My Grandpop and the ukulele

How a performer’s talent served as a source of inspiration for his grandson.

I never could figure out how to work this thing.

I lost the pick some time ago, but it wouldn’t have mattered – I hardly know how to tune it, let alone play it.

But, every time I’ve pulled out my little ukulele in recent years, my memory swirls with each uneducated flick of the strings.

My grandfather gave me this ukulele on the day that he was finally going to teach me how to play. I remember waiting by the window for his brand new 2003 Ford Focus to roll up on my street. It was a gray, dreary autumn day, but I didn’t care. Not that day.

Once he got there, sat me down, pulled out his music and settled in, it was only then that he remembered that he was in the presence of a left-hander. He said he didn’t know how to teach to a left-handed player, can you believe that?

I was disappointed – not just because it was a hiccup in my childhood dream of being a musician some day – but because I had heard his stories.

I wanted to learn from the coolest person I knew, and the one person I personally knew who had actually performed on the radio. Sure, it was on a Philadelphia-based show called Children’s Hour sponsored by the now-defunct food services company, Horn and Hardart. But still, it was neat, and I didn’t know the difference back then.

None of us did. To me, and his 12 other grandchildren, he was affectionately known as “Grandpop.”

He was the grandfather that every kid wanted to have. He was especially kind, always knew what to say or do to get his grandkids to laugh and, of course, he always let me get whatever I wanted from the ice-cream aisle.

And the dude could sing. Man, could he sing, with a voice that a man in his 80s simply shouldn’t possess.

When he was 4 years old, he played in an amateur group with his brother and father up until, as he put it, his voice “broke” upon entering teenhood. It was a kind way of telling his wide-eyed third grader of a grandkid that he could no longer hit his high notes when puberty hit him.

Prior to that, though, he sang and performed in various theaters in places like Philadelphia and nearby Delaware County to help support his family through the Great Depression. His stories about it always fascinated me, and my interest in music blossomed because of them.

Not many people know about big band artist Cab Calloway these days, but I do. Some time after my grandfather died in 2010, my uncle told me that they had shared the stage.

His career as an entertainer on radio and in theaters, like many childhood dreams and activities, didn’t last. He still performed in groups and with friends during adulthood, however, up until his time as a grandfather of countless little rascals like myself.

But even as long as I can remember him, he could still sing.

I don’t think he liked his voice, particularly when he sang, as he got older. He never wanted to join a church choir, because he didn’t consider himself good enough.

But, he had a fan in me.

Even if it was something as simple as “Happy Birthday,” the most popular song in the world that doesn’t have a key, he made it sound good.

Christmas was my favorite time of year as a kid, not only for the gifts and my family’s old Christmas tradition of serving a healthy dose of Monkey Bread, but because I would sing “Jingle Bells” with him each time it came around. He was my harmonizing buddy.

It’s hard to believe, still, that five Christmases have passed since we last spent the holiday together.

But, I still have that ukulele he gave me on that fateful gray, autumn day.

I still have no clue how to play the damn thing, but that’s OK.

Andrew Parent can be reached at andrew.parent@temple.edu.

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    One comment on “My Grandpop and the ukulele

    1. This story made me want to cry –
      what a lovely tribute to a wonderful man
      had such a clear picture of “grandpop” and how very loved he was
      Great Job

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