Yup, just like that, I decided that I wanted to play the fiddle. It began when I commented on my Facebook page that I wished I could play the fiddle. My childhood friend Lisa responded by saying that her husband, the Suzuki violin teacher, could help me with that. Her husband Michael contacted me, and that began the summer of the fiddle.
When I first started, the noise was awful. But Michael never cringed or told me to forget it. He just encouraged me to play through the pain. What Michael did not know, was that playing the fiddle and playing through the pain, was a personal metaphor for what my life had become.
My family had suffered a great deal of loss in recent years. An entire generation, the backbone of our family had slowly been dying off during the past five years. My father was in a nursing home and I was recovering from breast cancer and watching the daily decline of my 90-year-old grandfather.
In the beginning Michael would come to my house at 8 a.m. and we would start our lesson in the kitchen. Screech, screech, screech! That’s good he’d say. He was soooo very encouraging. Soon Michael had me playing a very painful version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We had lessons on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and Michael always expected progress.
And guess what? I progressed. However, in order to meet his expectations, I had to practice constantly. So I took to sitting on my deck and faithfully playing Twinkle and all my Twinkle variations daily. After awhile, needing a slight change in the routine, I would go next door and sit with my grandfather on the deck of my mother’s house going through my Twinkle routine. Although he was 90 years old, my grandfather was a six foot two inch tall, trim, black man, with mischievous eyes and an easy smile.
I’d play my Twinkle, he’d sit there with his warm easy smile, watching me, not commenting. I would play regular Twinkle, Twinkle in double time, Twinkle in triple time. Pops, as we called him, would just smile.
Feeling pity on the man, I stopped and said, “What do you think?”
“Well, if you keep practicing, one day you’ll be good,” then he’d break into that easy smile.
So, I continued.
July turned into August, which fell into September. By now, my grandfather had become weakened and no longer sat outdoors. So I’d visit him daily at the house. During one of our last conversations I told him that I was learning a new song on the fiddle, The Tennessee Waltz! “That’s an old timey song,” he said in a husky whisper, that easy smile still upon his lips. “Well go ahead, if you keep practicing one day you’ll be good.”
My grandfather died in early September, just days before his 91st birthday. I was in the next room when he took his last breath. The undertaker came, they put a blanket over him, placed a hat on his head, and discreetly rolled him out to an unmarked van parked in the driveway.
I went next door to my house. My fiddle as always was out, so I picked it up and started playing The Tennessee Waltz. I liked the sad haunting of the lilting melody, and the way you’re enveloped in the smoothness and stark simplicity of the tune. I played and played, and when I finished I realized that I had played the song by memory, and I had played it perfectly.
Mhmm. If you keep practicing, one day you’ll be good. I swear I heard my grandfather’s voice. But even if I hadn’t, it felt good to know that as usual, he was right.
When I think of my grandfather I am often reminded of the song “Seasons of Love,” from the Broadway hit Rent. The final season of my grandfather's life was a fertile one. There was laughter, joy, cups of coffee, a few beers, some wine, fiddle music, and love. And in those final months, that easy smile came often.
Marilynn S. Turner is an Assistant Professor of English at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where she teaches writing.