A collection of posts on my recent Midwest adventure…
This post is THE FINAL INSTALLMENT of the 11-part series, "Marvelous Midwest," about discovering my extended family in Indiana and "ukeing" it up in Missouri. All in one very eventful trip.
My husband I live a 10K race away from LAX. It’s like there’s an airplane freeway in the sky that passes over our condo. This is the soundscape of life around here. In Missouri, it’s cicadas. I never actually see one, no little green guy with a “C” on his butt. But I hear them and ask a local person “what the hell is that?” I am told that sometimes the cicadas get so loud it’s impossible to carry on a conversation.
Thankfully today there’s just a gentle buggy whoosh, with strains of ukulele melodies thrown in. Both Craig and I teach workshops and prepare for the concert tonight. It’s a long evening with the Open Mic winners (the ones that got the most votes from the troops), the Flea Bitten Dawgs and us.
The concert is outside under a pergola, with the pool to our left and more seating to the right. It’s hot. As the sun goes down, it gets hotter. It’s humid. As the sun goes down, it gets humid-er. They are worried about me because I am just plain not used to this weather. Janelle and the sound guy haul out fans. I’m ready to do Gatorade, intravenous, because swallowing the stuff ain’t working fast enough. We begin our two-hour set late and I’m smiling and perky but inside I’m wondering how the hell I’m going to get through this.
Well adrenaline is a wonderful thing and having such a sweet and supportive audience seals the deal. The time passes at light speed. Years ago, a wizened old pro pulled me aside at one of my piano bar gigs and offered some advice. “Take it from me Cali, get out of town once in while and play where people appreciate you.” I thought he was full of you-know-what. It’s taken me this long to realize he was right.
The folks in the audience are eager, eager to hear original tunes. Once Craig joins the party, we fall into an easy “married folk” banter. That’s fertile ground for humor, don’t you think? And the hilarity and music continue as we do some “kanikapila” songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
My ukulele group, The CC Strummers, finish this tune with “cries of the jungle.” Birds, monkeys, lions, mystery-critters. But right now Craig and I are in the Midwest, so I suggest we throw in “barnyard” animals instead. Lo and behold, Elvis lets loose with what he calls an Arkansas hog cry. It is a moment I will never forget. The sound is so real, so omnipresent, that for a second I am looking around for the pig.
Until I realize it’s Elvis. “Oh my God that is just fabulous!” I gush. And in his finest Elvis voice, he says “Thank you. It’s a gift.” You have to know that every time I think of bacon, smell bacon, eat bacon, see the commercial on TV where the big sloppy dog barrel-races to the bowl of guess-what as a gravely voiceover huffs and puffs “bacon, bacon, bacon,” I will think of Elvis and his Arkansas hog cry.
The next morning, we rub the bleary from our eyes and share our final breakfast together. Janelle hires a local photographer to take a group picture. Can you believe it? Like high school, except happier.
Then we spread out in a big circle on the grass, sing Aloha Oe’ and bid farewell to each other and this most endearing weekend. It’s fortuitous that "Aloha" means both hello and goodbye. I look forward to staying in touch with our new Midwest ukulele ohana and my newly-discovered and totally loved family in Indianapolis.
By nightfall, my husband and I will be home, snuggling under the covers in our own bed and soon enough our sojourn to the Midwest will feel like a dream.
And some dreams change us…
This post is part 10 of 11 in the series, “Marvelous Midwest,” about discovering my extended family in Indiana and “ukeing” it up in Missouri.
It’s the first day at the Mighty Mo Ukulele Festival. We line up in the quaint Swiss Chalet dining hall for dinner and fill our plates at the trough…er…buffet. Lovely women, dressed Heidi-like, scurry here and there providing the sweetest service. “You mean I get dessert?” I ask. “This is the Midwest, honey. You get dessert with every meal.” She chirps.
My husband Craig and I are sitting at a long table with “Elvis.” Well that is the name I give this courtly Southern gentleman who I meet at my first workshop. When he speaks, it’s like The King himself has suddenly re-appeared as a ukulele player.
