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12/22/2014 09:02 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Art And The Family Narrative

The other morning I was cleaning my office. Rooting through a stash of bad first novel drafts, I found a cassette tape labeled "The Harry Mayhew Project." I didn't know that I had it -- the one recording of my grandfather's voice.

I never met him; when my dad was twenty, Harry died from a heart attack on the steps of the factory in southern Virginia where he worked. But I've seen the picture of him in uniform in World War II--he wears a goofy half-smile and clutches his guitar. I've been told he was a funny guy with a hot temper, and immaculate grooming. He liked clothes, though he had no money to buy them.

When I was ten, I found the cassette tape near my father's record collection. I remember sneaking it back to my Fisher Price tape deck, but, staring at the cassette today, I can't recall the sound of my grandfather's voice. Surely I heard it. Surely it is packed deep within my subconscious, a melody I know instinctually but not in the waking life.

Excited, I called my friend Peter, a doctor at the local veteran's home and part-time musician, and asked if he could transfer the recording to CD. He agreed and stopped by my house to pick it up.

"There could be some off-color jokes," I warned, suddenly nervous to surrender the quirky heirloom.

For years I'd told people that my grandfather wanted to be a singer, but life got in the way. What if it wasn't life, but a lack of talent? To know for sure would be to change the narrative.

Peter came over for dinner one night while he was working on transferring the music.

"How bad is it?" I asked.

"Well, they cover a lot of ground," he said, smiling. "Spirituals to, I don't know -- "

"Do they sound drunk?"

"Near the end, yeah. A little."

That night, thinking about the project, I realized that part of my life story was wound up in that cassette tape, and I needed it to be interesting, if not good. I wanted to believe that I could trace my artistic leanings back to the grandparents I never knew. Maybe part of me even felt that it was a noble attempt to live as an artist when my grandparents couldn't. Wasn't I bringing some kernel of passion to fruition?

*
I once told a friend that I felt guilty becoming a writer, because there were people in my family who wanted to be artists, but didn't have the luxury of practicing their art. There was Harry, but also my grandmother Alma Jean, who taught herself to play piano by ear and painted saw blades. "They would have been artists," I said, "but there was so much hard living."

My friend reminded me of slaves singing in the cotton fields, the spirituals and the blues. "Wasn't that art?" he asked, reminding me that there was no luxury there, no permission, no ease.

One thing I know as a writer: to make art is to take risks. You attempt, and you fail, over and over again. Or sometimes you do it because you have to, because it's in you and it has to get out. It is a way to cope with the world.

Let's say this: my grandfather had plenty to sing the blues about. He may not have had time, or money for his art, but he had inspiration: four hard-charging kids, a wife who battled depression, a failed business, a hard job.

Something I'd like to tell the writers just beginning, who worry if they can make a go of it under duress: I have written my best work on my knees, under deadline, or in the throes of environmental anxiety, post-partum-depression, loss, failure. The drive to make art rarely comes from a place of ease and comfort.

*
My friend Peter brings the CD to my house on a cool fall morning.  I want to be alone when I listen, but my kids are in the kitchen, knocking around.

"This is your great-grandfather singing," I tell them. The oldest looks up at me with polite apathy, the same way she looks at stacks of my books.

Finally I'm alone with the music I've waited years to hear. Most remarkable is the sharpness of my grandmother's twang, the manner in which earnest spirituals give way to songs about moonshine. There is the occasional shriek of a small child, casual attempts at harmony, and the easy way my grandfather breaks into laughter. 

Their most successful songs are "I Shall Not Be Moved," "Sixteen Tons," "Mountain Dew," and "Have a Little Talk with Jesus." Sometimes it's hard to tell if it's the accent or the alcohol giving the words a molasses-like stretch. Harry can't always keep it together, but there are verses, notes, even, when you think he's reaching for something, daring to take himself seriously.

"Ah now, yes brother," he says. "Now let's sing it straight."

Let's have a little talk with Jesus, tell him about our troubles...

*

I often look at my favorite picture of Harry from a rare family vacation, 1971, a few years before he died. He looks fit and trim -- we can't see the heart that will soon fail him -- and stands poolside at a motel in short swim trunks. The cars in the background are dated yet elegant, in the way that everything in a faded photograph can seem. It's all too easy to romanticize the past.

The hardest thing about listening to my grandfather's recording session was that I could feel him second-guessing himself, laughing as he missed a lyric. The artist often knows he is not as good as he could be. This part I understand.

I've come to accept that sometimes we are what we are, and not what we aspire to be, and the struggle is what constitutes the arc of your life. Maybe you make art out of this struggle, and leave the sound of it behind, in the air or on the page.

I place the cassette tape on top of my writing desk to remind myself that we cherish imperfect relics. I take heart in my grandfather's attempt. I welcome the permission to try and fail.

Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Almost Famous Women.

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