Susan Byrum Rountree has been telling stories ever since she understood the power of the Show & Tell stool in kindergarten. Words have always held a sense of magic for her, and she parlayed that magic into a 35-year career of bending them this way and that. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and In Mother Words, a collection of essays about family life. Born and raised in Scotland Neck, N.C., a tiny town in the Tar Heel State’s northeastern corner, she studied journalism at UNC Chapel Hill. She is now Director of Communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, in Raleigh. The mother of two grown children and two very precocious granddogs, she has written for a number of national and regional newspapers and magazines. These days she blogs about the magic of daily life on her blog, Write Much.
Pick a Little Talk a Little | by Susan Byrum Rountree
My father was an amateur magician. With a sleight of hand, he used to pull coins from the ears of grandchildren, use his nimble fingers to shuffle a deck of cards into a magic trick. He could separate inseparable rings.
He was a busy man when I was growing up. One of only three doctors in my hometown, he was up and out early, and though he most always was home for supper, often in the middle of it, the phone would ring, or people would show up at the back door, and he was gone again. My mother, brother, sister and I shared him all those years, waiting at home as he delivered babies (12 in 24 hours once), treated hearts — both broken and diseased — mended bones and emotions, nurtured families as they took root, grew old, died.
I’m child #3, so my alone time with Daddy was limited when I was little. I remember him teaching me to bait a proper hook with a blood worm while the waves of the Atlantic lapped at my feet. A walk in the woods one day (with my brother and sister), I think because my brother was working on a merit badge. A day he came home from work to sew up a tiny injured rabbit my sister found in the yard. And a day he pitched the softball to me in the back yard so I wouldn’t embarrass myself during recess. (It didn’t work.)
But one of the many things Daddy shared with me in those times when he was home was a love for banjo music. We watched the Arthur Smith Show and Hee Haw and Porter Wagoner, Daddy tapping his size 13 wing tips against the ottoman as I clapped along.
Daddy loved Earl Scruggs. Somehow back then I felt like Earl and Lester Flatt were neighbors, they came so often into our family room. I’d watch as their fingers flew, coaxing sweet music out of those strings, and it was pure joy.
Daddy had a banjo, too, and every now and then he and I would sneak away into the living room while my siblings were bent over homework, and I would sit beside him on the dressed up sofa — my feet not yet touching the floor — and he would play for me. I’d watch as those same magical fingers that shuffled the cards and stitched up that rabbit plucked the stiff wire strings until Bill Bailey filled up the whole room. Joy again, to have Daddy all to myself, for him to be singing just to me.
My kindergarten class performed a play when I was five. It had something to do with Valentine’s Day, and I played the role of “a girl.” In the picture, I stand next to a boy wearing a cowboy hat and a sly grin as big as the waxing moon. I don’t remember a thing about the play except one of the boys played Pinocchio, and that I wore a pink dress my grandmother had made and white cotton gloves. I hated that I had to stand next to the boy with the grin, who sang the theme song to the “Beverly Hillbillies” because he told our teacher Earl Scruggs was his cousin.
When I learned that Earl, the sweet man who used to visit with us often and played his five-fingered magic had died, I remembered that boy, and my Daddy playing for me, and how much banjo music meant to me once upon a time.
Wouldn’t you know that the brother of that boy is a Facebook acquaintance? So the news hound in me couldn’t resist asking if the story was true.
Not true, exactly, he wrote to me. But his uncle played in a band with the father of Bluegrass when Earl and Lester Flatt performed live for the radio. And wouldn’t you know? He and his sly brother, along about the time of our kindergarten play, sometimes sat on the stage with Earl and Lester when they performed. If I imagined them as neighbors, to be sure to a five-year-old, sitting on stage with the performers meant you were kin.
I’ve thought a lot about my banjo memories since then and have even played a little Foggy Mountain Breakdown as I worked. Though I thought my father’s banjo long gone to history, come to find out that my brother has been keeping it safe for awhile, and two years ago gave it back to Daddy, all cleaned up and ready for picking again.
“Get him to play you a song,” my brother told me.
Well, I just believe I will.
What would this world be like, if every single one of us took the time to coax our gifts out and into the world — like the unassuming Earl, or Daddy with his magic for healing, with medicine or music? Small gestures can become great magic, when shuffled with the right hands.
You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.