He turns every edge of discourse into something hilarious, delivered with a down-home dollop of zing. The conversation goes from ukuleles to llamas, yes llamas, in the time it takes to wipe the salad dressing off my lips. He used to work at a wildlife preserve and especially loves llamas. “Their eyes are so sweet. If everyone had eyes like llamas we’d all get along…” His Elvis voice hypnotizes me into believing that llama-eyes are the secret to world peace.
We better fortify ourselves with bonus dessert calories because there’s going to be a hot time inSaloon Town tonight. It’s Open Mike at the "O-K Corral." Now this is a marvelous thing. I know of no other instrument that engenders this egalitarian spirit of participation. One after another, all ages, the ladies, the guys, groups of them perch on the stage, lean into the microphone and play their music. A few confess, “this is my first time.” Hooray for them. Doing their “first time” in a socially acceptable AND supportive saloon of sound.
But no-o-o-o-o. It’s public speaking (or singing). We are more afraid of going cryogenic in front of an audience than we are of actually keeling over for real. Well I have had my share of “ego deaths” on stage. And yes it’s awful. But afterwards I get to go home, kiss my husband and eat chocolate. So what the hell. Perspective is good as gold.
So back at Saloon Town, the music finally winds down. Sated and exhausted, we file into the warm night past the glowing salt-water pool where late-night swimmers are splashing around with what look like giant sperm. About eight of these things are bobbing in the water. They have that familiar spermy look and are about the size of a ukulele. I move in for a closer look. Holy crap, they are ukuleles. Inflatable ukuleles. Who thinks of such a thing?
Janelle Hoffmann… The mover and shaker who shakes and moves this festival.
Talk about attention to detail. I am so flabbergasted by the sight that I neglect to take a picture. So this one will have to suffice. Here is Boat Paddle Jerry, in broad daylight, with his latex ukuleles.
You have to know the uke has gone mainstream when you can purchase a blow-up version on the internet!
Stay tuned for the final installment of this series, “The Marvelous Midwest.” Coming to your local inbox, as soon as I write it!
This post is part 9 of 11 in the series, “Marvelous Midwest,” about discovering my extended family in Indiana and “ukeing” it up in Missouri.
It’s the first day of the Mighty Mo Ukulele Festival and we land at The Cedar Creek Conference Center which is nestled in the big green trees atop one of those rolling hills in wine country Missouri. Ukulele players from neighboring states like Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, even not-so neighboring California, pull into the driveway to unload their bags and ukes. All blue jeans and Aloha!
We are greeted by this sign at the Registration Desk. Proof positive that uke players get along with everyone. Actually the bankruptcy people have just checked out as we begin to check in. Nevertheless there is something deliciously radical about the message here.
This rambling spread is an interesting concoction of themes and history. Somehow it all melts together. Mysteriously and wonderfully. There is a main building and dining hall, fashioned like a Swiss Chalet, a grand old white house, Southern Mansion style, a salt-water swimming pool and a replica of a western saloon town.
No kidding. This collection of Gunsmoke replicas is straight out of a movie set on the back lot of Universal. And then I learn that Cedar Creek used to be more “monastery” than “monetary.” So to speak... There is something grounding and contemplative about the place. Wow! Ukuleles meet inner peace.
Janelle Hoffman co-sponsors this festival with her husband Jerry (The Boat Paddle Ukulele Guy). She has that unique gift of seeing the big picture AND the little details that make it BIG. In fact, at every turn I see her hand in some lovely touch, some splash of generosity and fun.
For example, imagine our surprise when we learn that big old Southern mansion is ours for the weekend! It’s about eight hundred times bigger than our one-bedroom condo back home. This is pretty darned spectacular. The next morning when Craig and I need to woodshed on our ukes, I go east, he goes west and we’re walls apart.
I am greeted at the festival with fresh roses and a nametag that would make any mother proud. But let it be said that all nametags, souvenirs for sure, are our passes into the food fair! Breakfast, lunch and dinner. We love to make music but we love to eat too!!!
