Author: Martin, George

The Littlest Picker
The English language could use a few more words for “love.” Even the Greeks’ eros
and agape aren’t enough.

I love bluegrass music. I love my painstakingly collected aggregation of stringed instruments. I love chocolate cake. I love Barbara, my best friend, life’s companion, mother of my children, economic partner and lover. (Hmm...maybe that last love should have been listed first.)

But the love that makes my heart swell up in my chest right now, and sometimes makes me get dewy-eyed with joy, is my long-awaited grandchild. Little Cassens Jameson Martin will be 15 months old in two days. He can walk now and says a few words, though rather haphazardly.

My son swears he said, “I love you” the other day, but I haven’t heard anything more than one-word ejaculations. He does say “Hi!” and “Bye-bye” at appropriate times, and yesterday he cracked me up when he shoved a thumbpick into the sound hole of my guitar, and as it disappeared with a clattering sound he said, “Uh-oh!” with a worried expression on his little face.

Cassens took a long time to get here. For ten years my son was married to a woman who had a lot of personal problems and was not really (in my opinion) mother material. My son apparently felt that way, also, and there was no “issue” (as the lawyers say) from that marriage. Eventually it ended. I felt a little guilty as I tried to comfort my grieving son while inside my heart was leaping with joy.

It wasn’t long after that Gwillym met Michelle. She is quite an amazing woman: she lived 10

years in Japan, singing and making excellent jazz CDs among other careers, so she can speak Japanese, and Spanish as well. She worked in the software industry in the Bay Area but didn’t like it so became a remodeling contractor and eventually a home inspector.

They were both eager for a child, and got married and pregnant virtually simultaneously. (Talk about “nesting” -- in the first month of her pregnancy she ripped up the soon-to-be baby’s room to the dirt, installed a new floor with radiant heating, took out the big single pane windows and installed smaller double panes, wired it, did much of the wallboard, and painted.)

And now here is little curly-haired Cassens, toddling around clutching a guitar pick (he loves guitar picks) and trying to figure out how to drag it across the strings of my Taylor Dreadnaught.

I figure my current job in life is to make this kid a picker. I started bringing an instrument every time I visited as soon as he started crawling and standing up. Some days it’s the mandolin, others a bluegrass or open-back banjo, and sometimes a guitar.

Michelle is on board: she has a Yamaha keyboard set up about eight inches off the ground in the living room. Cassens quickly figured out how to turn it on (he is really into buttons of every sort) and switches it from “cello” to “organ” to whatever (randomly, I suppose) and turns on the drum machine and the chording system and beats on the keys.

I get into the lotus position and play nursery rhymes and he either beats on the treble keys or bounces in time to the music. Before he started to walk, I could pull the banjo out of the case and he’d come crawling over immediately. Frequently he puts his little hand on the strings, which of course mutes the sound. And he hits the strings straight down; I guess he figures it works on the keyboard, why not on the banjo?

Or maybe his little brain is just closing in on the idea of the strumming motion. He’s done it a few times but not on demand.

Another favorite game requires an open-back banjo. If you hold the back side up to your face and sing a G note loudly, you get a wonderful, resonant echo. Cassens can sing the note, but softly and not long enough to get the Big Reverb effect. So we sit on the sofa, head to head, with our noses in the back of the Vega, singing “O-o-o-o-o!” over and over.

It has been 35 years since I was around a baby and I’ve been impressed with the new generation of electronic toys. We had music boxes: you wound it up and it played for a while and then slowed down and stopped. One song per box. The new electronic ones play several songs for five or six minutes while the baby drifts off to sleep. And now you can buy heavy cardboard music books with little keyboards attached. He’s way young for that, but his parents leave them out for him anyway.

I remember reading once that in Greece and Macedonia when a child gets a certain age they put a balalaika in his hand and stick him in the middle of the band. The kid’s bad notes aren’t obvious in the overall sound and eventually he figures out how to play. I’m hoping something like that happens with Cassens.

I bought him a uke for Christmas, when he was just shy of a year old. He drags it around and hits the strings (thank God for cheap Chinese ukuleles). My hope is that in a few years he will be able to make a few chords. I don’t know how soon a child’s motor nerve development makes it possible to do subtle finger movements. But the uke (and the mandolin, and the banjo, and the guitar) will be ready when he is.

There’s a spot in the band just waiting.

Posted:  3/13/2008

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