In my last post, Of Ministering Angels – Mark and Tammy, I talked briefly about the peaks, valleys and plateaus that we often go through as we make our spiritual journey back into the presence of our Heavenly Father. I wrote of a recent plateau that I had been experiencing, and of how the Lord had sent me angels to remind me of the beauty and goodness that surrounds us. I shared the story of our relationship with Mark and Tammy, the proprietors of the Helms St. Charles Inn in Goodyear’s Bar, CA and how I was inspired by their courage, love, and devotion to their family, neighbors, and to making the world a better place. I talked about Kate Wolf, who, through songs like “Carolina Pines”, serves as a ministering angel to all those with ears to hear her story; whose non-traditional witness of the true love of Christ and of the beauty of this world that He created continues to be heard long after her untimely death. I also mentioned that I had other inspiring and comforting stories that I wanted to share. This is the story, then, of our first meeting with Mike and Katie Kelly.
Diana and I had gone into Downieville, the next, larger village in Sierra County, on Friday to cruise the shops and see the sights. Downieville was a classic gold mining town, founded in 1849 during the height of the California Gold Rush. It is nestled along the banks of the same Yuba River as Goodyear’s Bar (a stunningly beautiful river, by the way, especially if you’re a fisherman), and couldn’t grow if it wanted to without climbing up the sides of the mountains that surround it. Gold mining is not very profitable in California these days, so the town survives on tourism. We got there before noon, and not much was open, but we chatted with Peggy in the quilt co-op for a while, sharing life stories for about 45 minutes. She told us about how she and her husband bought their home about 20 years ago and how they – mostly her because her husband travelled for his job – had to share it with mice and raccoons for the first months because it hadn’t been lived in for so long. She described the challenges of the first couple of years and how she basically had to become strong or die (not literally, but you know what I mean). Over the years, she said, she had gained a strong faith that, if you’re doing the right thing, things just work out. Toward the end of our time there I mentioned playing some Kate Wolf songs, and she in turn mentioned that her husband played the guitar and that he was “really good”. I thought initially to find out just how good he was, but quickly realized that was just my pride talking (the whole pride and competition thing is revealing itself to be my personal spiritual “thorn”) and would thus be a fruitless pursuit. I asked her what kind of guitar he had, though, and she said he had a hand-made guitar from a luthier in Goodyear’s Bar. We then mentioned that we were staying with Mark and Tammy in Goodyear’s Bar and she said, “Well, he’s right next door! You should go by – I know they’d love to have you come and visit”.
We slowly made our way back to the inn after talking with several other people in the various shops and the Downieville museum, and asked Tammy to call “Mike” to see if we could come over for a visit. His response, as Peggy predicted, was “Sure – come on over”. We were invited to come in the back door, which led to a screened-in porch where we saw a couple of newly varnished guitars drying in the warm summer air. We were greeted first by Buster, one of the cutest little dogs I’ve ever met. Buster is some sort of poodle mix, and has a face that just says, “I love you! Can I trust you, and will you love me back?” but somehow says it without being needy. He’s a dog who is happy and comfortable in his own skin, and therefore quite willing to be your friend on your terms. It is often said that dogs take after their masters (or vice versa), and that proved to be true when Mike Kelly introduced himself. His openness and trust was immediately obvious. It was as if he said, “I know you and trust you and welcome to my home” before he even opened his mouth. He was slight of build, mid-50’s to 60 years old, and he projected a wise, gentle soul. We introduced ourselves and said, “We were talking to Peggy at Mountain Home and she told us that you make guitars and we wanted to come by and get to know you”. He had about 8-10 of his guitars sitting around the living room and I asked, “Which one is your favorite”. Without a moment’s hesitation, he picked up one of the guitars – I believe it was standing behind all the others – and said, “Oh, this one.”
Please indulge me now as I share a mini-lesson on guitars – it is necessary, I think, for the rest of the story to make sense. Cheaper acoustic guitars– $100 to $800 – are typically made of various qualities of laminate or expensive ply-wood. They can be very nice, sound good, and play well. However, the better guitars, the kind that professionals would be interested in playing, are made of solid woods such as mahogany, rosewood or maple (or more exotic woods such as Koa) and can sell for from anywhere from $1000 to $10,000 easily. The tops are almost always made of spruce or cedar. My own Martin D-28, one of the most popular guitar models in the history of music, is made of rosewood with a spruce top. Diana’s Breedlove is made of mahogany and spruce. This guitar was, of course, solid wood – the back and sides made of mahogany – but the top was redwood. I had never seen a guitar with a redwood top before, and this really surprised me.