So Craig and I unpack our bags and I make haste to the first workshop of the day. The big conference room fills with weary ukulele pilgrims and we begin.
That’s where I meet Elvis…
This post is part 8 of 11 in the series, “Marvelous Midwest,” about discovering my extended family in Indiana and “ukeing” it up in Missouri.
We turn west onto a blue highway toward New Haven. That’s not Connecticut. It’s Missouri. I didn’t know this “Show Me” state has a wine country. But it does and here we are. The corn crop is a lost cause. The soybeans are hanging on for dear life. Lord knows where the grapes are but the landscape is beautiful. Soft rolling hills and lots of trees.
We arrive a day early and the ukulele-powers-that-be comp us a room in the local bed and breakfast—the beautifully renovated, redecorated and very old Central Hotel.
We are warmly welcomed by the proprietor, Steve, a happily retired school teacher and active sculptor, who escorts us up the grand staircase to our equally grand room with an unusually long hallway that leads to the bathroom. I remember this clearly because I am standing in that very hallway, gazing out the window at a Norman Rockwell scene below when the building begins to shudder. “Did you feel that???” I yell to Craig, who has already flopped across the king-size bed. “Feel what?” He mutters.
This is a typical conversation back home. I seem to have a built-in Richter scale and can feel even the puniest earthquakes. My husband shakes his head and questions the air pressure in mine… But the next day I show him the earthquake article in the Los Angeles Times. “See. See that?” So Craig ain’t buying it--that the old hotel is trembling--and frankly I’m wondering what is going on too. Then it happens again. And again.
Sixty-eight times every day. That’s when a train goes by. Apparently we are steps from the main tracks that connect east and west and all points in between. Obviously the double-pane windows block “the choo choo” but not the “cha cha cha.” Once the mystery is solved, all this rattling morphs into something positively medicinal. I sleep so well that night that they just about have to drag me from the place…
But we have a delicious breakfast first. Somehow word gets out that I’m on a gluten-free diet. Steve drives ten miles down the road to the health food store to pick up gluten-free bagels just for me. Now that is Midwest hospitality. I am speechless. For a few seconds, anyway.
This is the day we meet the sponsors of The Mighty Mo Ukulele Festival. In person. Janelle and Jerry Hoffmann of The Boat Paddle Ukulele Company. Jerry designs and builds unique and coveted ukuleles in his workshop which is located in this quaint little town.
It doesn’t look like anyone is inside as we pull up in front. I scamper to the door and knock a few times. Look through the big glass windows. “Hello. Hello ukulele person. Are you in there?” Nothing. Then I try the doorknob and it opens. I saunter in and say it again, “Hello. Anyone home?” It smells so good in here. Fresh cut wood with a splash of lacquer fumes. Maybe I’m getting a little whoo-whoo on the aroma because I start hearing funny beep-beep sounds. Then they get faster and louder until my ears are ready to fall off. That’s when it dawns on me I’ve set off the burglar alarm.
I make like Roadrunner and get the hell out of there, racing for the car and grabbing my cell phone to call Jerry. All at the same time! Just then we see the police car.
I suppose it helps that Craig and I don’t fit the profile of Bonnie and Clyde, making a hit on a ukulele store on a blazing hot afternoon. The cop-guy smiles and waves us off just as I connect with Jerry who walks me through the “go-back-into-the-store-and-turn-off-the-ringy-thing” instructions.
Finally it’s Friday. The first day of the ukulele festival. I get to keep the bag of bagels and my hearing is almost back to normal. It's all good.
This post is part 7 of 11 in the series, “Marvelous Midwest,” about discovering my extended family in Indiana and “ukeing” it up in Missouri. All in one very eventful trip…
It’s a straight shot from Indianapolis to St. Louis on Interstate 70 as we continue our Midwest sojourn. After several days of getting to know the relatives I found on Google and Facebook, my husband and I are heading to The Mighty Mo Ukulele Festival in the rolling hills of wine country Missouri. In one afternoon we drive in three states. This is new territory for me, hop-scotching across state lines. In California you can drive fourteen hours and still be in California.
