused it to end, but when I think of this era in my life, I smile.
About the same time, perhaps a year or so later, I received a gift from my parents– a ukulele. What I really wanted was a guitar and, in all honesty, I was offended by this toy-ish instrument. Didn’t they take me seriously? Didn’t they know I was ready for the real thing? I was almost six, and in my mind I was an adult already. I don’t know if Cowboy Bob and the ukulele are linked, but somehow I feel they are.
In the 40 or so years that have passed since then, my musical life took a lot of twists and turns but never took off. I begged for piano lessons. Got piano lessons. Begged to quit piano lessons. Quit. I got a guitar. Took lessons. Never practiced. Quit. And at some point, I put away all instruments for a long time.
Somewhere in my 30’s, the guitar called to me. I picked it up and this time I didn’t quit. I don’t have the soul of a virtuoso, nor the patience to practice enough to truly master an instrument, but I found out why I was so drawn to these instruments and to music. An unknown, untrained place deep in a corner of my heart told me I that I needed to put my stories to music to save them, to savor them, to share the beautiful truths that lived in them.
I bought a ukulele and started playing it again. It felt so at home in my hands, like it belonged there, like it was always supposed to be there. Why on earth had I ever put it down?
Recently, I was looking on ebay at vintage ukuleles– old instruments with dings and nicks and personality. I wasn’t looking for a fancy or expensive instrument, but one that had a history in it. When I came across a uke with the Harmony logo on it, I recognized it instantly and realized I already had what I was looking for. It was on a shelf at my parent’s house.
One phone call to my mother, a few days of waiting, a UPS delivery, and voila! My old ukulele was back in my hands. I put new strings on immediately and tightened the sticky tuning gears to get them hold a tune. I admired the nicks and dings in the uke’s body, history that I had put there myself.
Almost immediately, the ukulele began to show me a song. It was about coming home and about being welcomed back; about what we toss away and what we carry forward; about what makes us leave and what causes us to return. Most of all, it was about the “knowing” that is always with us but that sometimes takes a long time to learn.
Looking back, I realize that Cowboy Bob had an important piece of wisdom for me that I knew all along and yet had missed at the same time. The cowboy in me was saying loud and clear: “Take me seriously. Listen to me. I have something to say!”
I had tossed aside the ukulele because I misjudged it, underestimated it, didn’t think it was big enough or serious enough to hold all my intentions, my ambitions. And yet, many years later, I found it was the only instrument I ever needed.
I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.
For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.
My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.
When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.
The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day. And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.
But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?
Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?
So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself? Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?
When you think of the word “home,” what comes to mind? A favorite room? A refuge from the hectic pace of daily life? A space for family meals and traditions? A gathering place for celebrations?
If we polled an audience with this question, we would likely have as many different memories, dreams and stories as people in the audience. I would venture to guess that no one would chime in with words like, “Lumber! Drywall! Nails! Plywood!,” because home goes so much deeper than the walls and shelter a house provides.
Whether home is an apartment you rent or a house you own, having a decent, safe, affordable place to live gives us a foundation to hold all the other layers of our existence– family, work, school, play, hopes, future.
The faces in this video tell the story better than any words can capture. The photos come from two very different places, but reflect the same joy. In Winona, Minnesota, we watch as a single mom receives a home for her family through the “Women Build” program of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. In Zacapa, Guatemala, an extended family of two parents, children and a grandmother gain a home of their own through Habitat International.
I had the chance to visit this terrain of affordable housing, which was my field of work many years ago, because friends of mine, Jean Leicester and Barbara McAfee, asked me to create a video for their song, “More Than A House.”
Barbara– a singer-songwriter and a wise teacher on how to find and use your own voice– sings the lead and is backed up by the Twin Cities’ reggae band New Primitives. Topping it off, the chorus is sung by members of the Morning Star Singers, a local hospice choir, who volunteered to help. Choir member Julie Bonde, who is a Habitat volunteer, generously offered photos and video from her building trip to Guatemala. Jean, also a long-time Habitat volunteer, gathered images from a project in her community that she helped build.
As the saying goes, “many hands make quick work.” I would add that many hands joined in the spirit of love and directed toward a common cause make very joyful work, as well. This is certainly true of the writing and recording of this song, with so many talented voices lending their time to bring Jean and Barbara’s creation to life. And it certainly can also be true of efforts to make a difference in addressing the need for affordable housing.