CONTRACOSTATIMES.COM: JANUARY 23,2010
The greatest gift I ever received came from my family, tucked inside a Mother’s Day card. It was airfare to Ireland, where I would join in the celebration of my dear friend’s 50th birthday. Jillian had invited three girlfriends, all of whom she felt would ring in her milestone robustly. I, for my part, was bringing my flute – something I could play in the pubs that would endear us to the locals.
The flute had been more than a musical instrument to me, growing up. It had been a generational link. Both my mother and grandmother were flutists – so it must have been in my blood to be able to pick it up, without practice, and play along to most tunes.
But I’d never played flute in another country. I’d never packed it so carefully amongst my black boots and jeans – to reassemble it before strangers on a distant shore. What would they think of a middle-aged mother walking into a pub with such chutzpah? The vision of ruddy-faced men downing pints and cheering wildly as I strutted on stage made me laugh out loud. Maybe it was time I stepped out of my predictable life and into something a little – unscripted. Didn’t Eleanor Roosevelt, herself, espouse doing something each day that made one a little uncomfortable?
I flew into Shannon three days before the designated meeting time under the clock at Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel (a legendary spot for a rendezvous). Flying in early, and to Shannon, would assure I’d have plenty of time to tour the countryside by bus and polish my act before meeting my girlfriends.
“Here’s a sweet spot,” I told myself, as I entered a ramshackle pub in the seaside village of Salt Hill. I took a seat at the bar, and ordered a beer while I surveyed the place. A man with a tweed cap and a karaoke machine was testing his microphone near an old plank dance floor. I took a big sip to work up the courage to approach him. “I’m a flute player from California,” I said hesitantly. “I used to be a musician. Can I play a few numbers with you?” He looked quizzically at me – God only knows what he was thinking – and then graciously agreed.
By this time, the barstools were being taken by what I surmised were mostly locals. The once quiet chatter was turning into a full-on din – and smoke was curling overhead like steam from a teapot. I sat down near the man with the microphone and played softly behind two of his selections – both American songs – I think. Then a voice shouted from the bar “Let the American play her flute!” A smattering of inebriated affirmations followed and the man with the karaoke machine acquiesced.
This was my Andy Warhol moment. I thumbed through the beverage-stained pages of the songbook and picked Green, Green Grass of Home – a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. He cued up the song and I closed my eyes and began to play. There was no music to fall back on, just my memory of how it sounded when Tom Jones sang it, and I put every bit of vibrato and schmaltz I could muster into that ballad.
Breathless, I held the last note for what seemed an eternity, milking the moment – then silence. I squinted through the haze of a hundred tiny embers and saw their reaction. The beer I’d been nursing had multiplied – there were nearly a dozen just like it where I’d been sitting. And the silence turned into applause, and hoots, and whistles.
Travel is a fickle thing. You can visit a place and never feel close to its people or culture. This evening in Ireland, I felt I touched souls.
And when I rendezvoused with my girlfriends in Dublin, it was music that made the memories, and the lifelong connections we still feel today.