Grandpa's harmonica

Grandpa's harmonica

“No sound, once made, is ever truly lost. In electric clouds, all are safely trapped, and with a touch, if we find them, we can recapture those echoes of sad, forgotten wars, long summers, and sweet autumns.” 
― Ray Bradbury, Now and Forever

Nearly every time my daughter plays her harmonica, I think of Grandpa, who was a terrific harmonica player. I think of his hands shimmying up and down the instrument, his eyes either closed in concentration, or looking at us for our smiles and applause, his cheeks pulling in and out with each breath. His youngest brother also loved the harmonica, and I remember the two of them playing hymns together when his family was visiting from Florida. It was heaven on earth. 

Recently, my father has been teaching himself to play the harmonica, and in the past few weeks, he and my daughter have had a few "dueling harmonica" sessions compliments of FaceTime — absolutely precious to watch and hear. 

I was thrilled to learn my maternal great grandfather (on my father's side) played numerous instruments too — guitar, violin, banjo, mandolin, clarinet, and... harmonica. According to my uncle, when the extended family got together, Great Grandpa would break out his guitar with a harmonica attached and play the old standards while everyone sang. This was decades before I was born, but I can picture the scene in my mind, can imagine my daughter dancing in the middle of the room as she does now whenever and wherever music is played. 

Music is a tie that binds memories, generations, people from different countries and decades of history, and family — even family who aren't bound by DNA. And that truth was beautifully clear during a very special family gathering in Norway last summer.

The evening was crisp, cool, and breezy, typical of a Norwegian summer night. Guests were arriving for a meal together in a relative's gorgeous restored barn space, attached to their home overlooking the rocky coast and sea. Candles, fresh flowers, and decorative napkins graced the long tables in the room. The small windows showed the night outside still looked like daylight, the midnight sun of summertime. More than 50 people of all ages filled the room, people connected by the same ancestors (whose portraits sat on the head table for everyone to view during the night) even though some of them had never met before because oceans had separated them. Over food and drinks, conversations in Norwegian and English bounced across the tables. Children bounced between the tables, chasing each other and relishing each other's company. And then came the music...   

The Norwegian word for extended family is tremmeling, and the term is often used to refer to the outer circles or branches of a family tree. My generation is in those outer circles, the great grandchildren who are now starting our own families and trying to keep the history and heritage alive for our children's children and grandchildren. And the musician who had my daughter spellbound that night is in that outer circle with me. 

When he began to play the hardingfele, a traditional Norwegian folk violin, the room got quiet. I looked around and saw the faces glowing by candlelight, the faces which reflected some of the same features of my American-born cousins and uncles.

When my eyes rested on my daughter — who was now stomping her feet in time with the music and swinging her arms as she held the hands of the people beside her — I was struck by the bittersweetness of the moment: would she ever have an experience like this, among her birth people, in her homeland? Where she'd see relatives who looked like her? Where she'd be dancing to the music of her birth heritage?

Loss and grief are part of her story, and they cannot be separated from her, and their sounds will echo throughout her life. For that moment though, she was enraptured by the sweet sound of the hardingfele, deep joy evident on her face and in her little body keeping time with the music, in her hands connected with hands of her adoptiv extended family. And it was a sight to behold.

ICYMI: Read about the incredible moment I experienced in the Norwegian cemetery where my great grandparents were buried.