It’s hot outside. The A/C keeps us comfy cool, but you can “see” the heat through the car windows: The eerie ripples of distortion that appear on blazing asphalt. Cornfields, left, right, mile and after mile where the plants are stunted, ashen and drooping like sad faces lost in a crowd. This drought that never-seems-to-end is bad news. For folks in the Midwest. For anyone who likes to eat. We are all deeply impacted by the vagaries of weather.
It’s one thing to watch this catastrophe unfold on the news and it’s another to actually “feel” it. We pull over at a rest stop to pee. When I get out of the car it’s like stepping into a Bikram (that-would-be-105-degrees) Yoga Studio. Times ten! I make a mad dash for the air-conditioned toilet building as if I’m being chased by fire ants falling from the sky.
Well almost. But I do run for it…
Granted, I am not acclimated to this kind of weather, but who is? This is scary stuff. Later on we meet a woman who lives in a century-old farmhouse in Missouri. The ground is so hard and dry from the drought that she is afraid the foundation will crack, so she built a moat, her own mini-circle of water, around the farmhouse to give the soil some semblance of “wet.”
So we drive on and on and just like that I see the St. Louis Arch appear behind a hill. Oh this is so exciting. I’m getting goose bumps just like the first time I spotted the peak of the Matterhorn Mountain at Disneyland as my parents and I rounded a bend on the Santa Ana Freeway. And now we are getting close to “The Gateway To The West” and the Mississippi River. I’ve seen this great river from the window seat in coach, but never on the ground. Or rather from a bridge. During rush hour. Just then my cell phone rings. It’s a client wanting to book a show. “Oh Natasha,” I say, “let me call you back in a half an hour. We’re about to cross the Mississippi River!!!”
What does that tell you about my concept of time? That it would take thirty minutes to cross a river… Albeit a big river…
Speaking of time. Somewhere between cornfields in southern Illinois, my husband wonders aloud “do you think there is a time change?” Uh-oh. I never thought of that... I hope you Midwest people are laughing at how totally pathetic this conversation is. I look at the clock on my cell phone and suddenly we have gained an hour. OMG. How did that happen? We get a sixty minute re-do!
I later learn that most of Indiana is on Eastern Standard Time while Illinois and Missouri are on Central. So now I’m wondering… What if I live in Indiana but work in Illinois (or any place near a “time-change” border). That would make me fricking crazy. Like, what time is it? Like, where am I? Like, what’s it all about?
Well this whole discussion illustrates a wonderful thing about traveling and getting out of my steel-reinforced comfort zone… It’s a chance to experience stuff that never crosses my radar at home. Stuff that is stark reality for other people. And for the briefest time, I get to “live” it too.
It’s our last evening in Indianapolis. My husband Craig and I are heading over to the armory-size San Ash Music Store where we are scheduled to perform, teach a clinic and jam with the Indy Ukers. We settle into the “acoustic room” where the walls are festooned with ukuleles, guitars, banjos, mandolins. Standing sentry, they are, strings vibrating, ever so slightly as we begin to play.
We’re going to have a “Kanikapila” I cheerfully announce to this warm group of ukulele lovers. “A what”? They say. Alas Hawaii meets Indianapolis!
Kanikapila: Let’s make music together.
The gathering is even sweeter because my family of classical musicians join the party. “See which one calls to you.” I implore them choose a pretty uke from the wall, press it into their arms like a baby and begin to strum.
This is not easy for my family of violin players. Yeah there are four strings on both instruments, but the similarities end there. I grew up playing the guitar, then ukulele, and can’t imagine playing an instrument without frets, which are the slats on the neck that change the pitch of the strings. But the frets on the ukulele are driving my “fretless” family crazy.
