When we find answers to old questions during the pandemic
Wednesday at 8:23 pm
As the horns section hums out the harmonies in a cumbia, my mother asks me in Spanish with a wonder that makes her smile, “How is it that music is made?”
I wonder why she doesn’t ask me in English if this is the language she and I usually use. Instead she asks, ¿Cómo harán la música?
The conjugation in her old question about music makes the answer seem imminent.
I shake my head, keep driving, listen to the cumbia. I wonder how so many pieces fall in place together. Some of the music we hear goes back so far; my mother contemplates how musicians learned the melodies by ear.
Last year this time, I told my mother I bought a guitar. My grandfather, who died when my mom was ten, played guitar and sang. He lived the life of a musician, unfortunately.
“We’ll see if my grandfather’s musical genes skipped me,” I joked.
I want to play a bolero or “California Dreamin’.” But the finger picking goes too fast. I need to stare at the guitar’s neck so my finger lands on the right fret, on the right string, at the right time. Instead, I want to look carefree.
“You’ll learn. Just practice and practice,” my mother says motioning her hands as if strumming a guitar. She smiles.
When my mom needs a break from caring for my father, I’ll take her for a ride. “C’mon, Mom,” I always say in Spanish, pa’ que te dé el aire.” So the air, literally, gives to her.
During the pandemic, we can’t go many places. So we drive: on the expressway, up and down Lake Shore Drive, through the South Loop past the spot where she dined on steaks, big salads, and baked potatoes with my father in the 60s. Through DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus.
I point to buildings I learned in. Some, like my graduate school building, replaced by expensive architecture. I think about how I almost cancelled my opportunity to start that master’s program because of a bad financial decision I made at twenty-six. I sat at my mother’s kitchen table. I tried to hold everything in, close to me like a guitar. But I let it go; I cried.
My mother hugged me and hugged me and said she would take out as many loans as she needed to help me through. Thankfully, she didn’t have to. I found a way out.
In that kitchen, my mother taught me how to dance: to cumbias, to norteñas. She played cassettes at night and danced with me when I was ten.
My mom says she misses the hugs during the pandemic. “I know, Mom,” I say and pat her shoulder while wearing my mask in the kitchen of her new home. Sometimes, I give in. While wearing my mask, I hold my breath, and give her a quick embrace when I say good bye.
A few years ago in this kitchen, she showed me what she wrote after seeing a photo of her mother: “Sometimes, when you see a photo of someone you lost, don’t you wish you could jump in and give one more hug?”
At night, I play guitar.
Mostly a string at a time, a simple melody in some classic song the guitar app helps me strum. The rhythm of my right thumb sometimes lands a half beat late or early. The high string tings; the low one hums. Each note, I tell myself, must resonate, must fade into the other the way memories flow in that space behind our eyes, each one elapsing into the next.
I catch myself tensing, not breathing when I practice. Then I relax, remind myself each note must release itself like breath.
The chords, I strum back to back, one beat in between. G major reminds me of parties where my mother sang. C major sounds like the start of something. E major announces a change. F major sounds like something needs to follow.
With the capo on the fourth fret, I strum the chords and think of incantations—soothing ones, not wicked–like a lullaby that soothes us to our soul, something sung in our mother’s voice moments before we fall asleep.
Strumming the guitar, its sounds vibrating at my core, I fall back into the earliest memory of my mother.
She must have been around thirty, dressed in a long gown, a red one, her wrist adorned with a broad bracelet. Her hair swirled up and, maybe, she pinned flowers to a curl. At the end of the night at a some party, when I was maybe four, I must have scratched my ear and moped. I crawled into her lap where she swayed me in her arms.
She continued talking. She agreed. She laughed. She shared her words. With my head resting against her bosom, the vibrations of her voice, her joy soothed me until I disappeared into myself with sleep comforted by a rhythm I sometimes hear in music made from some memory long ago.
Follow me on Twitter @whiterhinoray.
To subscribe to the White Rhino Blog, scroll down on your phone or go to the right side of this page on your computer.
You get one email when I post. This subscription is spam free and you can opt out any time.