The sound of the shotgun rang through the entire neighborhood. Louder than I anticipated, the echo pulsating through my chest. An immediate fear rose inside me, the hairs on my neck standing up, waiting for the police sirens. The neighbors would come running for sure. “What the hell’s goin’ on?” they would shout. Waiting for the quiet of the late morning to be stirred by the sounds of voices and questions and consequences. Minus the flutter of a few frightened birds from nearby trees, nothing happened. Nothing. I waited, and after a few moments, the anxiety subsided.
“Why don’tcha give the boy a try,” Howard said from across the lawn.
I’m not a gun guy. Never have been. Never will be. But I knew it was an important moment. I’m not sure my father would have let me near a shotgun without Howard’s prompting, but he smiled, understanding the moment, too, and waved me over. Actually, Pops would definitely have let me near it, but needed Howard’s prompting to help overrule my mother, who was pacing between the windows inside the house at our backs. He took a knee as Howard approached. I was about 12, and the thoughts that ran through my head were something like, “Only in Hardy, Arkansas can you take aim at a bucket with a shotgun in somebody’s front yard at 10 in the morning.” A rite of passage, I guess.
I could hear Grandma Bonnie groaning in the house behind us, my mother a step to her left. “Oh, gosh, now you be careful, Ben,” she hollered. Pops replaced the bucket while Howard explained the technique.
“Scott,” my mother protested.
“He’s ok, honey,” Pops answered.
“Now, you wanna hold it here,” Howard said, ignoring them, setting my hands in the right place, the barrel aimed toward the grass. It was heavy. “It’s gonna have a pretty good kick,” he warned. “You keep it right against the shoulder there. Hold it good and tight,” he said. “Now you just line up your shot here. Take your time. And when you’re ready. Let ‘er go.”
Pops continued the tutorial as Howard retreated, standing behind me, in case the kick from the shotgun knocked me backwards. Snug against the shoulder. Not against the collar bone. That’ll hurt. Drop it down a little. Like Howard said. There. Perfect.
I took aim at the bucket, pushing down the apprehension that I was actually aiming a shotgun toward the street, and that there was only a forty or fifty foot stretch until the little road disappeared into foliage.
Definitely heavier than I would have guessed. But I steadied myself. Took a deep breath.
More scattering birds.
I remember being stunned at how quickly everything happened. So fast. I don’t know why I’d expected to see some part of the firing process. Too much tv, I suppose. The kick from the shotgun was substantial, the barrel lifting toward the sky, pounding into my shoulder, though I didn’t fall over. The black bucket pitched twenty feet into the air. A direct hit. Howard chuckled as it tumbled back to the earth with a thud.
“Oh my gosh,” Bonnie’s frustrated voice came from behind me. “Now, Howard, that’s enough,” she ordered.
That was enough.
“Oh, alright,” said Howard, smiling. “I guess we done enough bucket huntin’ for today.”
My father laughed as I set down the shotgun and ran to retrieve the mangled target. It was peppered with buckshot, tiny holes that had penetrated the entire front side, tore through the heavy plastic so it resembled some sort of mutilated colander.
Break out the correction tape again. Grandma Bonnie had 4 sisters, and two brothers. I apologize Lucille, Wayne and Dale. The gaps in years between them make it difficult for me to keep tabs on names, for some of them I never actually remember meeting at all. I recall her eldest sister, Mary, who was 20 years older than Grandma, a quiet, stoic woman who could match the hardest working men on the farm for most of her life. She passed in her 90s, almost a secondary matriarch to the family. Mary had wed her husband Walter by the time Bonita (sorry Grandma) came along. In fact, I learned this past week that Grandma was born in Mary’s house. When my great grandmother died, Mary became a bit of a mother to Grandma. And that, from what I gather, is where Bonnie learned to play the piano.
I can’t remember my grandmother without music. And I have Howard to thank for that. In Hardy and the surrounding areas, she and Howard played together at restaurants and taverns after they got married. At their home, in a small, paneled room designated for instruments, they played for friends and family who visited. When they vacationed as yankees, traveling north to see us, they set up around the perimeter of our family room, Uncle Danny and Pops joining in with guitar and fiddle. Years later, after they’d migrated from Arkansas back to Illinois, they performed for the elderly at nursing homes. I just never recall Grandma Bonnie without a piano or a keyboard. Which is odd, because she had no piano in that 2nd floor apartment in Rockford, where my earliest memories of her germinate. I had to turn to Pops for clarification. Even in the many places they’d lived when he was a kid, none boasted a piano or keyboard. The only instrument was her father’s violin, which carried a stunning, achingly beautiful sound when my father played it.