My cousin Noelle wonders if she can re-tune a ukulele like her violin. But violins have a five-octave range. Huge!!!! Ukuleles are pushing two plus. Small!!! The tunings are not interchangeable. But my family jumps in anyway. With joy and gusto! And for a little while these master musicians leave Mozart behind and get down and funky with “Let’s Twist Again.”
It is a wonderful thing to behold. As one of my friends says, the ukulele is about sharing, not rivalry and that creates an atmosphere of “okay-ness” as we join together to play and sing.
The next morning we bid our newly-discovered cousins farewell. Oh my, we just found each other and now we have to say goodbye. It sucks.
But thanks to Google and Facebook, we connected in the first place. After decades of “not knowing.” What are the chances? And we won’t lose each other again.
P.S. In the second blog of this series, I wrote about stumbling through my new arrangement of “Dueling Banjos” in front of the musical family. Back to the woodshed for me. Practice, practice, practice. Finally I got the song under my fingers and put my version on YouTube.
A member of Ukulele Underground posted this comment: "That may be the best Dueling Banjos I've heard on ukulele, certainly the best I can remember!" Click here to watch.
This post is part 5 of 11 in the series, “Marvelous Midwest,” about discovering my extended family in Indiana and “ukeing” it up in Missouri.
Some folks call it PEEE-ROO. Others, PEAR-ROO. I call it PURR-ROO. Like Peru, South America and olé. That would be bienvenidos to Peru, Indiana. The hometown and final resting place for one of my favorite songwriters of all time: Cole Porter.
My cousin Noelle cleared an afternoon from her busy performing and teaching schedule to do the “tourist” thing with us. But Craig and I are not “sportsy people” (oh dear…we have to ask the relatives what teams are from Indianapolis…) We’re not “car racing people” so there goes the Speedway. We’re not “downtown people” so no tall buildings for us. But we are music people and when I learn that Peru is a mere hour and a half drive away, I am positively giddy.
So that is how we land at The Miami County Museum (no we don’t accidently head south to Florida) where we get up close and personal with the master songwriter himself, standing alongside his custom Cadillac, fit for a musical genius. Cole Porter composed sublime and eminently hummable melodies. AND he wrote lyrics to match, that twist and rhyme in clever and unexpected ways:
“Old sloths who hang down from twigs do it, though the effort is great.
Sweet guinea pigs do it, buy a couple and wait.” (from the song "Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love")
He’s old school. Those guys and gals of the Great American Songbook era wouldn’t dream of rhyming the words “line” and “time.” N? M? That equals apoplexy! Oh my, how times have changed…
At the height of his career, Cole Porter’s legs were crushed in a tragic horseback riding accident and the injuries and constant pain bedeviled him the rest of his life. Thankfully he could afford the big cushy car and this custom sofa that allowed him to lean back, extend his legs forward, drink a martini and schmooze with his friends. At the same time.
I love playing his songs because they are smart and sexy and I plunk out a few of his hits on the old upright piano that stands in the middle of this large one-room museum. Suddenly the employees, who were hunkered down in their offices, gather around, take pictures and ask me to play and sing some more. I’m just doing what I do at my gigs in SoCal, but this sort of reception for my efforts, well it’s very encouraging and does a body good.
Then they ask if I’d like to perform at Cole Porter’s birthday celebration next year in Peru and please send a video. Well yeah, I’d like to do THAT. So the next day my cousin Noelle and I whip off a couple videos in her music room and I send them, straightaway. Who knows. Sometimes these things pan out, sometimes they don’t. But the real reward is “the doing it” -- playing “Night and Day” in that museum, that afternoon.
The Cole Porter family gravesite is located nearby in a small cemetery. Noelle has seen it before and says his gravestone looks like “an egg.” I’m not sure what that means. An egg in the shell, sunny-side up, scrambled? So we turn right and left and right and left as we follow the small "Cole Porter" signs that point atta-way. All at once we are standing before an interesting array of obelisk-type stones. They definitely don't look like anything else in the neighborhood. The big stone honors the “Cole” family and the songwriter is buried alongside with his wife and parents and other family members.
