The black leather case hinges and latch were stiff and flaky with rust. Inside was my grandmother’s violin. The case had been unearthed during the archaeological dig in my basement that began in February. I was reluctant to open the case. I didn’t want to know if mildew had grown inside. For over thirty years, from one house to the next, I’d carted around this violin.
I moved back in with my grandmother when I was in my early twenties, and she in her mid-seventies. She allowed me to live with her while I regained my footing after a divorce. I brought very little with me, not wanting to keep reminders of a marriage that ended with infidelity; he had run off with my brother’s wife.
The peace filled home of my grandmother was decorated with memories of a devoted husband and family. Beveled glass doors led the way in to the house and in to the living rooms. The walls of those rooms were painted a soothing silver-sage, the color of perennial lambs-ear, and is the only color I remember them ever being painted.
Not wanting to disrupt her home, what little I brought with me needed to be stored and not in the basement. The small crawl-in attic would do just fine.
We both are women of short stature, me being the taller at five feet. Gaining access to the attic required a step ladder and a boost from my grandmother who stood on the ladder with me. Once inside I rearranged her boxes to one side and came across the violin case. Crawling back and leaning over the access hole I asked her to whom it belonged. “Oh, that was mine. Before I started a family I played for a symphony orchestra.” I was shocked and stared at her in disbelief as she thrust one of my boxes up and into my arms.
Once my boxes were situated I opened the case and saw a violin in pieces; not maliciously so but unglued. Again leaning over the attic entry I mentioned to her the condition. She was not surprised and commented she probably should have unstrung it before grandfather tucked it away some fifty years ago. She stepped off the ladder and motioned for me to come down as she held onto its rungs. She wasn’t interested in discussing it further.
Soon enough the time came for me to move on and out of her home. Back into the attic I went and as I handed down my boxes I asked her if I could have her violin. She gave me a quizzical look and asked “What on earth for?” and I didn’t know why, really. It just seemed important.
I don’t think her children were aware that she had been a classical violinist. I never heard anyone ever speak about it. I knew she loved music and we would often listen to jazz, the Big Bands, or symphonies on the radio.
Whenever I looked at the broken violin, an Austrian-made knock-off of an Antonius Stradiuarius, I imagined my grandmother in a long black gown with wavy black hair bobbed above her shoulders—a radical cut in the 1920’s. I can see her arm moving rhythmically with the orchestra, nimble fingers deftly sliding along the fingerboard.
Grandmother rarely spoke of her life, her accomplishments and history. She was always a wife and mother first, then church lady and business owner. She possessed and projected grace and confidence even when angered at being confronted with something immoral or illegal. She tried to instill in her grandchildren a trust in God’s love. She said that to despair was to turn ones back on God. Though she cried deeply at the loss of her beloved husband, I never remember her despairing—ever.
Walking across the basement, I sat the dusty violin case on top of the dryer and gently opened it. The green velvet lining shined in the naked light of the overhead light-bulb. There was no smell of mildew or mold. All the pieces were still there and I touched each of them. While doing so I smiled at the former beauty of the instrument and the woman daring to be all that God had intended her to be; the diminutive Italian violinist, devout Catholic, and dedicated wife and mother…my namesake.
Image by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl OSB, all rights reserved.