Unequivocally Ambiguous

Humorous Stories on Parenting, Culture and Life

Playing Boleros on a Ukulele

by | Nov 11, 2023 | Life | 0 comments

The man I’ll never be and the man I am

Our daughters became best friends at preschool, and like our daughters, Ian and I became fast friends after discovering a similar appetite for danger. Ian is a commercial airline pilot who, twice a month, drills on maneuvers to keep his Navy reserve status.

I sell insurance over the phone.

While Ian is out there dodging missiles, I’m at home on Zoom calls, pantless, dodging objections.

So, same.

We were at Grand Central coffee shop watching our daughters play. This coffee shop sits at the top of the Petaluma basin, smacked in the middle of the east and west sides of the city, which is not only a geographical divide but a cultural one, too.

For years, people from the West have touted their area of town as the “it” place. This is understandable; nothing will make you love your house more than overpaying for it.

These colonial houses wouldn’t go for more than a cow in Tennessee, and the cow doesn’t need to be a special breed, or be a milk cow or even be pregnant. It can be an old, skinny, “east-side” type cow.

Colonial, of course, is a real estate lingo for musty, crotchety, rickety, cattywampus, termites, haunted, or worse, cracks in the foundation.

It would be easy to say that Grand Central is my favorite coffee shop because of its artisan small-batch coffee, the beautiful display of single-sourced Equatorian chocolate, or its location.

And while I do like the view of the river, the bridge, and downtown, what I love is their ample space, all the toys they have for kids, and their welcoming attitude towards little ones, making it the perfect destination to connect with parents from all corners of the city even if they are unfortunate enough to live on the West side.

We didn’t know it, but we were there for Grand Central’s second-anniversary celebration, and around noon, a singer and her pianist started performing classic boleros.

The first song was their interpretation of “Piel Canela.”

The moment the song started, I had a flashback of when my dad used to serenade my mom.

I have a handful of memories like this about my dad.

Like when we were all at my grandfather’s farm, and the foreman brought a new mare. The mare started vaulting in front of us. My dad approached her and talked softly to her. I distinctly remember this because he spoke to the horse in a sweet, melodic voice he never used for my mom.

He mounted the horse and galloped down a sand and gravel road.

The horse was not having it and was doing all she could to dismount my dad. My dad was riding in the middle of the coconut promenade that led to the entrance. On the left side was an open-air barn made of concrete where my grandpa kept his cattle, and on the right was a small field of millet, which he grew to feed the cows.

My dad made a right turn into the millet and disappeared. The stalks were so high that they covered the horse and my dad. It wouldn’t be so impressive to say that they covered my dad by himself because my dad is short and could be easily covered by a California poppy. But the horse was a giant beast, and I was scared for his life.

My dad emerged from the millet field with a horse that looked like the one he went in with but acted like a completely different horse. I don’t know what happened or what other things he sweetly promised that mare, but she galloped back to us with graceful elegance.

After a few lines from Piel Canela, I told Ian, “This song is big in South America.” Now, this little bit of trivia is enough. It is the equivalent of saying ‘good’ when a stranger asks you, “how you doing?” You might even add: “As a matter of fact, my dad used to play it on his guitar.”

But when your young feelings sneak up on you out of nowhere and turn off your filter, you add, “I don’t play guitar. I wish I play guitar; I wanted to growing up, but when I was ready to learn, my dad converted into evangelism and his religion forbade him from music “of the world” and wanted to teach me evangelical songs. I didn’t want to learn that because you can’t call out from under a windowsill to your love prospect, ‘Oye, Veronica, listen to this one about the dude who died and came back three days later to haunt the people who crucified him.’ But it left me with the desire to always play guitar, and eventually, my wife got me a ukulele, which is a guitar but tiny. It is the perfect instrument for me because we share the same pain. The uke is the little guitar that wanted to be a big guitar, but his father left, and his emotional development was stunted.” I don’t stop there; I pretend to hold the uke with both my palms under the body and talk to my dad, “Dad, I wanted to play the guitar, but you left, so I could only play the ukulele.”

This is the equivalent of a stranger asking you, “How you doing?” and you responding, “If the anguish tormenting my soul was a boulder I had to carry, it would crush every bone in my body.”

Ian laughed even though my brain just went rogue on me. Even though I have witnessed the beautiful relationship between him and his father, which reminds me of the beauty of being human, we don’t all have to experience the same pains to understand them.

A few weeks later, I found myself cleaning my garage, which I’ve been cleaning for the past… forever… and found a guitar. I remember buying it because, at that time, I was definitely going to learn how to play it even though I bought it on impulse with a one-click purchase, “Thank you, Amazon,” on Father’s Day.

Two strings broke as I was tuning it, and restringing it was quickly buried under the pile of to-dos that don’t take precedence over taking care of my girls. The guitar sat on top of all the other hobbies and crafts I will one day, no doubt, take on if I can just find the time, like painting, bonsai growing, candle making, pottery, painting, scrapbooking, Chinese Calligraphy, embossing, painting with watercolor, oil or acrylics and sketching with charcoal or pastels, did I say painting already?

I wanted to pick it up and learn how to play it, but I felt intimidated by it. There it was with two strings broken and the rest out of tune, but I still felt intimated by it. Ridiculous to be intimidated by a bunch of wood and some strings, but it gives me perspective into what crows feel when they see a bunch of hay with a hat.

I thought of donating it, but this ache in my heart flares at the thought.

I couldn’t part with it as flippantly as I parted with the drills my stepdad gave me. One day, I saw them on a shelf and felt they were taking up too much space, so I gave them to a neighbor who was walking by at the exact moment.

It didn’t matter that I had them; I couldn’t use them, not because they didn’t work but because my wife wouldn’t let me. When we moved from the first apartment we lived in San Diego, the frames came down to reveal seven holes for every frame I hung. It is no easy task to hang a frame properly while also covering all the holes you made before. My walls looked like Swiss cheese, and if I liked eating drywall, I would’ve eaten it.

I couldn’t sell it as cheaply as I sold my grill. I adhere to the philosophy that the collection of fat, seasoning, and salt in a grill retains the flavors of all the meals you’ve ever cooked. Unfortunately, all the retained flavor my grill had made it light on fire every time I barbecue. This makes for a specific type of meat doneness, scorched on the outside, kicking and screaming on the inside, just like most Americans will feel in the next election cycle.

I know I have to let go of this guitar. Let out of my life this piece of wood that represents so much more than it is. Because even if I learn to play guitar, I will never have that bonding experience with my dad that I so desperately long for. I will never be the man whose dad taught him guitar. Instead, I’m the man whose wife got him a uke because it kinda suited his corkiness.

And it does fit me.

The uke, just like me, will never be able to play certain notes. Some tunes will just be out of reach. When I pick it, I don’t look cool or impressive but dorky. The sounds coming from it will never sound sobering or respectable like those played by a flamenco guitarist from Barcelona but childish and irreverent as if the only choice of instrument my upbringing would’ve allowed me to have is either a uke or blowing a jug and slapping my thigh.

It doesn’t matter how emotional or dark the lyrics or the rhythm of a song are, my uke and I will always find a way to make it sound light, airy, full of fluff, because I will forever be unable to take anything seriously.

The empty space left there by a memory I will never share with my dad is filled with something else. It is filled by that stunted guitar my wife gave me. That I have played now for more than ten years, the one I played on my bed while she laid on her back and I sang to our daughters while they were still in her belly, the same that now that they are toddlers is the catalyst for all the dance parties happening in our living room.

I know I have to let go of this guitar because the uke is a better instrument for who I am and who I want to be.

I offered it to different friends, but apparently, most people know that things don’t really heal the broken promises of your past.

In a last attempt to find the guitar a loving home, I offered it to my neighbor so he could play with his kids, and he said that he would foster the guitar and promised me he would love her as if it were one of his own. When I gave him my guitar, I still felt a twinge in my heart and a knot in my stomach.

But I am comforted by the knowledge that the guitar is going to a good home, where a father will teach his kids how to play it. I’m also comforted by the fact that it could always be worse, that I could live on the west side.


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