by Carl Eggers
Just over one hundred years ago, in 1899, a guy by the name of Corbet S. Sheldon, signed what is now a faded yellow “maker” sticker and stuck it inside of the instrument that became my violin. Eighty-one years later I found her in Southern Oregon. I say her because there was a distinctive feminine quality about her, a richness, a warmth. On the back I see the squiggly grain of a rich maple wood and on the front, two slim black lines are drawn along the edges, elegantly complimenting her perfect shape, a classic beauty. This violin was silently calling out to me from a cluttered one car garage in a small Oregon town of Medford. I found her dusty, stringless, and forlorn looking. My first impression was that she was experiencing a deep depression from what must have been years, perhaps even decades, of neglect. Curiously, I sensed a preciousness beneath the tarnished surface and I felt an unexplainable excitement. I expressed a cautious interest and her unappreciative owner offered her to me for practically nothing. I took her “as is” because I intuitively knew that she and I could come to love each other.
Well, it has been a love-hate relationship and I have needed lots of help to know how to relate to her. It was hard to even agree on the kind of music that we enjoyed. At first a woman who played fiddle tunes helped me and then a man who had been concert master in the New York Philharmonic. I tried soothing, pleading, placating, sometimes affording her my complete attention and other times simply ignoring her. Sometimes she brought me to tears and other times I became just plain angry. Yes, she taught me patience. I gave her much of my precious time and tried to listen carefully through the whining, complaining, and even screeching. Mostly I blamed her for our difficulties in harmonizing.
After a few years, my frustration grew to the point where I could think of no alternative but separation. Our differences were just too great. Perhaps some time apart would salvage at least our friendship. I loaned her to my friend Jennifer, whose brother Chris was interested in learning to play an instrument. I heard very little about her after that but had heard that Chris grew weary of trying to create an amicable relationship. He more or less gave her away to a friend of his. What little I learned did confirm in my mind that the difficulties in our relationship lay primarily at her doorstep.
When she was gone I had a lot of time to reflect, both on my life and on hers. I asked myself what it was that drew me to her-was it her physical appearance or was it something about the soul? How was it that our differences could not be blended like different notes to make beautiful music?
Perhaps to know the history of this violin would have helped me understand her, to understand us. It could be a story of glory or one of pain and woe, maybe a mixture of the two. I ask myself, “What must the maker have had in mind when he took a rib to create this woman. Was it for his own pleasure or for that of someone else? Was she a child genius-perhaps a difficult and misunderstood child who could not elicit the love that she so badly needed?” She might have been treated badly right from the beginning. maybe with meanness and hatred, even worse indifference. I learned that at some point, whether by accident or in anger, she either fell or had been thrown and as a result broke her neck. This would, of course, help to account for her disposition.
Still searching for answers about us, I try to imagine how far she might have already gone in life-Carnegie Hall; the Grand Ol Opry? She may have spent years in the hands of a master! The restlessness and impatience that I see in her could well be nothing more than a reflection of my own clumsiness and insecurity. Perhaps I am even an embarrassment to her. The separation did not have the immediate effect of healing our wounds or mending our differences. I hardly gave myself time to grieve the loss. I am the kind of person who can not be alone for very long. I drew some comfort from my piano. I think of it as the mother of all instruments, always good to have around. I am ashamed to confess that before I had even finished mourning the loss of my violin, I fell in love with a full figured, but younger, companion-a cello. The cello had a solid feeling. Even though it moaned quite a bit in my arms, it seemed less temperamental, easier to communicate with, easier to please. I do admit that I received the cello with much openness and with high expectations, having seen the contentment on Yo Yo Ma’s face when he was embracing his instrument. My bond with the cello solidified quickly. The deep sonorous sounds resonated with my own voice and I liked the fact that this instrument could pretty much stand on its own. The rich auburn finish pleased my eyes-such a beauty. Others admired my new companion and that made me feel proud as well.
Things went well for a couple of years but as I should have expected, discontentment began to creep in between us. I found myself thinking things like, “too heavy to lug around, can’t sing the high notes, and stands in front of me so I am not seen.” I even began to curse under my breath when things did not go my way. How could this beautiful instrument not sound as bubbly and happy as Yo Yo Ma’s cello friend and make me smile the way that his did.
It took me quite a while to realize how much I was missing my violin. At first I was in complete denial but later on I would be listening to a symphony play Beethoven or Mozart and the strings of the violin would tug on my heart. Sometimes I even imagined a violin playing along with my cello as I bowed the high notes in the Bach Cello suites. Years went by. On a beautiful spring day while I was having a conversation with my son, he brought up the subject of wanting to learn to play the violin. It came to me in a flash that I might be able to find an instrument for him. My son’s wanting to play provided the perfect pretext for me to seek contact with my long lost violin friend, and I began the search.
Feeling somewhat guilty and embarrassed I called my friend Jennifer to inquire about my violin, thinking to myself, “What right do I have to even look for my violin much less express a desire to have her back?” The call to Jennifer did not give me much hope because her brother, for whom she borrowed the violin in the first place, was now living in Seattle. According to her, after about a year he had given up learning to play the violin. I was very disappointed. As I was thinking about the violin and I began to imagine her pain from the experience. My heart sank. I began to think about the terrible dampness in the Northwest and to picture her completely warped out of shape in some closet. Worse yet he may have even discarded her. Jennifer said that she would call me back.
I waited nearly three weeks, .it seemed like months, and then called her again. She had not been able to contact her brother because he was traveling. Six weeks later Jennifer was on the phone to tell me that her brother had given my violin to a friend on the East Coast about two years ago. I hesitantly presented a flimsy argument that it was my violin, that I had agreed upon a trial separation and that I had merely loaned her to Jennifer for her brother’s use. The information both relieved and saddened me. I said as much to Jennifer. She agreed to ask her brother to contact his East Coast friend about my violin.
Another six months went by before Jennifer called me again. Her brother’s friend had indeed agreed to relinquish my violin, and he would be bringing her to the Bay Area in the summer. It was a momentous day that she was delivered back into my hands, as beautiful as ever despite her worn strings and tarnished finish. I was anxious but pleased at our reunion. I took her to my son’s house where he played her for a year before he decided to go back to playing his saxophone. It was no big surprise that with his lack of experience she proved too much for him.
I would see my violin from time to time at my son’s house where she and I began a process of reconciliation. I would approach her cautiously, gently, knowing about her temperament and sensitivity. I carefully sounded her out about the possibility of us living together once again. Soon after my son tired of her it was decided that she and I would give cohabitation another try.
We have been living together again for nearly three years. I love the delightfully sweet sound of her voice. When I hold and stroke her in a relaxed and confident manner she responds to me with sounds that would please the angels. We have many of the same old struggles. She still complains to me from time to time and sometimes her voice grates on me. I have developed more patience, and spend countless hours each day learning to understand her. It is my belief that to truly understand someone is to love her. It gives both of us great pleasure to hang out with friends who play music. We recently joined an orchestra to be more public about our relationship but keep a pretty low profile to hide my insecurity. We continue to have a love-hate relationship but this time I am certain that we are partners for life.