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I began this blog in order to share my experiences learning instrument building from my dad, but along with those stories I look forward to sharing my memories of growing up with two busy, musically inclined parents as well as my current experiences stepping out on my own as a female luthier promoting environmental sustainability in her instruments while working to alter gender stereotypes in a male dominated field. If you'd like to use quotes from this blog for interviews or in your own work, please contact me first! (email is henderson.elizabethj@gmail.com)

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I apologize (again) for the delinquency in my posting, but I have some kind of good reasons this time. Not that good, but here they are: First, I seem to have contracted some sort of illness that just won't go away. My friend Allison would call it 'the croup'. In reality it is just a ridiculous cold. 13 days and counting I have been sniffling and coughing all over my two guitars (if you are one of the to-be owners of these instruments, don't worry, I just said that for effect, I have tried really hard not to actually cough on anything.) Anyway, there is one reason, and another is that I have been working very hard on the aforementioned guitars, hoping to finish them up this week. So far so good, the necks were fitted today so now it's just a sleigh ride into finishwork! (Sleigh ride because several inches of snow is predicted in Rugby today.) My third reason for not posting is that I haven't been able to think of any good stories to tell you. But that changed today.

This afternoon a fellow walked into the shop and plopped a picture down infront of my dad. Now, I don't know if this man knew my dad or that the building he entered was a guitar shop before he walked in, but he didn't introduce himself or anything, just asked directions to the place in the picture, assuming my dad knew. He did, as he knows most things, and started telling tales of his past. The picture was of Rugby in about 1950. I glanced at it while I was cutting frets and pressing them into a fingerboard. I saw a large bus, two grainy figures that looked to be teenage boys, and two buildings. My dad named the boys, and mentioned that one of them grew up to be his bus driver. I inquired about the bus, and he said that was the book mobile. (What?!) Apparently it drove around delivering books to folks who lived far from town. As many people used their feet for transportation, this was a pretty useful service. But let me get this straight: in 1950, in Rugby, VA, the smallest place in existence, there was a bus that took books to people?! I never considered that education was all that important to folks in this neck of the woods. Farming took hard work and consistency, not book learning, so I just assumed people didn't focus too much on that. That was an incorrect assumption. 

Rugby, circa 1950. Bookmobile waits in front of general store. 
Thinking back on my time spent with my Granny, I remember she was very proud of her handwriting. Her cursive was made with strokes so beautiful and sure. She wrote out lovely letters and when I asked her to teach me, she gave me a pencil and we sat down at her little houndstooth patterned table in the room off the kitchen, aptly positioned next to the tall metal coal stove that held the tea kettle. On her paper she scrawled endless loops; I remember thinking they looked like the bends in Slinky, only stretched out a little. She said she used to practice for hours and hours when she was a young girl. I thought I was doing it for hours and hours too, but in hindsight, my practice probably lasted about 5 minutes. I remember she mentioned that she went to school until the seventh grade, which was admirable and rare in those days. She said she had to walk to school, carrying her books bound with a leather strap, and looped through her arm a metal lunch pail filled with a biscuit and a vegetable, and if she was lucky, some ham or other type of cured meat.

Granny's dad was very well educated for being born in 1879 living in very rural Virginia. My dad said that Grandpa Orren wrote in that same intricate cursive, called Morgan hand, that I watched my Granny use. He said he was also fascinated by it, and tried to emulate his grandpa's handwriting as well. 

My dad told me today that his dad, Walter, never did go to school, but he could read a little bit, and write his name, and balance his checkbook. My dad said he never really thought about how he could do that, but later assumed that Granny taught him how to do those things. I bet she did. He said that both of his parents valued education, and knew that it was important for him to finish high school, even though they could always use more help on their farm. I think it is great that they encouraged that, and being creative, and playing music. My dad, uncle, grandfather, and my dad's grandfather all played an instrument, but that is a story for another time. 

My dad has many stories to share about his school experience. I remember him telling me more of them in the past, like the last day of school picnics, where each child was given a soda which was a very rare, and very welcome, treat in Rugby. Another time when he was playing baseball and Lauren and Leah's dad came running behind him right as he swung the bat and John got caught in his backswing. That blunt force trauma to the head laid John out cold. My dad thought he had killed him. But he regained consciousness eventually and made a full recovery. But the story I want to tell most is about Mr. Slabey. 