Suddenly the sky turns slate gray and lightning snaps in the distance. Noelle knows midwest weather and implores us to get into the car. Quickly. This is not like herding cats. We clamber inside so fast even our shadows have to catch up. It begins to rain like a mofo and we get the hell out of there.
But what a day! Rain or shine, “It’s De-Lovely.”
Somewhere in a lush, woody area of Indianapolis is “the other house,” shared by Patricia, the matriarch of the Tretick clan, her daughter Blythe and grandson Lexi. Day two of our Midwest visit, the whole family converges at the compact dining room table, digging into burgers, steamy-hot off the grill, and homemade delicious bean salad, Patricia’s specialty. We eat, talk music and family, with a kind of gusto that moves the air in the room. It’s so delicious, the gestalt of it all and a perfect coda to another wonderful day with our “at-last-we-found-each-other” family.
Craig and I arrive earlier and are quickly offered front row concert seats…in the living room. Lexi plops down at the Steinway and plays some finger-twisting classical music as his mother Blythe shouts prompts and suggestions from the kitchen and Patricia sits quietly beside us, eyes closed as if she is swept into a secret garden of music.
I later learn something spectacular about my great uncle Sidney, the violin virtuoso and Lexi’s grandpa. He was a showman with a robust sense of humor. (And “beautiful hands,” according to his wife). I didn’t know he played the piano too.
The “Jerry Lee Lewis” of classical music? So Lexi and I attempt to replicate this amazing stunt. Believe me, it looks better than it sounds and is, in my humble opinion, a deliriously naughty thing to do on a piano as sacrosanct as a Steinway Concert Grand.
The whole episode sends me reeling back to my piano bar days when I performed a trick of my own. I played the song “Chopsticks” with my feet. Don’t roll your eyes please. I am very proud of this accomplishment. I’d remove my shoes, of course, lean back in the chair, hoist my toes onto the keyboard and hit just enough right notes for the average drunk person to recognize this iconic tune. I had the good sense NOT do this trick in a dress. It’s about the music, not a view of the front porch… So I tell the inebriated who have moved in for a closer look.
My cousin Blythe is a force of nature. She played the cello in the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra for umpteen years and this afternoon, she hauls out her two instruments and plays for us. I have never been this close to a real cello and the sound of Blythe’s bow across those big fat strings, oh my, it shakes the table, the chairs and my bones. This is a woman who not only makes sublime music but can fix anything on an instrument, just like her father Sidney could do.
And she is the self-appointed family historian too, taking it upon herself to piece together the who, the why, the what, the mystery of “the estrangement” that severed our family in half, like lightning splits a tree. Blythe has found documents, clippings, letters. We look at the pictures I have retrieved from my mother’s dusty black trunk in the garage and try, like hell, to connect some dots. But we will never know. And this “not-knowing” feels like a dull ache that doesn’t go away.
All this reminiscing works up an appetite so Blythe and I dash to Whole Foods to snag hamburgers and buns for dinner. But soon I go this-a-way, she goes that-a-way and I can’t find my cousin. I retrace my steps, slink up and down each aisle, hang out by the registers. No Blythe. I don’t have her cell phone number either so I call my husband so he can call the family so they can call Blythe and tell her to find Cali… Finally there she is thundering past the fresh fruit and veggies and I’m ready to latch onto her arm like a bulldog so we don’t get lost again.
This post is part 3 of 11 in the series, “Marvelous Midwest,” about discovering my extended family in Indiana and “ukeing” it up in Missouri.
For those of you joining this miniseries midstream, let me catch you up.
My husband Craig and I flew into Indianapolis from Los Angeles. My first trip to the “middle.” We met and totally fell in love with a branch of my family that, up to very recently, I didn’t even know existed. And visa-versa. It’s an interesting story, a how-we-got-here-from-another-country story. Click for the details.
Then we aimed our rent-a-car west into the “Show Me State,” Missouri, for the Mighty Mo Ukulele Festival where we gave workshops and headlined the Saturday evening concert.
