Mari Katherine Raftopoulos: Her lessons, our soundtrack
His fingers gently glide along the thin strings and the melody echoes throughout the valley.
The sun is setting while the moon peaks out from behind the mountain range. To the west, the clouds string across the skyline in colors of pink and purple like cotton candy, and to the east the sky is settling into a deep blue tone. In front of me is the most beautiful sight — three cowboys and one guitar making music on the front porch.
He may miss a chord or two, but he recovers nicely and it seems like the mishap was planned. If you heard his voice and the chords come together, you would think he had been playing for years.
But, he has only been playing since December.
He holds his small notepad with purpose, closes his eyes and listens to the recommendations from the other two cowboys. He hums the tune to himself, nods and his eyes brighten.
He then scratches out a few words and writes a more fitting rhyme above the scribbles. And, he sings lyrics of a song he wrote.
“But it’s good to see your face around these parts again, yeah we got ourselves a lot of catching up to do.”
My younger brother has wanted a guitar every Christmas since he was 5. Every year, at the beginning of November, my mother would ask us to make a wish list for Christmas, of little trinkets we desired, items we needed, and a “big” present that we dreamed of owning.
Nearly every year, my younger brother would write under the big present sub-title “country guitar.” Still, for some reason the guitar came 12 years later, last Christmas, the last Christmas we would share with our mother.
It was as if she knew that he would need it in the months to come, as if she knew we would need it.
The guitar has become a symbol of peace for him, and for all us. When we circle around him playing the guitar and singing, life slows down and becomes simple again. And for this reason, we hope that there will be an encore.
I remember the months that followed Christmas, he would invite me into his room where he spent hours in front of the computer learning the chords and rhythms off YouTube. After intense practice, he would ask me to name the tune that he was strumming.
“Friends in Low Places?”
No? Hmm, OK, “Banana Pancakes?”
No again. OK, I got it now. “My Girl,” by the Temptations.
After multiple tries, he would get frustrated and reveal the secret.
“No, Mari Katherine, it is ‘Carrying Your Love with Me,’ by George Strait,” he said.
This never discouraged him and, once I left, he would continue to practice for hours. We share a wall, and faintly I could hear him practicing. I would light a candle, settle down in front of my desk, and begin to write about small musings, new philosophies and that very experience. I was inspired by his dedication.
I write and he plays his guitar. This is how we individually cope with the rollercoaster ride we have been on lately. Those very late night practices and creative lyrics helped me understand him.
Through the wall, I heard every missed chord, each out of tune note and each redo. At the same time, through the wall, I heard every success,, and every time his shy voice became confident, and listened as a hobby became a passion.
All of this brought him in front of more than 1,000 people when performing after my mother’s funeral. This time, everyone could name that tune, “I Love My Husband and I Love My Three Kids.”
Again, it is like she knew he would need the guitar in the months to come and so would we.
This is just one example of how my mom prepared us for her departure. While I was away at school, she helped the boys become familiar with the customs of the kitchen. Every night before bed, she would share with me stories of her past and the lessons each one taught her.
Even now, she continues to give.
On this beautiful summer night, when the white front porch feels a little lonely and the flower beds looks awfully bare, the soft whispers of the wind seem to harmonize with us as we sing.
It is little moments like this when she reassures us that she will never miss a beat of our lives.