Mrs. Rockwell’s fourth grade classroom smells of polished wood, chalk dust, and pads of Red Eagle newsprint tablets lined with pale blue lines, a dotted line between the thicker ones to indicate where “t’s” should be crossed. About twenty-five of us are sitting in school desks, our books and papers tucked neatly or messily, as mine are, in the well beneath the desktop. The windows of the room go from the thick green radiators to the ceiling. The windows are raised and lowered by long poles wielded by the boys or the teacher. The boys are noisy, some have dirty fingernails, and their hair is cut in a flat top or slicked to the sides with Brylcream.
There are the “in” kids and the “out,” and the girls’ hierarchies are more complex than the boys’. The highest girls in the hierarchy sit in little clumps if the teacher doesn’t keep rearranging them throughout the room, their perfect hair swinging and shiny on their shoulders, wearing the latest saddle shoes and white, turned-down socks. They wear dresses, skirts, and sweaters from the better department stores. These girls’ fathers own car dealerships, or they are accountants, teachers, or school principals. Their mothers belong to the PTA, drive them to school and pick them up in polished cars; their mothers come to school dressed nicely with flat shoes, towing another couple of children. The most “in” girls are on the honor roll. They lead the games at recess on the concrete slab behind the brick school, wind blowing their dresses tight against their bodies. These girls will marry well, live in the best houses on the west side of town, and have husbands with big muscles who come home at night to barbecue in the backyard with neighbors wearing a chef hat. That is what we imagine in 1954.
The lowest class of boy or girl is obvious, with dirty or ragged clothes. They smell of poverty, their teeth are yellow, and their eyes furtive. They are hopeless, they’ll never get anywhere, they reek of failure and are ignored at best, or sniggered at openly. Their mothers have to work as waitresses, or perhaps house cleaners. Maybe their fathers work or don’t. Their houses are hovels shoved back behind decent, tree-lined streets. Old cars and disemboweled washing machines and refrigerators lie listlessly in the dead grasses around their houses. You never go into a house like that and you certainly don’t befriend those kids because their bad luck will rub off on you.
The ill-defined middle group, despite good enough grades, good enough clothes, and decent enough parents, demonstrate qualities of lucklessness or edginess. Perhaps their family bears its shame openly, unprotected by money or status; perhaps the family has some taint, such as mine, a child living with an aunt or a grandmother. Their houses aren’t shacks, but they are not up to snuff. Perhaps the front yard is not a tight green handkerchief, or the mother is not perky enough; perhaps she is tight lipped or square shouldered, carrying the family secret of alcoholism or penury or incest in the posture of her shoulders or the kind of kerchief she wears around her neck. Perhaps it shows in the way her hair isn’t just so, or her lipstick the wrong color, slipping over the well-defined edges of her lips. The town might not know exactly what is wrong, but it will smell a discordant note and the child will be judged accordingly.
In my case, I live with my grandmother and I wear clothes that are never right, a little off in design and acceptability. She wants me to be in the upper echelon, she wants me to compete with all these girls who live with fathers and mothers in houses with perfect lawns and curtains. She doesn’t understand why I shouldn’t automatically be part of them. She assumes I am equal to them because of who she is, but I know better. I can’t tell her the truth. It is because of my hair, my buckteeth, and most of all the fact that neither of my parents is around. I live with a grandmother who speaks with a fake English accent, wears clothes that are too fancy, and uses a cigarette holder. She won’t set foot in a church.
We are all held to high standards in this town by our forty churches, all Protestant but one, most of them Baptist, but quite a few are Methodist, Church of Christ, or Nazarene. The quality of the souls of Mrs. Rockwell’s fourth grade class is measured by their Sunday School attendance and that of their parents. The children’s souls are measured as well by their timbre of voice, or whether their eyes are closed or open when they recite the Lord’s Prayer each morning. The kids who mumble, recite mockingly loud, or stare off blankly are noted. Also a matter of interest: the placement of your hand on your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance; the ability to get the words right to this our country’s patriotic faith, and the degree of enthusiasm while singing God Bless America, America the Beautiful, or the National Anthem are noted and duly gauged.
There are good children and bad children and questionable children, and you know who you are.
It is into this milieu that he comes that morning, the Pied Piper that will change my life. It is this layering that he will save me from, and cast me further into.
The day begins as usual—the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, and a round of spelling. Outside the classroom, we hear a flurry of activity. Melodious music wafts into the room from the hall. A willowy, tall man appears, bright red hair tumbling over his forehead, a violin tucked under his chin. He dips and sways as he enters, his enchanting sounds making us stop what we are doing. He amazes us with his graceful movements. His violin sings melodies from heaven. We leave our seats to gather around him and drink in the magic. He plays and dances and charms us like a leprechaun. He kneels to our level, grinning, his blue eyes shining, and winks as he unfurls Turkey in the Straw, then some melody that makes me think of clouds and God. My chest hurts. I want more than anything to draw such sweet sounds into the world.
“Hey folks, this is called a violin. It is one of the stringed instruments in the orchestra. How many of you want to play an instrument?” I am drawn to him like a magnet, hypnotized by his violin. It speaks in high notes and low, sultry tones, silky and intimate; his violin laughs and tells jokes, his bow flies into the air and comes back down on the right string. White stuff called rosin flies all over.
“My name is Mr. Brauninger, the orchestra teacher. Do any of you want to join our orchestra? You could play the violin and any other of our stringed instruments. You just have to take a slip home to your parents to be signed.”
I come to him, drawn to his warmth and bright blue eyes. To his golden-toned violin. He asks me my name.
“Linda Joy. What a pretty name you have, Linda Joy.”
He is looking directly into my eyes. I feel more important than I have ever felt in my whole life. He looks at me as if I’m a real person, and talks to me as if what I say matters to him. I’ve never met anyone like him before. He gives me a permission slip and tells me that I have to get my parents to sign it if I want to come to the orchestra next week.
“I don’t have parents. I live with my grandmother.”
He doesn’t seem to think there’s something wrong with me because I live with my grandmother, but I know I’m the only kid whose parents are divorced. I’m sure none of their parents fight like my mother does with my grandmother when she comes once a year on the train. Mr. Brauninger’s smile makes all that go away.
He plays a jig that sets toes to tapping, but Mrs. Rockwell tells us to sit down in our seats and fold our hands like polite children. Mr. Brauninger plays something soft and sweet, his face tender with the music, his lips quivering when he reaches for the high notes. The fingers of his left hand vibrates back and forth. I want to cry. I could sit at his feet all day. I have to be included in his orchestra. I begin to scheme and plan what I can say to convince my grandmother.
When I go home that afternoon, the determination to play the violin rides in solid clarity in my chest. I will make any promise, I will do whatever it takes to be with the man with red hair, with the emanations of love flowing from him in waves. I tell Gram about the man who came to class with the wonderful violin. She says she’ll think about it. I promise her that I’ll practice, she won’t have to remind me. “Please, please, please let me play the violin.” She nods and takes a drag on her cigarette. The room is filled with smoke. I see from her eyes that I need to let her think about it.
I know she wants me to be a famous musician. I convince her that the violin is what I am meant to play. Later that evening, I promise not to neglect my hour of piano practicing each day, and to finish all my music theory assignments.
I hear her talk to him on the phone after I go to bed. She tells him about Vera and my divorced parents. The next morning I find out that they decided that I should play the cello instead of the violin. Gram tells me, “You’ll be more popular, there’s less competition.”
I am disappointed. I want to play the violin, but she says that there is a cello waiting for me. I’ll play anything just to be near him.
The first day of orchestra is on Thursday of the next week. My shoes squeak as I walk on the polished walnut-colored cork floors and down the stairs to the basement music room. It is raining outside. The school smells of oil, wood, and musty dust in the thick curtains of the windows. Mr. Brauninger greets me with the same smile and shakes my hand again. An irrepressible happiness fills me up. He shows us the stringed instruments.“This is a violin. Next to it is a viola, a little bigger.” He plays a few notes to demonstrate the deeper range of the viola. He picks up a cello.
“Linda Joy, I talked to you grandmother and we thought maybe the cello would be best for you. It’s a special instrument for a special girl like you. I picked out one just your size.”
He holds up a burnished brown cello, half-sized to fit me. He shows us how stringed the instruments are constructed, the curves of the ribs, how the maple comes together in the back of the instrument to make a beautiful wavy pattern with a perfect seam. The intricately carved bridge, the nut at the top of the fingerboard, ebony pegs to tune the instrument, the graceful scroll, and strings made of steel and catgut. Curlicue F-holes carved in the top allow the sound to emerge from the belly. The sound post connects the top with the back, creating a vibration in the instrument. The bow is made of a special pernambuco wood from Brazil. Horsehair from real horses is strung from an ivory tip covered all the way to the ebony part where we hold the bow, called the frog.
“Ribbet, ribbet,” he says, grinning, his blue eyes shining as he looks at each of us.
We all feel important, and laugh at his jokes. He shows us how to drape our hands over the frog. We take turns holding the bow, learning to place it on the string, how to pull it smoothly. I watch the string widen as it vibrates. When I put my fingers on the ebony fingerboard, I can feel the hardness of the string under each finger pad. It hurts my tender fingers, but I am making music. I am playing the cello.
Entering the music, the music enters me
Mr. Brauninger becomes my guide and my inspiration into realms of beauty. I suppose I fall in love with him. I practice often because I want Mr. Brauninger’s face to light up. He draws little pictures in my string book to make me laugh, little men with bulbous noses lying over the edge of the lines and spaces. He tells me I am special, but it is the look on his face that sustains me, a look that tells me that I am a real person. I am a cellist, and I am me. He sees the music in me, coaxes it from me. He helps me find something greater than the disharmony at home. He is my guide to find the true harmony that lives inside me.
I become “the girl with the cello,” part of the “strange” musician kids. The next stage of development is the Youth Orchestra on Saturday mornings. The best musicians in Enid are selected to play real music, “symphonic literature,” as Mr. Brauninger calls it.
The first time I am supposed to go, I am nervous. The night before, I polished my cello and Gram rolled my hair so it would be fluffy. She is particularly happy because she believes I have “talent.” Mr. Brauninger told her so. They talk about Carnegie Hall, but I don’t know what she means. It seems like a foreign, scary world, but because of Mr. Brauninger, anything I could imagine with my cello is possible.
The Youth Orchestra meets in the basement of the high school music room. The building is huge, with cavernous long halls. I can’t imagine ever being old or big enough for high school. I find that I am one of the smallest children in the room. My natural shyness makes me want to hide, but I put on a brave face. I need to go meet the other string kids standing around with their instruments.
A clump of kids gather around Mr. Brauninger, their faces shining. Mr. B is the tall one, his red hair a beacon in the middle of room. The French horns, trumpets, and woodwinds are tuning up, sitting in the upper levels of the tiered room. The noise is huge and thrilling. I try to conquer my shyness as I wander over to the group of kids laughing and grinning around Mr. B. A boy with jet-black hair is laughing in a deep voice, his voice already changed. His face is carved good bones and his brown eyes behind black horn-rimmed glasses are soft brown. He dances toward me, hands fiddling with change in his pockets, “There she is, the new girl.”
Mr. Brauninger introduces me. “This is Keith. He’s first chair cello, a wonderful cellist. This is Linda Joy.”
“Nice to meet you, Linda Joy.” Keith’s dark eyes are like lassos, drawing me to him. He shakes my hand as if I’m an adult. He leans over to me and whispers in a conspiratorial voice, “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of things. It’s nice you could join us. We’ve heard good things about you.”
I am shocked to be already known. The group turns their faces toward me. I stand still, unsure of what to do next. Mr. Brauninger comes over, takes my cello, and puts his arm around me. “This is Linda Joy, a bright new star from Adams Grade School.” Another young girl with long dark hair flowing down her back holding a cello flashes me a quick smile. She is tall for her age, nearly as tall as Keith. Mr. Brauninger puts his hand on her shoulder. “This is Jodie from Emerson Grade School, another bright star. Do you know that you two started cello the same week last year?” There are murmurs and nods. Next, I am introduced to redheaded twin boys who look alike except for their haircuts.
“This is Floyd, he plays the viola, and this is Lloyd, the violin. They’re from Emerson school too, and fine musicians.”
They nod at me, and grin. “You can remember us this way—Floyd, flat top, Lloyd, long hair.”
Jodie and I are the last two chairs in the cello section. Mr. Brauninger taps his baton softly, but the instruments blare on, trumpets, clarinets and oboes and strings a discordant blare. Then he bangs his baton against the metal stand and the musicians put down their instruments.
“Good morning. We are here to play the greatest works of music ever written. This is the start of something new—a Youth Orchestra for all you talented musicians in town. Let me introduce you to the players you don’t know, and then we’ll get started with some Vivaldi, Bach, and a little Mozart. Some of you will not keep up with all the notes, but just do the best you can. Let’s have fun.”
The music builds up around me, filling the room. Often the strings are out of tune, and the woodwinds squawk. The music rushes at us like a mountain stream. Jodie and I scrub away at our posts, watching Keith and the other cellists up front play with aplomb. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to play like they do. At one point during a rest, Keith looks back and winks. Tingles rush up and down my body. He would never know from my smile how he affects me. He turns toward the front, and leads the cello section all morning. During Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, thousands of notes rush by unplayed. Jodie and I look at each other helplessly, knowing that we both missed most of the notes, but I’ve never had so much fun in my life. Mr. Brauninger stops to demonstrate dynamics, how to crescendo and diminuendo, his fingers opening wide and then coming together as do the hieroglyphs on the page. He tells jokes and stories about the composers, and makes wavy pictures with his hands to show how sound vibrates in the air and through the wood of our instruments. He helps us to notice our poor intonation, which is rampant, and singles out each section to play separate passages, teaching us to hear how each person is playing and how the section works as one. We learn that we are one body of music makers, not individuals. We must play together, feel together, and listen as one being to the composer’s ideas coming alive in our time, through us.
