BY JAY REISS
When I tell people that one of my biggest fears is a banjo, they tend to laugh. No, I am not lying, and yes, it is a perfectly reasonable fear to have. I am not afraid to simply look at a banjo, nor am I afraid of the sound, the timbre, the unusual proportions of the neck and body, nor the type of people one might associate with playing banjos. To this day, Kermit the Frog is one of the best banjo players I know. But once a banjo is placed in my lap, the thought of tuning it or even plucking one string makes me fear for my safety. Banjos love to inflict bodily harm with their metal wire strings, thin enough to slice a block of cheese without a second thought, rust engraved into them after years of weathering. The high tension under which any string may give out if disturbed is enough to send one recoiling faster than you can blink, only to end up slashing your hand or eye. And do not get me started on banjos without a resonator.
What’s a resonator? Good question. A banjo resonator is essentially a circular plate that covers the back of the banjo, and it serves two purposes: the first is to adjust the way the sound vibrates, while the second is to prevent the jagged metal screws (you know, the ones needed to hold the Kevlar head to the frame?) from digging into your skin and leaving scrape marks up and down your chest as you lightly press the banjo’s body against yours. These are not the type of screws that come to a fine point at the tip, but rather the ones blunted into semi-flat ends so that they drag across your skin like sandpaper. I speak from experience, of course. You do not develop a fear of banjos without experiencing one’s wrath.
Growing up, my household possessed exactly one banjo—a banjo with the screws that scrape, strings that rust, and tension waiting to give out. It was a five-string banjo with nineteen or twenty-something frets, meaning it was on the longer side of the banjo spectrum. Despite the instrument being a blatant deathtrap, my father liked to say it was the closest thing we had to a family heirloom. Despite it being, as my father liked to say, the closest thing we had to a family heirloom, it was kept in a banjo case that was falling apart at the seams, and subsequently buried in the back corner of my father’s closet. The banjo stayed there for most of my childhood and only made enough appearances throughout to keep me vaguely aware that we owned it.
The banjo was a family heirloom, in part, because my aunt was the one who built it. Her appearances throughout my childhood were about as frequently as the banjo’s emergence from the closet. She would often show up to our house without warning, pulling into the driveway with her light blue station wagon, the trunk of which she had filled to the brim with hammers and screwdrivers and saws and canvas and tarps and nuts and bolts and washers and hard hats and vests and ropes and drills and rulers and tape and you name it. She was, and still is, a modern day Rosie the Riveter.
My earliest childhood memories of her consist of fixing the solar powered light we had overlooking the ramp to our porch. She was the one who gave us the light in the first place since she runs her own solar company, and therefore she was really the only person qualified to fix it. But that never stopped me from trying my best to help—the best that a six-year-old could do when it comes to electrical engineering. Looking back, I wonder how much of what I did was helpful versus how much just got in the way. Once while she worked, I asked my aunt if she was a boy or girl. I do not know if gender stereotypes had actually confused me or if I was just a smartass, but she took the question in stride and helped me work through the question to the logical conclusion— ‘aunt’ implies female. In any case, she never stopped me from sitting by her side as she fixed the porch light.
The nooks and crannies of the light were always covered in cobwebs, which freaked me out because, along with banjos, I was deathly afraid of spiders. I do not distinctly remember seeing any spiders. However, I do remember seeing ladybugs that had managed to crawl inside the light before eventually dying. My aunt and I would unscrew the plastic casing of the light, only to find the motionless red circles strewn about the interior. The dead ladybugs never bothered me too much and I do not remember what was ever said about them, if anything, but that image has stayed with me for a long time. Little, bittersweet details like these are what stand out in my memory. The porch light was not the only gift from my aunt. Once, a tricycle she had found decomposing somewhere and salvaged became a present she gifted to me. My aunt wrapped tin foil around the tricycle to prevent further rusting. Despite its crude appearance, it was my first tricycle and I spent hours on it. Then there was the canoe that my aunt and I patched with duct tape shortly before we paddled out onto a summer’s lake. Learning to canoe with my aunt was an immeasurable gift—aside from the spiders onboard. I did not abandon ship in the middle of that lake, but had there been banjos on the canoe, it might have been a different story.
As a child, it seemed like my aunt could fix anything.
Just like the porch light, or the tricycle, or the canoe, the banjo in the back of my father’s closet was something she had salvaged, fixed up, and finally gifted. The banjo was a present my aunt gave her sister—my mother. I am not sure what year the banjo was built or when it was gifted. It was certainly before I was born—but I never asked anyone. I felt uncomfortable asking anyone too much about the banjo. I felt too uncomfortable asking anyone too much about my mother. After all, my mother had breast cancer and passed away shortly before my third birthday.
It was June 15th, 1999.
It was my parent’s 13th wedding anniversary.
The banjo is, as my father likes to say, the closest thing we have to a family heirloom, in part, because my aunt created it, but mostly because it belonged to my mother. In some ways, the banjo is the most physical representation of my mother still around. On the head of the banjo, between the tuning pegs at the top, inlaid in mother of pearl, is the letter S for her name—Spring.
Quite honestly, I do not know to what extent my mother played that banjo. It would not surprise me if it sat in the back of my parents’ closet even before her death. Since I was so young when she passed, I do not have any memories of her. I do not remember ever being told my mother died. It just was. This put me in a very strange position throughout my life. My mother’s death was a huge event, sending out ripples ever since that have shaped the course of my life and who I am. But I do not remember any of it, and therefore I am not able to feel the full effect of devastation that my father, older sister, and aunt have felt. That is something my aunt could not fix.
When the subject of parents came up in school, the phrase, “my mom passed away when I was two,” just rolled off the tonged, a memorized response I learned to repeat. Just like the ladybugs in the porch light, the notion of death bore so little weight in my mind—or so I want to think. I want to say I did not fully understand the concept of death, but that cannot be true. I vividly remember crying the first time I realized I would eventually die—that everybody dies at some point. And I remember having a constant fear for my father’s life. After all, he was already forty-two years old when I was born. I definitely understood the threat of death.
I am forced to accept that my lack of grieving for my mother is a product of not having truly known her. This is an obvious realization—I already said I have no memories of her. Just like how I had no connection to any of those ladybugs. But this kind of thinking proves problematic when raised and surrounded by people who have felt that loss. You feel like you should feel that loss too. I feel horrible about it, but the truth is that I am not the person I would have been if my mother had lived to raise me, and I like the person that I have become. I would not want to change everything I have gone through to get to this point. So, how am I to feel?
Last year, my aunt came to visit for Christmas and we took out my mother’s banjo. At that time, it was likely not in the back of my dad’s closet anymore, since in recent years my dad and I have fiddled around with it more and more. Likewise, I feel more comfortable asking questions about my mother. My aunt tuned my mother’s banjo while I sat a safe distance away with squinting eyes. The tuning held for a couple days and she taught me some chords. I remember sitting at the back of her light blue station wagon, the trunk propped open with a stick since the holding mechanism broke, and slowly strumming away in the strangely warm Christmas morning air. I would later find out that her station wagon was bought with insurance money from my mother’s passing. Apparently, my mother used to complain about the condition of my aunt’s old car, so when the money sadly became available, my grandfather forced the new station wagon upon my aunt. It was what my mother would have wanted. Now, that station wagon is ironically too old to be safe, but I do not think my aunt can part with it. My aunt feels my mother is looking down on her whenever she drives it.
Last year, the banjo had pressure pegs, which for all you banjo virgins out there means you have to tighten the pressure of a screw in order to hold a tuning. This past Christmas, we replaced them with geared pegs that hold tunings longer. Or rather, my aunt replaced them while I watched and helped only occasionally in minor ways—much more humble than my child self. The rusty strings were also replaced. Unfortunately, one of the new strings snapped, but my aunt managed to tie it back together with some special knot (fisherman’s?) that only she would think to implement. But the knot has not given way since, the banjo has stayed in tune longer than ever before, and I am still learning to play it one chord at a time.