Mr. Slabey was the teacher at my dad's school who taught the older students. My dad said he was scared to death of him because he would take spells of screaming at his students that were so loud they shook the walls. My dad said he was petrified of him, and hoped never to have to have him as a teacher. One day as he was sitting on the rock wall that segregated the school from a cow pasture, my dad decided to see how far he could jump from the wall into the grass. As he landed, he fell onto his hands and slid forward in the wet grass. As he was sliding, his hand caught on a broken Pepsi bottle partially hidden in the earth and cut a large flapping gash in his hand. He said Mr. Slabey took him into the school and looked and the wound and quickly and expertly taped the wound shut and immediately soaked it in a bowl of water saturated with epsom salt. He then bandaged it and put a sling on my dad's arm. Mr. Slabey instructed Granny on how to soak the wound each evening, and when my dad arrived at school, Mr. Slabey checked it and replaced the gauze bandage. My dad was grateful for the teacher's kindness and the episode eased a bit of his anxiety over having to go into that room where the walls shook with each angry shout. 

I think it is incredibly interesting hearing about the folks around here, how they lived and worked in their community. These stories were particularly interesting to me as I have always enjoyed reading and learning, and it warms my heart to know that my family, and this community, does as well. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

I remember walking along the road holding my grandmother's hand, popping the bubbles that rose in the hot asphalt with my toes. My Granny never learned how to drive, so when we wanted to go somewhere we would walk, join Wayne and Lucy on their weekly trip to town, or much later when I was old enough, Granny would bravely buckle herself into my car. That is a story for a different day though.

Several times when I stayed with my Granny, we walked over to her mom's house. Granny Ollie's farm sits down the road a short ways, just past Wayne and Lucy's property. We would turn right off the road and cross the fence. I always climbed over the chipped aluminum bars while Granny just opened it, proclaiming that I would fall and break my arm. We stumbled down the hill, along the dirt driveway, two parallel tire tracks marking the way to the house. Before we could get to the house though, a two- or three-foot wide trickling of water that Granny called "the branch" intersected the drive. I can still hear what my Granny told me every time we encountered the ominous water.

"One time I was walking home and it had just been raining, so the branch was a little higher than usual. I got it into my head that I would jump over it and so I backed up and then took a big jump. And then I landed face first in that water, getting soaked from head to foot. I came in the house crying and upset. My mom didn't know what had happened to me!"

Most of the times we walked over there, we brought a paper bag filled with sandwiches and would explore the house a bit after eating lunch at the kitchen table. My great grandmother's furniture still sits in each room. The stove is still backed against a wall in the kitchen, though the ancient green refrigerator sits ajar. I remember always wanting to explore the rooms in a hope to find secret treasure that someone had carelessly left behind. I never found anything in particular, but the last time I walked out there with Shirleen I did find some amazing glass bowls that (apparently) used to come in boxes of oatmeal in the upper room of the barn.

Now that I think back on those lunchtime experiences, I realize that Granny was just coming back to her house to remember times with her mom. quite similar to the dinners my dad, his siblings, and I assemble at Granny's house now. It always feels so nice to sit around her big oak table and sit with my family, though it hurts a bit that she isn't there to join us. I guess we all just itch for nostalgia.

I don't know very much about Granny Ollie, other than from the snippets of stories I have heard from Granny and my dad. One thing I like to think is that she was probably a lot like me. She seemed to tell it how she saw it, and didn't have as strong a strain of that southern politeness that most of my family is steeped in. She also dipped snuff, which I don't think was typically something ladies did, so while I would never use any type of tobacco products, I also run a little against the grain.

The reason I thought to tell you a little bit about Granny Ollie today was because according to my dad she would always say, "If you work on New Year's Day, you'll work all year long," I take that saying to heart, and hope to make a solid start to 2013. This morning I got up and went running in a rainy 35 degrees (it wasn't the worst thing I have ever done), and then sat down and cut some pearl in hopes to appease my great grandmother, and hopefully be encouraged to learn a lot, work hard, and make some great instruments this year.

I hope that 2012 has treated you well, and that 2013 brings health and happiness for you and your loved ones!