It was a short whirlwind of a trip, only nine days. But life-changing. These first blogs are about my family and the later ones are about the lovely people who are part of the red-hot ukulele renaissance that has gone global.
Patricia is the matriarch of my newly discovered family. She married my great uncle Sidney, the violin virtuoso and they made their home in the Midwest. But Sidney died very young and this remarkable woman went to work, as a professor of music at Ball State. For forty years. Summer breaks she drove to Colorado to play the violin in the symphony during opera season. And with the help of her extended family and family of friends, she raised five exceptional children. Musicians all. My cousins.
On this trip to Indianapolis, I am meeting Patricia, two of her daughters, Noelle and Blythe, Dan-The-Hunk (Noelle’s husband), Anthony, their tennis-champion son, and wild and wonderful Lexi, Blythe’s son. Gather these people in one room and let me tell you, it’s a party.
And party we do, our first night with THE FAMILY. Jet-lagged, bedazzled and pinching myself so I don’t think I’m imagining all this, we gather around a gigantic mouth-watering salad of everything-but-the-kitchen sink.
Of course we talk about music and the family and the weather and music. And music. The ghosts of Beethoven and Handel and Mozart are hovering overhead. Then Craig and I grab our ukuleles and share a little aloha. These accomplished classical musicians are generous with their attention and genuinely interest in our wonderful little instruments.
It’s funny, but when people “dis” the ukulele, they say something nutso like, “aw…it only has “four strings,” I remind them that a violin has four strings and so does a cello and a bass. Okay you won’t find a cello for sale at Toys R Us or Costco, but there are virtuosos out there who make one ukulele sound like an orchestra.
I’ve been working on an arrangement for “Dueling Banjos” where, if you pardon the pun, I play with myself. On one ukulele. It’s not quite under my fingers yet, but I know from experience that when I play something in front of other people, and make a mistake, that is one mistake I won’t make again. Granted I’ll make other mistakes, but something happens in the synapses of my brain when I goof up “in the village.” It’s a painful but thoroughly effective way of learning.
So I launch into the familiar Deliverance Theme “da-da-da, da-da.” And oh, I’m doing so well too. Until I get to the big finale. That’s when my fingers go right instead of left. What is supposed to be a foot-stomping WOWEE moment ends in a thud.
There is a second or two of silence. But it’s okay because everyone in that room makes mistakes and then begins again. That is what is all about, being a musician. Very softly, and in a way that is so kind, Patricia says “now just do that ending again.” And this time I nail it. Ever the teacher, this one, and by the end of our trip, my new mama too.
Our last day in Indianapolis I give her a great big hug “goodbye” and tell her she is like a mother to me and she replies “and you are my daughter.”
My Indiana cousin Noelle and I email each other and on rare occasions, talk on the phone. She wishes I would learn to text because her hip and busy musical family have totally embraced that crazy-thumb way of staying in touch.
I’ve studied her pictures and this former ballerina and present-day violinist extraordinaire is positively gorgeous. I hear that Noelle is kind and generous.
And I hear right.
She and her husband Dan and their son Anthony pull up to our hotel in their CHOPSAVER van and we hug, Noelle and I. Then back up and look at each other. Really look at each other. Is this a dream? Then we embrace each other again. And again. “You’re so tall!!!” I sputter. “You’re beautiful” she responds. And so it goes.
We soon discover the remarkable array of “little things” that we both do. She notices first... That we dip our salad greenery into the side of dressing rather than dump the goo on top. That we both like the same style of sandal and are wearing them when we meet for the first time. We spin around in circles when we get flummoxed or forget “why I came into this room…” We both know the fear that something, something bad, could happen to a beloved parent, that he or she will never come home again. And we both know the relief, the kind of “ahhhhhh” you feel in your bones when you hear their familiar footsteps and the key turning in the front door and there they are and everything is okay.
Our mothers were both born the same year, same month and within a week of each other.