So, Mike handed me the guitar and I started to play, and immediately felt a warmth and balance that I recognized as very unusual. It was almost spiritual, the way it felt – one of those things you can’t really describe or explain, but which you simply feel. I handed it to Diana, and she loved it even more than I did. He told us that he had taken it to a couple of music stores to see if they wanted it, fully expecting them to say, “Oh – we love it – can you make more just like it?” He said he was completely baffled that they didn’t really seem very interested. Of course, we agreed with him that it was a very special guitar; a very solid, balanced, sweet-sounding instrument – perhaps the proverbial “one of a kind” that guitar players are always looking for. That may have been the problem; it’s entirely possible that from a commercial standpoint they were instinctively afraid that he had somehow captured lightning in a bottle, and would not be able to readily recreate the artistry that was that guitar. Well, their loss was our gain. Enough of guitars, though. This post is really about people.
We hadn’t visited for long when Katie appeared from upstairs. Katie was a perfect match for Mike – slight of build, graying hair, attractive and energetic, but still gentle in a strong, confident way. She made us smile appreciatively, even knowingly, because she appeared to come down initially to be polite, then she said, “I’m sorry – I need to go back up, I have scarecrows to finish”. She would be gone for 5 or 10 minutes, and then pop up again, offering her guests a glass of water or tea. She repeated this about 3 times – like she was torn between wanting to visit and needing to finish her scarecrows. “Scarecrows”, you ask? Yes, scarecrows, or “Gardenfolk” as she calls them. She sells them all over the country. She’s also an artist, and the pastel paintings she showed us were very nice. Diana being a pastel artist herself, we know of what we speak. I actually told Katie that I have learned that if I don’t like someone’s work, I just pretty much don’t say anything. This was not a problem – as her art actually was very appealing and accomplished. In short, Katie – like Diana – was “an artist”.
Mike was likewise pre-occupied, but that hadn’t prevented him, or Katie, from being gracious and welcoming. He had just received a request from a local TV station to interview him in his shop, and he didn’t know exactly when they were going to come, so he was very self-conscious about getting his shop “presentable”. With their attention being pulled in multiple directions, there came a point when they both left us in their living room, playing Mike’s guitars. We had known them for less than an hour, and they left us in their home all alone! Of course, WE knew we were trustworthy, but they didn’t! Or did they? I mentioned this to Mike later, and he just said, “Oh – I can tell what kind of people you are.” His trust extended even farther when he told Diana, “You like that guitar? Well, you take it with you for the night. Play it some more. Take it outside, play it in the open air. It may sound different out there. We’ll get together tomorrow and, if you still like it, I’ll make you a deal.”
So, Mike and Katie (and Buster) accommodated us dropping by on the spur of the moment, welcomed us into their home, left us playing music in their living room while they respectively made scarecrows upstairs and cleaned up the guitar shop out back, and loaned us a guitar that, for all we knew, could be worth thousands of dollars, so that we could play it overnight. I got the distinct impression that Mike and Katie were made for each other, and if not, had made themselves for each other over the years. The three of them (can’t forget Buster, the master of the house) were a matched pair, kind of like the Gardenfolk that Katie so lovingly fashioned. They had found their Zion – no, they had built their Zion – a place for the pure in heart and where all things were had in common. They obviously valued people and relationships more than they did material things. We felt their love, charity, and lack of pretense from the minute we walked in the back door. Like Mark and Tammy, they loved those around them through their art, their trust, and their service. I have no doubt that, when the Lord calls his people home to Zion, these ministering angels will receive their call, will recognize His voice, and will answer it.
Did Mike make us a deal on the guitar? Boy, did he! However, there was a lot more that changed hands around that little double-00 redwood top guitar than just money. It actually became the center of a sweet little drama that touched several lives. In “Of Ministering Angels 3 – Doug and Suzanne”, I’ll tell you how that guitar became an instrument in the Lord’s hands that July day of 2014.