As I sit on the bus, I look to the lady next to me. She has severe hands, crooked fingers with hard knuckles. My grandmother had hands like that. I used to stare at them, gnarled and hooked like talons, as she tried to teach me to play the piano. She used to laugh when I’d play only the black keys, and she’d sing softly, almost at a whisper, when we’d play her favorite hymns. She had a terrific voice, my Gram—one of the all-time greats. It was a voice of contradictions, hers—polite but gravelly, blue collar but lyrical—and she had a funny way of speaking, an off-kilter cadence to her voice that was somewhere between southern drawl and Irish poet. She hated her voice, but it made for the best stories and the best Sunday mornings.
My grandma’s hands used to drop the needle on her old Crosley, and somewhere in the fog of my memory I remain a child, wide-eyed and dumbfounded, awed that such a primitive system of bumps and ridges could summon forth the soul, the smoulder of Sam Cooke with apparent ease. The needle of the record player was hypnotising, intoxicating, but there seemed to be no immediate correlation between the movements of the needle and the sound of the soul music cascading through the room. I couldn’t understand, and when I asked my grandmother why this was, she told me that you couldn’t see soul, you just had to listen for it.