In a dusty corner of my little adobe house, a neglected old guitar stands and waits. That wait may be a long one; I’m a busy woman, and nobody wants her but me. But she isn’t worried; she knows I’ll be back. I will come to her corner, dust her gently and tuck her under my arm. I will need the comfort she offers.
I’ll always come back to Stella.
Stella was a guitar line sold by the Oscar Schmidt Company and then by Harmony when they acquired the brand in 1939. Peddled by Sears & Roebuck in the 1960’s, the model I have is a reduced-size “first guitar.” It became mine when I was 12 and struggling to adjust to a new junior high school.
Stella was a gift from my dad, an intuitive fellow who knew I needed a friend. His eyes shone with compassion as he handed her to me, then sat beside me on the bed of my tiny, pink room.
“This model is perfect for you,” he said, “It’s a three-quarter size, made just for small hands like yours.” He handed me Stella. She was shiny and polished, and he was right–my little fingers could easily fit around her neck.
Dad taught me the basic chords: D, A and G, then C, F and G7. He taught me the progression for I Walk the Line by Johnny Cash, and then he played a tune on Stella (most likely from an Eddy Arnold album he loved) and he sang it just for me.
For the next several years, Stella was a true companion as I sat on my bed in that little room and strummed away, wailing out folk songs and prayers of my own making, working up the courage to face another day of adolescence. Stella was good company back then; in fact, she was a blast.
I don’t visit Stella with much regularity any more, because I never mastered the guitar.
Even if I had, I’d have put her aside because her sound is tinny and she doesn’t stay in tune for long. So she waits, alone and dusty, her white stripe chipped and her strings scraggly at her head. But even in this sad condition, I am still drawn to her.
Stella’s cute because she’s little, and she still has that seductive curve that beckons you to come closer, put your arm around her and hang on for a while–she won’t mind.
Sometimes my husband will tune Stella up for me. Rick owns two Taylors, each a thing a beauty: a thin, vibrant six string cutaway and a voluptuous, full-throated 12-string. Thirty years of arduous finger-picking justified their purchase, and their singing and the command of his well-trained fingers is a delight.
Rick knows what he’s doing on the guitar, but no matter what he plays on Stella, it always comes out sounding like the blues.
In fact, in Stella’s presence, every picker, novice or expert, is instantly transformed into a Mississippi John Hurt wannabe. It seems that these days, the blues is the only sound Stella knows how to make.
Whenever I get the urge to take up the guitar again, Rick tells me to play the Taylor six-string. My choice of Stella puzzles him: it’s like asking for the keys to the Chevette when you could take the Jaguar for a spin.
I explain that I don’t really play the guitar anyway but sometimes I need to wail for a while.
Besides, Stella reminds me of a few other important things.
She tells me that I need not worry so much about bad hair days and chipped toenail paint, nor about the beautiful, talented achievers I know who tempt me to doubt my worth.
I return to Stella’s corner to remember, to sing the blues, to hang on for dear life until those worries pass.
“Make me an instrument,” St. Francis prayed. An instrument of Thy peace.”
While I’m certain the lovable monk didn’t have a battered antique of a junior guitar in mind when he composed his famous prayer, I’d be content to be an instrument like Stella.
It is a noble thing to serve as a comforting memory in the heart of another, to be a true companion. What better catalyst for peace than a listener who draws the blues right out of another’s heart until they dissipate and float away for a while?
Aren’t the “Stellas” in our lives the ones to whom we return when we are broken, hanging out and hanging on until we’ve worked up the courage to face the world once more?
So I keep coming back to Stella. She is not growing lovely with age, but that doesn’t matter to me. She is much more than an old memory; she is a signpost and a guide, and folk songs and prayers still wail out of me when I’m around her.
Make me an instrument.
Make me a trusty, bluesy friend of an instrument.
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This post, with a few adaptations, first appeared as a Denver Post Colorado Voices column, a stint I enjoyed almost 20 years ago. It is republished with permission.
An update with a confession: during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, Rick bought me a Baby Taylor and I do love her! If I was flush with funds I’d pay to have Stella restored, but no matter what we’ve tried we never could coax her to tune up. But we did buy her a stand, and the photos (except the one up top) are mine.
Rick loves the guitar instruction available at Homespun. We also like Tony Polecastro’s Acoustic Tuesday show, which totally lives up to its claim to “add fun, focus and progress to your guitar journey” through Tony’s “weekly guitar geek lists,” new music updates and more.