A pug rests under a table containing a shiny accordion

Accordion Hugs: Love in the Time of COVID

By Wendy Graham

In November 2019, I arrived in Oracle, AZ, just outside Tucson, to call at “Dance in the Desert,” just six weeks after my husband, Wayne, passed unexpectedly in his sleep at age 48. It was also exactly five years to the day since I was last there, immediately following our glorious Mexico beach wedding and scuba dive adventure.

Talk about a mix of emotions.

When I got up on stage for the first morning session, I teased Russ Healy, the accordion player seated next to me, about the camp’s new recycling program. In addition to paper, plastic, and glass, there was now a bin for banjos and accordions. Joking!

Then, I admitted to him that actually I always regretted not accepting my dance teacher, Barbara Harding’s, generous offer to give me her accordion and teach me how to play it. At 14 and new to the folk world, that was just too geeky to even consider.

Russ’s face lit up. There was an accordion on the auction table that he insisted on showing me over lunch. It fit perfectly. With my piano background coming in handy, Russ coached me through “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

But, I was hesitant. How would I get it home on the airplane? Would it fit in my small home? Would I actually practice or would it simply collect dust?

Word of my interest in the instrument spread. Campers quietly wrote my name on their raffle tickets for the instrument.

On the last night of camp, a live auction was held for big ticket items after dinner. Master of ceremonies, Dave Firestine, presented the accordion. A drumroll rippled through the dining hall. The winning ticket read “Wendy” scribbled in someone else’s handwriting. 27 years after my first chance, I was now a proud accordion owner.

The next day, I conveniently managed a free upgrade to a first class seat on the 45-minute puddle jumper flight home to Durango. The accordion magically fit under the seat in front of me, spared from the cargo hold below.

Barbara Harding passed from this world shortly after. I knew that I was meant to play the accordion in her honor. I named “her” Sera, after “Que Sera, Sera”: “Whatever will be, will be.”

But, intense back pain, a psychosomatic result of my grief, made it hard to sit in a chair, much less sit and play an instrument. I noodled “Twinkle, Twinkle” with my right hand, but I’d forgotten how to work the buttons with my left. So, I put the accordion back in its box while I tended to my “widow work.”

In March 2020, Colorado Governor Polis ordered us to stay at home. My work hours were cut by 90%. Unsure and alone, except for my tripod pug, Percy Harvin, and my mom down the street, I hunkered down by the fire while snow lay on the ground outside.

Ding! In a light-bulb moment of clarity, I messaged Rachel Bell, a full-time musician in Brattleboro, VT, who had just lost all of her gigs. Normally too busy traveling to take on students, she eagerly added me to her now wide-open schedule.

It was a win-win: learn the accordion with a talented dance musician and teacher and provide some meager financial support while her income stream was running dry. Rachel and I still meet weekly to this day.

In ways I could never predict, taking up a new instrument turned out to be both incredibly healing for my personal grief journey and helpful during the year-formerly-known- as-2020.

The accordion lessons themselves have been wonderful. Rachel and I had only just met in March 2019 for the first time, but our friendship has grown into a supportive sisterhood.

Connecting with others was another amazing outcome. I got in touch with my grade school piano teacher on Facebook to thank her for the years of lessons that were now paying off. I contributed musical numbers to the virtual Pinewoods Family Week and Christmas Country Dance School. I send videos to bring joy to my ailing 90-year- old British “Aunt” Jeannie in Virginia. I appreciate helpful tips and original tunes from accordion players around the world. And, I get to play with other folk community members during weekly ear-training Zoom sessions.

I feel nourished by the creative process of learning the instrument. I enjoy “meeting” new tunes, and my soul is soothed when revisiting old favorites. Rachel and I curiously speculate that the coordination required to play the accordion might even be a remedy for Alzheimer’s!

And, after being devoid of human touch without Wayne and because of the pandemic, I love getting hugs from Sera each time I play.

I sense that Barbara Harding is delighted that I am finally playing the accordion. But, as for Wayne and Percy Harvin, I am not so sure!

Wendy GrahamWendy Graham is a dance fiend and caller in Durango, CO. When the pandemic began, in addition to the accordion, she also took up iPhone photography, Tahitian dance, morning Zoom workouts, and French lessons on Duolingo, in preparation for calling in France someday.

Have you been learning something new during the pandemic? We’d love to hear about it! Wendy is curating a year-long project to feature more of these kinds of stories in the CDSS News. Write to her via news@cdss.org, and we might put you in this spot in our next issue!

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