By Jonny Grave
My father broke his hand.
Our 110-lb. chocolate lab, Pogo, needed a walk one Sunday night in March of 2004. My father obliged, and took the family animal out for an evening constitutional. Dogs, as it turns out, have a penchant for chasing animals who are smaller than them–Pogo was certainly no exception. Down the alleyway adjacent to our house, saw a cat, or a squirrel, or some furry creature whose very existence was crying “Kill me! Kill me!”
This was nothing out of the ordinary, of course. Our dog, who was in every respect great around kids and other dogs, went perpetually apeshit in the presence of a squirrel. My father absentmindedly had the leash draped over his hand, completely unprepared for more than a hundred pounds of dog going from zero to twenty in two seconds. Following his god-given canine instincts, Pogo charged for the animal, the badly-placed leash went taught against my dad’s fingers, ripped a ligament in his left ring finger, and broke a piece of the knuckle in his pinky.
Did I mention he plays guitar?
No, my father, not the dog. My father was once a professional musician, playing all over the DMV, living with the woman who would later be my mother, somehow making a living with a guitar, and still sending money back to his ex-wife and two daughters in Norfolk. He wrote, played, and lived as a guitarist for the better part of five years in the late 70’s. By 1983, he settled down, got married again, took up an amazing job at National Geographic, had a daughter, and became the dignified man that I call dad.
He never stopped playing, though. Guitars were big part of how I grew up. It was rare for my parents to invite company and not have music be a part of it. As far back as I can remember, I was never far from music. It was no surprise to anyone when I picked up the guitar.
When I was thirteen, I asked my father to show me some chords. He wrote out a Gmaj and a Cmaj on a yellow legal pad at breakfast. When I complained that there were only two, he told me to get those down first, and then we’d move on. By the time he got home from work, I had managed to contort my fingers against the strings in a way that would produce a sound somewhat resembling a chord. I told him “I’ve got it! I’m ready for another chord!” Then he told me to try alternating back and forth between the two chords. My hand cramped up, and I realized I had a very, very long way to go.
Only a few years later, my dad was home from the emergency room with his left hand in a splint. Although he stopped most of his gigging more than a decade before breaking his hand, he still played every Sunday at an Ecumenical service, affectionately called the Folk Eucharist, at the Washington National Cathedral. It was a straightforward, simple service, but still required my father to play guitar and lead hymns to a congregation that usually consisted of tourists and first-time visitors to the Cathedral. With his left hand in a splint, and no answers as to when or if he would be able to play again, he was unsure of how to continue his participation in the service.
I didn’t flinch when I said “I could fill in for you.” I was about sixteen, with only a few years of playing experience under my belt. My father smiled, and told me how much he appreciated my offer, but thought we should pursue some more realistic options. It was my mother who put her foot down, and told my father to give me a chance and see what I could do.
This was about two weeks before Easter. The interesting thing about that Folk Eucharist was that it was seen as such a small operation by the Cathedral. The big silver crosses, purple robes, swinging incense and stained-glass pageantry you’d normally associate with the Episcopal church? The don’t want tourists upstairs. They’d rather have the tourists and visitors downstairs, in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, in the crypt, out of sight. The service was seen as such a small operation, the Cathedral opted to not have a Folk Eucharist on Palm Sunday and Easter (for which, I believe they sold tickets for seats in the Nave upstairs).
This meant that I had about two weeks to get my skills up to snuff for not only playing in front of an audience, but also leading songs so that others could sing along. My dad kicked my ass up and down the guitar every night for hours on end. Up to this point in my vast and storied musical career, I knew about ten songs, had played “Norwegian Wood” for my end-of-year guitar class exam, could play the solo from “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” In two weeks, my dad got me ready to lead hymns for a congregation of a hundred tourists at the National Cathedral.
It was more than teaching me new chords, or new strumming patterns, or how to play to an audience. He taught me how to not be afraid of a crowd. He taught me that the guitar isn’t just an instrument– it’s a tool. He taught me that songs written by people who have been dead for more than a hundred years can still bring people together. He showed me a lot in those two weeks.
Now, I’m 26. Ten years after that first Eucharist, I’m working as a professional musician, playing between twelve and twenty gigs a month. I still try to lead songs the way my dad lead the hymns. My dad’s hand got better pretty quick, too. We still play together almost every time I get back to my parents’ house in Silver Spring. He still kicks my ass up and down the guitar. I still ask him to slow down, and show me how to play something again. And, for whatever reason, he’s still patient with me, and still shows me how to play it.