My favorite Christmas gift? It was my first accordion.
The gift arrived twice. The first time, I was almost four. Unfortunately, I have no memory of that pivotal, if forgotten, Christmas. It might have remained a lost memory, if I hadn’t stumbled across an old family photo, four decades later. That discovery was the second gift.
I discovered the photo at my mother’s house, back in Chicago, about fifteen years ago. I had been looking through our old family albums. Most of the photos looked familiar, even though I hadn’t seen them in years. Then came the surprise. The photo that brought me up short.
In this photo, I am not quite four. I look directly into the camera, beaming, in my robe and pajamas, my feet planted apart. I am playing a toy accordion.
My father had captioned the photo: “Christmas”—and then the year.
I felt a pang when I saw my late father’s familiar, angular handwriting. But mostly, I had a feeling of surprise and delight, because I had no memory of ever having a toy accordion.
When I found the photo, I was struggling to learn to play the button accordion. I was in the early stages of a crazy midlife passion for Cajun music. I knew how the obsession had started: with vivid accordion dreams that began to haunt me, soon after I returned home from my first visit to Louisiana. But I never could make sense of it.
But now—finally—I had a clue to the mystery. The seeds of my love for the accordion had been planted early, probably by my Slovenian American mother. No wonder Cajun music had resonated so strongly.
Little by little, I put the story together. My mother turns out to have a stronger connection to her ethnic heritage than I realized. She even told me that her father, in most ways an unsavory character, used to play a button accordion. So the music really was “in my blood,” as one of my Louisiana mentors used to tell me.
I took the photo home with me. For a long time, I kept it on the refrigerator. I liked looking at that bold little girl, smiling down at me. She was giving me a sign, I sometimes imagined, or maybe a blessing. She seemed like a part of myself I had left behind.
Eventually, that little girl did find her way back to music—and to writing.
Now she’s on the cover of my first book, Accordion Dreams.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders