I was made by Socorro Zalapa Negrete, an artisan in Paracho, Michoacan, Mexico. He was pleased with me, but after I stayed in his shop for several weeks without selling, he decided to take me to Morelia, to the busy Saturday market. Once there, he polished my wood, tuned my strings and put me on a stand alongside other guitars from his shop.
A young man approached the booth, hand extended, dark moustache stretched tight above his smile. “Hola, Señor Negrete. Remember me, Roberto Loeza? The instrument you made for me has served me well and beautifully.” He bobbed his head in respect.
Socorro bowed as he shook Señor Loeza‘s hand. “What a pleasure to see you again, Señor. How may I be of service?”
Roberto turned, gesturing toward a blonde woman who towered behind him. “This lady is a guest in my home from California, here in Morelia to study Spanish. She wants a guitar as a gift for her daughter. I told her I knew the best maker with the best prices. Señor Negrete may I present Señora Juana.”
The three exchanged pleasantries. Socorro made a sweeping gesture with his arm, taking in all the guitars. “Please, Señora, feel free to try the instruments.”
The lady lowered her eyes. “Roberto, I know nothing about choosing a guitar. Can you advise me?”
Roberto and Juana circled the booth, surveying all the instruments. Roberto picked up the guitar next to me, strummed and tuned it with minute turns of the keys, inclining his head to listen to the tone. After playing a few notes of classical music, he repeated the process with three other guitars before grasping my neck and strumming my strings. I sang my best. I longed to go to California with this beautiful gringa. I wanted to be her daughter‘s present.
Juana rewarded me with a smile. “I love the way this one sounds. Such rich bass notes.”
Roberto agreed and began to haggle with Socorro over the price. “Besides this guitar and a case, Juana wants an extra case for her son, who already has a guitar. What is the very best you can do for her? Can’t you go lower than 75 American dollars? That’s over 116 pesos. Make it 100.”
Señor Negrete loved making guitars but hated selling them. With a frown, he picked me up and strummed my strings. I knew I’d never feel my back against his chest again. I sang with a mix of nostalgia and anticipation. I was going to California! He seemed to be on the verge of lowering his price, but Juana stepped forward. “Señor, $75 is a good price. Thank you.”
Socorro put me in my comfortable leather case with its red felt lining for the short journey to Roberto’s house. That evening, Juana asked Roberto to play me for his wife Laura, their two young sons, Mauricio and Robertito and three other gringos from the Spanish program who’d come to a dinner party at the Loezas’. Everyone agreed that I was a beautiful instrument with a rich tone.
* * *
The next time I was taken from my case, slender fingers lifted, tuned and strummed me with a light, nimble touch. A young version of Juana smiled broadly as she lovingly turned and stroked my wood. “Thank you, Mom. It’s beautiful and I love it.” She kept playing, trying all the chords she knew, strumming intricate patterns with the fingers of her right hand.
Juana breathed what seemed to be a sigh of relief. “I’m glad you like it, Suzy.”
I’d passed the most important test of my short life. Suzy liked me.
When Suzy played me, I could feel the beat of her heart, a blissful experience. But occasionally her heart would race until it seemed it would burst from her chest. Despite her ragged breathing, she’d put me down carefully. As she went into a seizure, the scream that tore from her throat felt like it might blast us both apart. The attacks left her weak and pale. They left me resonating with compassion, hoping she could go on playing so I could console her.
One night when I was left in the corner of the living room, I heard Juana crying as she told Fred, Suzy’s dad, that a counselor from the college had called her at work. “He said if Suzy’s seizures can’t be better controlled, she can’t continue classes. The college administration is worried about liability. I don‘t know what she’ll do if she can‘t go to school.”
The counselor for handicapped students was able to smooth the way for Suzy to stay in school. After she graduated from Porterville College, she and I went on a trip to Los Angeles, where she tried to sell some of the ballads she‘d written with my help. I thought she was very courageous to try, though she didn’t succeed.
For a time, I was with Suzanne in Sacramento State before she transferred to San Francisco State. It was there that she finally found a good neurologist at U.C.S.F. hospital. For months she took tests to prepare for surgery to remove the seizure focus area from her brain, even as she kept going to classes. Still, she found time to tune me and caress my strings. I like to believe that singing along with me enabled her to live alone in the large city, study for her degree in cultural anthropology and prepare to undergo surgery.
