The Christmas Guitar
My son was about to turn ten. He still took my hand from time to time when we were out together, but he let it go when we met other children, especially girls. On that late afternoon in winter we had strolled through the Parisian streets illuminated bright as day with Christmas lights. Dirty snow beneath our feet, we came to a halt in front of the music shop window, his small hand tucked cosily in mine.
We looked at the guitars gleaming on their stands. Their long necks decked with tinsel made them look like ostriches tied up with ribbon (some people have no respect for musical instruments or for animals). These pathetic-looking creatures were ruled out straightaway; my son dreamed of a wild guitar to tame. We went into the shop.
Years earlier, when he wasn’t even one year old, we used to sing a few notes to him each morning to see whether he was awake. I say “we” but it was especially his mother, with her beautiful singer’s voice. He responded with the same little melody. It became a game to vary it, make it more intricate, and to hear him reproduce it right away before breaking into his delightful rippling laugh. It was his way of saying, “Again ! Again !”
When he was older, we asked him from time to time if he wanted to learn to play an instrument. As musicians ourselves, nothing seemed more natural, especially given—and I say this as objectively as possible for a parent—his obvious talent. He consistently responded with a clear and definite no. When I asked why, he told me that he didn’t want “to end up being forced to play in front of 300 people.”
He had been to many of his mother’s and my performances. I wondered whether he had been upset by the shows where we were especially bad, whether stage fright was contagious, or whether his hypersensitivity meant he’d been put off by seeing us go through it? Or could it be that scales, singing exercises and rehearsals were, in his mind, just a typical adult occupation—a way of earning a living? Or did he have another good reason that it would be useless to try to explain to someone with the limited understanding of a grown-up ?
Fortunately, he had a little classmate at school who was taking piano lessons and played “The Pink Panther” divinely. My son immediately learned it by heart, having taken notice for the first time of our home piano. For many weeks he played the tune in every pitch and every key, with his head down, eyes closed …
One day, to our great relief, perhaps because he had exhausted all possible variations, he declared bluntly, “I want to learn to play an instrument.”
“Good,” we said, just as straightforwardly, afraid he would change his mind.
“You want to learn piano?”
“Just like Dad?”
“No,” he replied, a touch of disdain in his voice.
“Why guitar then and not piano?”
“Because I like the physical connection with the instrument.”
His mother and I looked at each other. We weren’t used to hearing that level of language from him. He didn’t say any more about it that day but we hoped we’d understood. I bought him a guitar and at his request we enrolled him at music school.
While he appreciated classical guitarists Fernando Sor and Heitor Villa-Lobos, it was only natural that very soon he wanted to play music closer to his own taste, on a guitar that he’d chosen himself, with which he could develop the perfect “physical connection.” It was in pursuit of this ideal instrument that we went into the music shop on that Christmas Eve.
A salesman greeted us as though he were condescending to attend to us between a Rolling Stones tour and a session with Charlie Parker. He addressed his remarks to me alone, as the debit cardholder. With a nod, I referred him to my son. He was the customer.
The salesman took that to mean that I knew nothing at all about guitars and that, obviously, the boy didn’t either.
He brought out a guitar that was “super for solos,” as he put it, then another encrusted with mother-of-pearl, then all the rubbishy expensive guitars that he hadn’t succeeded in flogging. My son couldn’t see one he wanted. He was too timid to play in front of strangers. He asked, “Can I look on my own?” Disgusted that suckers like these were making such a fuss, the salesman let him head into the depths of the shop.
As I waited, I thought back to my very first guitar. I’d have liked my father to come to the music shop with me, but he had decided that I should go and choose it with our neighbors’ son. Michel was his name. His parents were devastated that he wanted to give up studying medicine to become a guitar player, and he felt so conflicted that he didn’t know what to do any more.
My father had helped Michel follow his passion and also intervened to reassure his family. It was a big thing for him to do. Admirable. But I knew one thing for sure: my father would never have let me give up my studies to follow my heart. I hated Michel with a fierce and dark envy.
I arrived a quarter of an hour late to meet up with him to buy the instrument. He had already left, or more likely, he had never turned up. No way was I going home empty-handed! I chose my guitar all by myself. When I got home there was a terrible scene. Who did I think I was? It was a cheap little beginner’s guitar. I loved it from the first note. It sounded terrific.
My son returned from the back of the shop, carrying a folk guitar. It was definitely the right one. The salesman tried to talk him into a more expensive model by giving him a flashy demonstration. We had to hold back our laughter when he massacred the intro to “Stairway to Heaven.” Then my son said, “Let’s go, Dad!”
The salesman brought the guitar to the till. My son picked out a few notes, one ear pressed to the body of the instrument. He made a face.
“That’s not mine.”
“Yes, it is. It’s the same model,” the salesman assured him.
“It’s not his,” I said.
The salesman headed back to the stockroom. He returned with the folk guitar. My son picked out a few notes. He smiled at me.
On Christmas Day, he took his guitar from beneath the tree, unwrapped it and handed it immediately to my father—eager for his verdict. With the solemn intensity of an expert, his grandfather played some slow chords and long arpeggios.
“This little guitar sounds terrific.”
“It’s me who chose it all by myself!” my son pointed out.
“Well done, my lad, I’m proud of you,” said my father.
We sat down to Christmas dinner. That year the turkey tasted even better than usual.