A Banjo’s Soul


Halloween was the furthest thing from my mind when I scheduled an appointment with the banjo repair guy for Oct. 31. As usual in our observant Jewish neighborhood, there was not a pumpkin or goblin in sight when the day arrived. No costumed revelers rang our bell in search of treats. But of course, I knew.

Our vintage banjo was part of an oddball yerusha (inheritance) from my grandfather, who had plucked it in a vaudeville act with two of his brothers. When he stopped playing, he packed it away without looking back. He left its condition to faith even after the upstairs neighbors overfilled their bathtub, sending a gush of water into my grandparents’ storage closet, the one in which the banjo had languished for decades.

After I inherited it, I didn’t dare to open the case either. The fear that it might be unsalvageable quashed my natural curiosity. I treated it like a sacred artifact, keeping it at the top of my own storage closet for years. I took it out only to show Steve, the banjo expert referred by Mike, who will soon begin teaching my son to play. Both recommended that we check out the one we have before investing in a new instrument.

I drove to Steve’s studio, where the bowl of mini-chocolates just inside his door reminded me that it was Halloween. My eyes moved from them to a room teeming with guitars and banjos in various states of disrepair and restoration.

I rested the banjo on the carpet-covered examination table. Even then I could not bring myself to do it, so I asked Steve to please open the case. He raised the lid to reveal a beauty: a four-string Epiphone tenor banjo with an etched brass resonator. He told me that it was the kind of high-end instrument played by a performer, moving me to share the tale of its provenance.

The golden velvet lining shone — no stains or the faintest scent of mildew. One of the strings had snapped, but the animal-skin head was in sturdy condition, a shock given its age. Inside a lidded compartment were several unopened packs of replacement strings, together with the chamois my grandfather used to shine the brass. All Steve could say was “This is a miracle.”

We discussed the intricacies and pace of the restoration process before the banjo took its place in the queue behind the instruments being serviced for the Thanksgiving-New Year’s Eve holiday performance season. Steve assured me that he would return it to its former glory sometime in mid-January. My dream is that my son will play it one day.

Leaving the banjo in Steve’s care, I turned to go, but remembered one last thing at the door. I wondered whether he could erase the charcoal-like smudges on the skin beneath the strings. He said it was a long shot. Knowing nothing about any of this, I asked if they were the result of age. He shook his head. “They’re from the oils on your grandfather’s fingertips. That’s exactly the place where he rested them between songs.”

It was Halloween, but also Cheshvan, the bitter month that passes without a holiday or special mitzvah of its own, the calendar lull where we rest between a spiritually packed Tishrei and a festive Kislev. And in that bowl of mini-chocolates was the timeless mitzvah to safeguard one of those most fragile of things: our memories of those dearest to us. Sometimes God does that, putting what we need in unlikely places at unlikely times.

“Today was his birthday,” I said. “I didn’t think about it when we scheduled, but my grandfather’s birthday was on Halloween.”

I’ve told my sons what I recall of his antics and his singing. I gave one of them his name. Still, it only dawned on me in the repair studio that day that I had never actually heard my grandfather play the instrument that features in my mental picture of him. Shame on me, I thought, for never asking him why he’d kept it hidden for so long, though I began to suspect it was a painful exile he preferred not to discuss.

Surely, our belongings — the ones that define who we are — have souls of their own. They bear the smudges of human existence, the trace evidence of lives once lived. Cherishing what our loved ones leave behind when they slip into the Other World enables us to keep them within our physical reach as we hold on tight to what we actually remember and what we just know.

On that morning, I stood among the instruments awaiting the resurrection of their souls. I was listening carefully, and I am sure I heard our banjo make a promise: I’ll tell you the rest of his story myself.

Merri Ukraincik, a writer who lives in Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to this space.