After surgery, we were elated as the seizures stopped. She finished her degree and was employed as a caregiver. Sometimes she played me and sang to the old lady she took care of. When the old lady died, Suzy had a hard time finding another job.
She didn't like taking the new psychiatric medicine prescribed for her after surgery. "I hate the way it makes me feel," she whispered, strumming my strings. "I'm going to stop taking it."
Without those drugs, she wasn’t sure of her own perceptions. She heard things that no one else could hear. I felt her fear when she played. Her friends suggested that she go back to be near her family for support.
Living with her in her late grandmother’s old house was hard. She strummed me in a state of fear and delusion, from a different reality. She heard rocks talking to her. The hum of the refrigerator so disturbed her that she unplugged it and used ice chests to store her food. She no longer wanted to be called Suzy. She was now Suzanne, always worried and afraid. My resonance comforted her, drowning out the auditory demons. I was glad of that, but missed my fun-loving girl.
Twelve years after surgery, the seizures returned. Suzy came back with them, free from the dreadful delusions. She was serene and content most of the time. When her heart raced, warning of a coming attack, she would calmly put me down, stretch out and wait for the horrible storm in her brain to pass. Afterwards, she calmly dealt with the resulting wounds, such as bites in the lining of her mouth or bruises from thrashing around.
She reached the age her mother was when she brought me from Mexico. Her musical laugh rang out on her birthday. “I never thought I’d live to be 40. Now I’m even older.”
She took guitar lessons and spent happy hours practicing new techniques. I felt ecstatic. Then, three years after the seizures returned, a last fearful attack stilled her precious heart and the music in her fingers. I took refuge in the darkness of my case.
In the time since then, Juana occasionally lifted me out and clumsily tried to play me. But it made us both sad and lonely.
Then, a few days ago, Juana took me out and placed me in the hands of another loving mother, Nancy Wills. “I want to donate Suzy’s guitar for a raffle to raise funds: half for your high school guitar students to go to the state meet and half for the Lindsay Art Association. We can do the raffle at the concert next Saturday night.”
Hearing this, I vibrated with joy. Perhaps my long dark days were over.
Nancy strummed and tuned me. I’d never been held with such expertise. “Oh, my, it has a wonderful tone.” She frowned. “It’s not holding the tune, though”
“I haven’t replaced the strings. Suzanne’s been gone for more than ten years.” Juana’s voice trembled. She was smiling through tears brought on by my voice.
“That’s probably the problem. I’ll restring it. Also, it might just be nervous after being in the case so long.”
How right she was. After she restrung me, she let one of her advanced students, Saul, play me. “I knew you were looking for a guitar. Try this. It’s from Paracho.”
Saul looked a little regretful. “I do like it, but I just bought another one.”
The eight boys in her honors class all played me and loved the way I sounded. The only girl was last. She played a few chords and then went into a flamenco riff that thrilled everyone, especially me. Her fingers felt just right.
The girl turned to Nancy and said, “Oh, Mom. I love this guitar. Can we buy it?”
Nancy gave her a brilliant smile. “We’ll see, Kathrynne.”
* * *
Nestled in Kathrynne’s arms, I saw Juana enter the Museum/Gallery for the Saturday night concert. I knew she was anxious to learn what Nancy had decided about my value as a fund-raising item. Nancy didn’t keep her waiting.
“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to buy the guitar for my daughter, Kathrynne, rather than raffling it off. I don’t think we’d raise more than $300 with a raffle. I know the guitar is worth more, but that is all I can afford. Would that be satisfactory?”
Juana’s smile broadened. “That would be fine. I can’t tell you how happy I am that it will be with you and your daughter. It belongs with a girl. May I take a picture of Kathrynne with it?”
It was a wonderful evening as my strings happily rang out in an ensemble of expert young musicians, feeling Kathrynne’s nimble fingers and beating heart. As planned, Kathrynne handed me to a young man as he walked to the soloist’s chair, settled in and introduced his piece. “My name is Joseph. A couple of years ago, I was very sad about losing someone in my life. But I was very happy at the same time. I struggled for weeks as I sat with my guitar and wrote music to express my feelings. I’m going to play part of that music now. I call it Acceptance.As Joseph played his beautiful composition, I could feel Juana’s heart expanding from across the room, tears flowing down her face. Suzy seemed to hover near. Just as Jose said, I was sad and joyous at the same time. My rich vibrations mingled with Juana’s feelings Acceptance healing us both.