It was such a shock. You could even call it a betrayal.
Relative to the enormity of our planet's cataclysms like plagues, pestilence, extreme weather, misdeeds of tyrants worldwide, and Wall Street's greed, my reaction may seem a bit extreme, but every microcosmic gesture between friends may suggest something larger in the macrocosm.
Whole story: I lent my husband's guitar to a dear friend, Midge, and she gave it away to her friend, Cassie. Midge regifted it without permission, without a word to me: velvet-lined case, picks, tuner, and all. I'll grant you, no one in our household is Andrés Segovia, but a gift is a gift. And a loan is a loan. There's a difference.
The saga began when good ol' Midge said she was weary from caring for her dying husband, so she was taking up the guitar again after a half-century hiatus, whereupon I said, "Oh, we have a guitar in the closet. I can lend it to you. I gave it to Marshall for his birthday many years ago and he isn't using it. Jason, our son, played it for years and loved it, but he's into the didgeridoo now."
Fast-forward almost a year to Midge's eighty-fifth birthday party. We guests were at her celebration, knocking ourselves out for her: singing, acting, and dancing.
I proffered a flattering poetic tribute to our friendship. Close to the end of the entertainment, my husband pointed to a lovely-looking guitar on a stand by the piano, nudged me, and said, "Is that my guitar?"
"Gee, I don't know," was my reply.
"Well, ask!" he said.
"Is that my guitar?" I asked Midge.
Cassie, a friend who regards herself as Midge's adopted daughter, turned to me and said, "No, that one's Midge's guitar. She gave yours to me."
"She what?" I responded incredulously.
"Yup, it was in the basement and I noticed it lying there on the floor. I told her I was thinking about taking lessons, so she picked it up and handed it to me. She never told me to return it."
"Well, I'd like it back," I said without hesitation. I don't remember if I said please.
Cassie blushed and said nothing.
"She left it in the cold, damp basement?" Marshall whispered to me thickly.
The next day, I called Midge.
"I would like my guitar back, please. Could you ask Cassie for it?"
"What kind of guitar was it?" Midge asked.
"I don't remember the make, for god's sake. Cassie told me you gave her my guitar. Why would you give my guitar to someone else?"
"How do you know it was yours?" I know Midge pretty well. She was totally faking it here, stalling for time while she thought up another excuse.
"Why are you putting me on the defensive? You're the one who gave it away. Cassie told me you gave it to her."
Midge and I were talking in circles. I hung up.
Within days, "The Evil Missive from Midge" arrived in my mailbox, full of heated language about how intimidating and insulting I was. On top of that, she said she was hurt. She was hurt!
Now I was pissed. First, she gave away my guitar with its deep rich wood, crushed red-velvet case, and mellifluous tone. The one I gave my husband years ago for his birthday, the instrument he quit playing because his arthritis was so bad.
Then, she had the nerve to accuse me of insulting her. In "The Envelope of Nastiness," she enclosed a check for two hundred dollars, which was intended to pay me off. Hell, she couldn't begin to cover the damages of my outrage. The longer she avoided an answer, and the longer my guitar's whereabouts remained a mystery, the more valuable it became. Suddenly, I wanted to play it. I wanted to cradle it in my arms and strum it. I'd never strummed a guitar in my life, but now that it was gone, I missed it like a left foot.
I thought about it long and hard. I did nothing. I didn't cash the check. I was waiting for the dust to settle so I could think clearly, or until I got over it, whichever came first. Then through the miasma of our mail slot, privy to every ad campaign and catalogue known to commercial America, an unexpected letter arrived. It was very fat. It was at least five pages long. The gist of it was this...
I am writing this letter with a heavy heart and regret... and... request for forgiveness... Midge offered me the guitar... I accepted... I was playing John Denver songs... I brought it to my brother's place to show him how well I was doing... my boys came along... they were acting up... I got distracted... my brother lives eighty miles away... In my haste to get the kids home, I forgot the guitar at my brother's house... When I asked my brother about it, he wouldn't answer and then for weeks, he wouldn't talk to me... When he died of an overdose, I went to look for the guitar. He must have pawned it... Both of my brothers have struggled all their lives with alcoholism, poverty, and drug addiction... I would never have accepted the guitar from Midge had I known it was important to you in any way... I don't want this to drive a wedge between the two of you who have a very dear and old friendship...
My dear Cassie,
Rest your little heart. I hold no ill will toward you or toward Midge. Marshall and I were touched by your candid and thorough description of the missing guitar, and want you to know that we are sorry you have had so much sorrow. I know you worked hard to help your brothers in any way you could.
I keep relearning that when you lend something, you shouldn't count on getting it back. Your note was a complete surprise. I thought perhaps you had let your children bang away on it and they had, in some way, damaged it, as all children might. I thought wrong. You were a serious guitar student. Maybe the two of us should get a guitar and take lessons together!
I harbor absolutely no bad feelings about it. If I have any regret, it is that I can't remember when I lent the guitar to Midge. Marshall remembers it well since it was really his guitar.
Thank you for your letter, which I have read many times. One of the best things about it is that it contains absolutely no mechanical errors of any kind, which is amazing!
That last statement was so silly I am embarrassed, but I am an incorrigible English teacher, and her prose, so pure and free of error, was both rare and impressive.
It seemed increasingly urgent that I take up the guitar myself. I do play the piano, yet I've always loved the sound of the guitar—from the sublime Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain to Leo Kottke's florid Great Big Boy. I love the sound. I love the way it makes me feel—soothed into a state of quiet calm. Yoga with harmony.
A dear friend of ours who was moving away heard my saga. I told him how much I admired that he learned the guitar in a few years and wondered if he thought I, too, could take it up. I might have been wearing a hangdog expression. Suddenly, he disappeared from the room and reappeared with a very large, steel-string, one that had a scratched-in, unfinished tic-tac-toe game on the back. He handed it to me. The guitar was a big dreadnought, impossible for even my long arms to comfortably stretch around, but I accepted it happily and gratefully. It's a beautiful instrument. When I strummed it, sound like a very deep harp filled the room. When I held it, I transcended to a state of peace and harmony: guitar heaven. Unfortunately, the bridge was loose, would cost a lot of money to repair, and was bound to come loose again. Furthermore, the guitar was still too big for me.
Midge never asked for forgiveness. Please don't tell me age is an excuse for bad behavior. I don't buy it. Once, an octogenarian backed into my little Chevy Camaro, Fae, and accordion-pleated her whole front hood. I'd been waiting patiently at least two car lengths behind him as he was backing out of a parking lot behind the Greyhound Bus Depot. I could see he was unsteady, so I deliberately kept my distance. A helluva lot of good it did me. I had just sprung Fae from the shop for rear-end damage when Scrunch! The fool accelerated instead of applying his brakes. He hit me hard, crumpling Fae's newly painted body and rattling my brains. There's only so much a girl can take. I called the cops. The cop told me if I reported the driver, he might get his license taken away. "Now, you don't want that to happen, do you?" the cop said, ripping off his Ray-Bans and batting his big blues at me, leaning seductively into my open car window.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, yes I do!" was my retort. "The guy's a terrible driver. He wasn't even looking! He needs to be off the streets." The cop refused to ticket him in a maneuver that can only be described as reverse ageism, and yes—sexism thrown in for good measure. Unfair, but so is life. People are people in my book, no matter how old they are. Same core, same person, young or old. The older they get, the more they should be held accountable.
In the same way I held that old guy responsible for crushing and spoiling Fae's face, I held my dear friend accountable for regifting a guitar that wasn't hers.
The saga continued when, not long thereafter, Midge called to ask if I wanted to go look for a guitar. She was trying to make reparations. Since I have a personal mantra of not holding grudges, I accepted. She said I needed a three-fourths-size nylon string guitar, which would not hurt my fingertips and would fit me better than the one my friend had given me. I went along with her. The guitar she wanted to buy me was flimsy compared to Marshall's, and I held out for a standard size rather than three-fourths version. I vowed to get over the loss of our original. At least it would help me forgive even if I couldn't forget.
I put the old steel-string back in its case, its broken bridge sagging, its bright, big body still too fat for me, leaned it against our bedroom wall, grabbed the newer, smaller one by the neck, swung it under my arm, and hoped to get comfortable, even though my back felt cramped and my fingers a bit numb.
We'll never be even, but what is? The world is totally unbalanced. Magnify these negotiations and they become large-scale political maneuverings.
As for my sense of betrayal? I admit that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Midge has a sharper memory than I do. She knew what she was doing. She gave Cassie my guitar to further cement their friendship. She knew very well whose guitar it was. She trespassed and exploited. She usurped.
However, in The Grand Scheme of Things, this event is but a tiny tremor, a single, plucked note along the spectrum of scales and chords in the music of life. I would like to learn to play the guitar at least as well as good ol' Midge does, happily transmitting dulcet tones into the atmosphere.
She and I have a long and strong friendship, which will go on and on. I will not be lending anyone else guitars. I enrolled in classes and now I know a blues pattern. Marshall likes to hear me play long into the night. It puts him peacefully to sleep.
Title graphic provided courtesy of Carolyn Light Bell.