“Mary had a piano in her house,” he told me. “That’s where Grandma was born, and that’s where she learned to play. Howard was the one who bought her the keyboard after they were married.”
And, man, did Grandma just love playing again.
Now, when I was a kid, the music that Howard and Bonnie collaborated to create wasn’t exactly the kind of stuff I sought out on the radio, or at the record shop. Most of their tunes were folksy, songs handed down the traditional ways, via family and friends, church and culture. Songs that people like Johnny Cash, Elvis, Loretta Lynn knew. Only, they weren’t singing the ones you’re thinking of. There were no covers of ‘Walk the Line’ or ‘Hound Dog’ or ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’ No, they were singing and playing the songs that these artists grew up on. Songs that these stars would sometimes hide of the B-sides of albums, a nod to old timey mountain music. A nod to the past. Old Rugged Cross. Golden Slippers. I’ll Fly Away. A nod to simpler times and simpler people. I had no context for the richness of their origination. No ear for their twangy cords. No appreciation for the tenderness of the lyrics. To my 7 year old self, they just sounded kind of, well, silly. It may as well have been a skit from Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer on Saturday Night Live.
My mother snapped and clapped along to the ditties, singing along with the tunes she knew. My father called out regular requests, things he hadn’t heard since he was a kid. But, for the most part, for those first few years, I just kind of hung in there until Howard would pause between songs to tell another story, reminiscing about playing different venues over the years. A funny story about Perry or one of his brothers breaking his nose in a fight. He was a showman, even in our living room.
That being said, my appreciation for their talents, and those songs, grew tremendously over the next ten years or so. I owe some of that appreciation to one class I took in college: Introduction to American Music, where I was led on a journey to understand the complexity of American music, particularly in how the many genres interlocked. How they’d inspired, influenced, consumed, and sometimes denounced one another from the founding days of America to present day. I scrambled to find some of the oldest American recordings I could locate at local music stores, forging a connection with songs from a simpler time. Robert Johnson. Blind Willie Johnson. Lead Belly. On my search, on the B-sides of some of those albums, I was often startled when I began anticipating the lyrics of songs I already knew. Songs like ‘Good Night Irene,’ which was often one of Grandma and Howard’s finales before packing away their instruments for the night. I was dumbstruck. Here I’d been taking a college course about music for a semester, but I’d been receiving an education in early American music for years, without even realizing it.
I wish the recording equipment had been available to me when I was younger. When Howard’s fingers were cleaner on the strings. Before Grandma Bonnie had to force her voice to hit that particular note. Though I never would have had the perspective I have now. Preserving it, when I had no appreciation for it, wouldn’t have been a priority, I suppose. My mother had the forethought to do it back in the late 1980s, and I’m sure there’s a cassette tape or two from her efforts, packed away in a rumpled box in her basement. But the quality won’t be as clean as I want it to be. Instead, I’m left with the memory of how they sounded, how happy it made them to play together. That, and I’m thankful to have a few videos that Howard’s son, Wayne, created during their last handful of years together, playing for the folks at the last place they would live together: Heritage Woods. You can still see Howard’s energy, even at 90 years old, his head bobbing, rocking in his chair as he plays the guitar.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was one song Howard and Grandma played that I was able to appreciate, even when I was young. ‘Chime Bells.’ It took me far too long to locate the name of that song by the way. Wayne Estes, Howard’s son, has been kind enough to share some wonderful pictures of his dad with me over the last week, and his video below is the only reason I was able to track down the song I loved to hear them play. Thank you, Wayne.
Grandma Bonnie could yodel. And it blew me away as a young kid. Well, technically, I never heard her yodel outside of this particular tune, but still, I’d never heard anyone do it before. Perhaps it was the insane way she could flutter her voice and still maintain control of it that impressed me. Perhaps it was the smirk on Howard’s face when the tempo picked up, the way he would push her into singing faster each time she sang it. Her eyes would grow wide, palm to her chest, barely keeping up with his frantic strumming. But she never lost control. Never gave up. And then she’d usually offer to slug him after it was done. While the recording will never match the quality of my memories, it’s somehow nothing short of the perfect snapshot.