Noelle loves the wild leopard stick-ons that adorn my toenails so I buy her “zebra stripes” at a Walgreens near her house. We both do “core” exercises to stay in shape. She shows me her “boot camp” ballet scrunchy sit-up and I demonstrate my off-kilter Turkish-Get Up. We revel in the joy of hanging out with someone who actually gets excited about this stuff.
Then there is the music. We quickly discover an easy simpatico. A shared language and deep respect for each other’s work. It is as if we have been playing together our whole lives. Noelle has toured the world playing her violin and works all the time doing gigs at the Indianapolis Center for The Performance Arts when the big-name artists come through, with the symphony, for parties, teas. You name it. She has 25 violin students filing in and out of the house for lessons every week. Then she helps her husband Dan with their thriving family business, ChopSaver, which is a natural lip balm for people who happen to have lips. (Speaking of…my lips are so big, they arrive two days before I do. rim shot).
The point is, I’m not sure when Noelle sleeps.
We both play by ear too and with no hesitation and precious little rehearsal, launch into a duet of the Cole Porter song, “True Love.” Violin and ukulele. There she is, sitting in front of her treasured photographs that hang on the wall of her music room. Her father, her mother, brothers and sisters, famed musicians and conductors she has worked with over the years. This is a hallowed place. You are invited into the music room too. My husband directed and videotaped our duet on my iPhone and uploaded it to YouTube.
My cousin Noelle is beautiful inside and out. And if I lived in Indianapolis, where live music is flourishing, she and I would be doing gigs together until cows fly.
Stay tuned for more...
This post is part 1 of 11 in the series, “Marvelous Midwest,” about discovering my extended family in Indiana and “ukeing” it up in Missouri. All in one very eventful trip…
I grew up hearing stories about my great uncle Sidney. The musical prodigy. The violinist. The light of this Russian immigrant family that landed in Baltimore around the turn of the century. My grandmother was the eldest of five and twenty or so years later Sidney came along. The baby. It’s wacky, but my mother and Sidney were born the same year and slid into a sometimes contentious brother-sister kind of thing. She was jealous of him because he got all the attention. Maybe too much attention because when Sidney grew up, he vanished. It was like the earth swallowed him whole.
“I wonder what happened to Sidney?” became my mother’s lunch-a-bunch mantra. Year after year. Decade after decade. Lunch after lunch. Until four years ago when, over sushi and miso soup, my mother sounds the Sidney Refrain one more time and I remember making a mental “note to self” to Google his name as soon as I get home.
And now I’m staring into the computer screen at the picture of a beautiful woman who is holding a viola. Her name is Stephanie and she is a member of the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra and according to her biography, the daughter of violinist and composer Sidney Tretick.
Out-of-the-body experiences are interesting, aren’t they…
Once I regain my center of gravity, I call her on the phone and we find doorways to the past that neither of us even knew existed. She tells me that Sidney moved to the Midwest, married a fellow violinist and they had five children. All professional musicians. Master classical players. They don’t know anything about our branch of the family tree because their father so completely estranged himself from the on-going melodrama back in Baltimore. Sadly, Sidney died very young and left a widow with these five young children to raise. That kind of loss haunts us like a sad melody that plays through the background of our lives.
But the news--that there was a new cousin in California--spreads like wildfire and we soon “friend” each other on Facebook and begin the process of “getting to know you.”
I meet Drew Tretick first, at his gig where he plays violin at Downtown Disney in Anaheim. But Sidney’s other daughters, Noelle and Blythe and his wife, Patricia, live in Indianapolis, Indiana. Not so close…
Then out of the blue, and I mean out of the blue, I get an email from Janelle Hoffmann with Boat Paddle Ukulele Company which is located in wine country Missouri, asking if I would be interested in teaching workshops and being the headliner at their next Mighty Mo Ukulele Festival?
You can only do “first times” once and this, my first trip to Indiana and Missouri, is a revelation. I find my kin. Both “DNA” kin and “ukulele” kin.
And have I got stories. So stay tuned.