The square photo is black and white. It has the scalloped white edges and contrasting dark background you would expect to find in a photo that dates from the 1950s. The caption at the top reads simply “Christmas,” followed by the year.
The little girl, dressed in a robe and pajamas, is probably just a few steps away from the Christmas tree. She looks directly into the camera, beaming, with her feet planted apart. She is playing a toy accordion.
I found the photo well over a decade ago, when I was going through old family albums at my mother’s home in the Chicago suburbs. Most of the photos were familiar to me, even though I hadn’t looked at them in years. But not this one.
It brought me up short.
I knew the little girl immediately.
I was almost four in that photo. The house, the chairs, the patterned curtains—even my pajamas and robe—all looked familiar. But not the accordion. I had no memory of it.
Until I found that photo, I believed that my love affair with the accordion had arrived out of the blue, five years earlier, when my husband took me to New Orleans for my fortieth birthday.
My midlife obsession began on a swamp tour into Cajun country, after I heard some Cajun music and couldn’t get the wild, passionate sound out of my mind. Back home in Chicago, I started to have vivid, recurring dreams of playing the accordion. I would wake up with the weight of the accordion still in my hands, even though I had never touched one before. Finally, nine months later, I bought one and started to play. It was the beginning of a life-altering journey.
But my chance discovery of that old photo revealed another truth. A deeper truth. The seeds of my accordion playing had been planted much earlier than I suspected. No wonder Cajun music had resonated so strongly for me.
The little girl in that photo opened a door for me. I began to look back into my own family history—and into my half Slovenian heritage. It was a culture in which accordions figured prominently, I knew. But my mother never liked to talk much about her ethnic background. She painted a grim picture of poverty, ignorance, and drinking. "Just say you're Scottish, like Dad," she used to say.
But now I began to look at my Slovenian immigrant ancestors in a new light. Maybe they had more to do with me than I realized.
The truth came out in bits and pieces. I learned that my mother used to sing in a Slovenian children’s chorus. She loved the polka dances at the Slovenian Hall in Cleveland. She grew up around the corner from Frankie Yankovic, the King of Polka. And the final surprise: my immigrant grandfather used to play a button accordion.
I used to keep that photo on the refrigerator. I liked looking at that little girl, who had a zest and boldness that I envied. Now she looks out at me from the cover of my book Accordion Dreams.
I like to think that bold little girl has been leading me: More deeply into my music. Back to writing. Into my family history and my ethnic roots.
I hope she approves of my Slovenian cooking adventures, the latest chapter in this unfolding story.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders