City of Winnipeg | Libraries

The Guitar that Sang My Mother’s Song

I remembered the days my mother took me out to window-shop. I would hum and even skip instead of simply walking by her side. I held her hand often with a loose grip, always letting go quickly as I ran to push my nose onto the shop windows, trying to see what I liked as if I could go any closer. It was only a matter of time before she would take my hand again, pull me away from each window and I would follow.
One day, I was intrigued by something I had never seen before. Across from where I stood, the thing leaned back slightly on an odd stick that held it up. It was wide and had a hole just above the middle of the surface. Coming from the hole, a long, rectangular, flat board divided into smaller rectangles had a few dots on it. The very top of it had six nubs and six keys that came from the sides. From each nub, there was a string attached to the middle of its body, arranged, equal in distance from each other on top of its board. It was polished beautifully.
“Mom, mom! What’s this?” I asked excitedly, looking over my shoulder and at her, tapping on the glass lightly.
She caught up with me and smiled a little. “Bunso*, that’s a guitar.” I noticed that she was captivated by it like I was, her eyes fixed on the guitar.
My mother took my hand and gently pulled. This time, I didn’t move from where I stood. I glanced back and forth between her and the guitar. With a soft sigh, she smiled once more and pointed towards inside the guitar shop. I followed her as she lead us inside, looking around and at the numerous guitars either leaning back on the same kind of holder or hanging high up on the sides of the wall.
After exploring the store, Mother asked about recommendations for a guitar. She was given two to consider. One was the same thing as the one at the front of the store, and the other was different, having non-symmetrical sides. I covered my ears as the working man from the store ran his fingers across the strings of each guitar a few times in a non-musical manner while my mother held the other.
Mother picked the duplicate. “The simplest is best.”

♪ ♫ ♪

It wasn’t until after a few busy days my mother took the guitar out of its case and touched it. The morning sun peeked through the curtains of the living room where I had been playing with my dolls while Mother plucked the guitar’s strings randomly, sitting in front of the curtains. What seemed to be a proper sound finally came from the guitar’s sound hole. I dropped my dolls without hesitation and scrambled towards my mother to watch her play the instrument.
The guitar sang a mellow tune. I wondered how it was that music came from it.
“Mom, is the guitar alive?”
“Then how does it sing?”
“I can make it sing,”
I was in awe of how my mother had the ability. It didn’t occur to me despite all the stories that she told me. Perhaps it had been Mother’s magic. The living room seemed to be so much brighter; the beige walls reflected rays of the morning sunshine that managed to pass the curtains. I could hear the spring winds that blew through tree leaves from outside in Mother’s song. Mother was like an angel with the sun behind her.
“Is it light?”
“Only if you think it is,”
“Do you think I can learn how to play the guitar?”
“Only when you’re older honey. It takes a while to appreciate it.”
I didn’t understand. I was seven.

♪ ♫ ♪

My ears caught wind of the guitar’s low hum. Mother was playing an empty melody. I sat in front of her, watching like I always did during the times she played the guitar. The setting sun was already out of sight and the moon was out, shining brightly in the dark night sky. The walls were no longer beige but pure white; the plain, brown guitar in her arms contrasted with the bleak loneliness of the walls.
Mother sat on a bed with white sheets, wearing a white gown. Her hair was shorter. There were tubes that punctured her arm, attached to the bag of transparent liquid, held up by the cold silver stand. Although she looked weary, her smiling face seemed to glow as the white fluorescent light behind her illuminated the side of her pale face. Her eyes held a transparent secret.
The guitar’s last harmonic blend bounced off the walls of the sterile room. Beyond it, I heard a soft cry. My mother hadn’t said anything and all was quiet except for the remaining hum in my ear. I stood up and took the stringed instrument from her. It was heavier than the many times I carried it.
“Bunso*, take care of the guitar.”
I put it on the guitar stand, in the most careful way I have ever done before. My eyes were fixed on the fluorescent light and its low hum faded into silence.

♪ ♫ ♪
The first two days of Mother’s funeral service were packed with family and friends. I stayed at the foyer of the funeral home, greeting the invited guests that came through the door. All I received in return was a smile I didn’t understand and a pat on my head.
Mother’s final funeral service was the most full. With a smile, I greeted guests just as I had done in the earlier services, thanking them for coming without much thought. There was an unsettling feeling in my stomach that was starting to sink in as I became conscious of how they smiled back.
The guitar leaning back on its stand beside the mahogany casket distracted me from listening to the pastor’s message. A soft low hum once again visited my ears.

We all stood around the burial site with numb, worn faces. Snowflakes touched my cheeks as they fell around us, melting before it ran down as water. Time was frozen though; eyes were locked on the casket above the open grave as the pastor lead the final prayer while the winter winds sang a hymn in a low hum. I imagined that the closed casket was still open, able to see Mother’s peaceful, snowy face, radiant despite lacking the colour of life on her cheeks.

♪ ♫ ♪

That night, I stared at the ceiling for hours, lying down on my bed. The faint hue of pink and orange was gone from the sky and I couldn’t see the walls of my bedroom in the darkness. I strangely felt empty. I glanced over to where my mother’s guitar stood, then stood up and kneeled before it. Still in darkness, I closed my eyes and tried to find comfort in remembering how Mother played. Instead, my fingers had found their way onto the fretboard, pressing down on strings just as my mother had done. I ran a finger through the strings slowly and immediately regretted it—it wasn’t the same.
The guitar was silent. “Why?” I asked no one in particular. “Sing.” I heard nothing.
Unknown anger rose up from my chest and I instinctively grabbed the instrument by the neck roughly off its stand.
“Sing!” I could feel the tears forming in my eyes, but alas, it was still silent.
Dropping to my knees with the guitar in my small hands, I sat there for a while. I finally let out a grieving cry. Alone in the dark, I remembered looking for the walls of my bedroom for comfort, but it was only the endless darkness that surrounded me. My cries had become a minor chord, echoing from the depths of my strung heartstrings. I was a newborn infant again—cut cordless and separated from its mother, mourning.
My tears stopped. I raised my eyes to nothing and realized. I was still alone—the guitar didn’t sing my mother’s spring song. I needed to hear it. I knew the chords and progression by heart, because of the many times I watched my mother play. I struck the first chord. And the second. Then the rest. Mother’s spring song no longer had the happiness I once heard in it; it was compelled by such heartache that the stringed instrument didn’t sing, but wailed.
The guitar was the only thing that could empathize with me, the only company needed.

♪ ♫ ♪

The guitar still leans back on the stand in its own corner of my room. I never take it from its position unless there is something to share, whether it be joy, sadness, anger. It has become heavier yet lighter. I learned many songs, firmly pressed down chords, and sung them through the guitar, but I keep Mother’s song closest to my heart.
As I close my eyes to reminisce, I see my hand letting go of my mother’s, her back turned. There is a light lingering hum of Mother’s song in the air. Sing.

Bunso* – A term that refers to the youngest child in the family

Leave a Reply