The music rises above us, lifting us to a higher plane of knowledge, a realm of experience untouched by the rest of life. Through Mr. Brauninger’s conducting, the swoop of his lanky arms, his shining eyes, his waving red hair, I am birthed into feelings I never knew possible. There is a beauty in the world that has no words, and a connectedness I could never imagine. It soothes the place within me that’s sore from the absence of my mother and father.
Each week I am transported into this nether realm. The music is more than words, or ideas, or anything the mind could conceive of. It is pure, it goes straight to my heart beating under my breastbone where my cello rests.
Mr. Brauninger becomes a family friend as well. Gram invites him over for dinner one evening, and spends all day cleaning up the house for the event. Of course I do a great deal of the work. But I am overjoyed to have company, we have very few people in our house, and I am thrilled that he is going to come. Gram feels sorry for him. “Poor thing. He’s a bachelor living all alone. He needs friends, and a home cooked meal. Now, you be sure to mind me . . . ”
She goes on with a list of rules, but I don’t care. I am thinking only of Mr. Brauninger’s face when he urges us to “come on, come on and play with everything we have,” gesturing with his whole body, his long arms with their blond fuzz at the edge of his cuffs swinging around wildly. I think of how he tells us about Beethoven and the sublimity of his music. But is it his words that tell us, or the look of beatific surrender on his face that inspires us to surrender to it ourselves, even as we strive so hard to play the notes.
Finally, the house is spic and span, and Mr. B. knocks at the door. He comes in with a present for Gram and a new ball of rosin for me, and brings his records so we can hear some wonderful music after we eat. Gram fixes New York Steak with mashed potatoes and a salad, and corn on the cob. She makes it seem like she can cook, but I know she can’t, not really compared to Aunt Helen or my aunts in Iowa, but he loves her food, and says so with relish. After dinner he sits on the floor spread legged and starts to play marbles.
“Come and sit on the floor with me Linda. We’ll have fun. Do you know how to play marbles?”
I don’t, but I sit down and start to hold the round, pretty marbles while Gram is in the kitchen, but she comes in the living room and has “that look” on her face. I get scared for a moment, worried that she will say something bad to Mr. Brauninger. She tells me in a stiff voice, “Get up off that floor, ladies do not sit on the floor spread legged like that. What are you thinking?”
Mr. Brauninger gently tries to tease her. “Oh, it’s my fault. I just thought a little girl would like to play marbles. I loved them when I was a kid. Can’t she play with me?”
He looks up to Gram with a sweet, begging look as innocent as a young boy, but she holds her line. “I’ll have you know that I am raising my grandchild to be a lady, and ladies never, ever sit on the floor wearing a dress. They never sit on the floor in the living room. Period. Get up, Linda Joy.”
I watch this exchange, in friendly enough tones, with interest. I am impressed with how he can not just try to please her at first, and feel warm inside that Mr. Brauninger stands up for me, for the fact that I am after all still a child of ten, and he thinks I should be able to play like a child. Sometimes I don’t know what to think, but I am quite familiar with Gram’s insistence that I be a small grown-up, that I must say please and thank-you just right to everyone at the right moment, and that I must always have the best manners of any kid in town. In the state. In the universe. I get up.
Mr. Brauninger shows us the three record 78 RPM set from the Prades Music Festival.
“Linda Joy, here’s a recording of the greatest living cellist, Pablo Casals. He is Spanish, exiled from his own country because of the Franco regime, and refuses to go back. But each year he plays and conducts at this wonderful Festival with other great musicians such as Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, and Dame Myra Hess.”
Mr. Brauninger puts the record on the turntable and carefully lays down the needle. Out pours the music, the most sublime music I have ever heard. We sit in the thick darkness of the living room, the burgundy Oriental rug, the maroon ceiling, and the stern portrait of Rembrandt staring down at us while the room fills with light from the record player. Mr. Brauninger sits under the brass floor lamp by the piano, his face and red hair a golden glow. Waves of peace, love, and serenity emanate from him. His face is composed, his usual grin replaced by the kind of smile that suggests heaven. I take his cue, and quit worrying about my grandmother.
I sit quietly, and let the music operate on me as I see it does Mr. Brauninger. After a few minutes, I understand why he looks that way. The music is breathtakingly beautiful. Waves of strings, violin, cello, and piano composed by Brahms and Schubert fill the room, creating a universe of harmony. The sore place I felt inside from Gram’s scolding, the way I feel hampered by her, held back, controlled by her, the place where all the time I hold the missing of my mother and father, and the place where I am continuously embarrassed and ashamed because of my family, my looks, and my grandmother—all this is gone. Replacing it, a smooth silky feeling, perfectly balanced with no rough places. Peace and beauty beyond imagining fills me, and I am brought back to myself, the person that I really am without pain and constriction. Mr. Brauninger sighs, and I fold my hands over my stomach, sighing with him in the same realm.