I've only wanted to play the mandolin for twenty years.
I don't know why I didn't ever pick one up. Maybe it was 14 years of piano lessons, or 10 years of viola lessons, but I didn't even think learning the mandolin was a real option. No one I knew played, how would I even go about learning? I'd pick up a guitar every once in a while thinking I'd try my hand, but it didn't stick; my heart wasn't in it. I'd hear the mandolin on the radio, double tinkling in a solo, or in the background, and think wistfully, "I wish I played the mandolin."
My friend Nancy picked up the ukelele last year, playing solos on her porch on warm summer nights, teaching herself after her children went to bed. It was important, she said, to do this one thing for herself. "I always wanted to learn how to play the mandolin," I told her.
"Why don't you!?" She said, her enthusiasm radiating, making the whole world seem possible.
Stepping into a local music shop, I saw the mandolins in the back corner. I picked out a matte model and put it on layaway. You'd crow to hear that it was a replica of models from the 1950s--something I didn't know until I picked it out from the crowd and brought it to the register. I wanted to prove to myself I could earn it slowly: paying for the instrument over months, carefully setting aside the money, deliberately anti-instant gratification. I couldn't just walk in and out with a mandolin, I needed to be sure.
I brought a Gretsch mandolin home on a Tuesday night, in a snug case with a learn-it-yourself spiral book. Every night, after the kids are in bed and the evening slows, I pull out my mandolin and teach myself how to play. I practice the chords and learn the fingering, finally understanding how to fret and strum.
My mother dropped by the house on a Friday afternoon. She noticed the mandolin case on the couch. "What's that?" She asked.
"Let me show you," I said, unzipping the case and pulling out the satin wood New Yorker Gretsch, "It's a mandolin. I've always wanted to learn how to play, I don't know why, so one day I decided I would."
Her eyes started shining.
She told me about growing up in Spain, how her uncles, aunts, and cousins played the mandolin. Gathering on cool nights of coastal Galicia, singing traditional folk songs and entertaining their families. They all played, she said, recounting the names and memories of those long ago nights, in kitchens and around the fire. Smoky and salted fish on worn wooden tables. Fog rising outside. The high, clear, old songs echoing from the mandolins.
Maybe the blood wants what it wants, perhaps our DNA passes along tiny codes for music, tradition, and connection, just like it did our dark hair and loud voices. Who can say?
One thing I can say: I play the mandolin.