Generations of fiddlers under one roof
"Strings" was the name of the program being offered at my daughter's school. The school offered free lessons twice a week, and all we had to come up with was the price of the instrument rental. Seeing that sparkle in my daughter's eyes, I accepted. Natasha became the latest in a long family line of fiddlers.
We went the next day to pick out a viola. I had thought all fiddles were the same. It turns out they come in half-size, three-quarter size, and full size viola, violin, and cello. My daughter had to be "sized." The right instruments were tested between her chin and extended arm, slightly bent. The selected instrument was placed in a case lined with soft material. Then we hurried home, eager for our daughter's first solo.
The first sounds emitting from her new instrument sent shivers through the household. The cats spent hours out of earshot of the house, and the dog howled in tune. The first song she learned was "Sticky Peanut Butter" and during living-room concerts we learned that piece by heart.
Through the weeks, her hard work paid off. Pieces of music became recognizable, then enjoyable. I phoned my parents, eager to share the news of the latest musical discovery. She played them a piece over the phone.
Concert time came. Dressed in a tasteful white shirt and black skirt, she joined her fellow players on stage. My parents had traveled down, and they were touched by the music their granddaughter could create. Yes, there was a room full of children playing the same songs, but Natasha's contribution stood out to me, and even more so to her grandfather.
When we came home, we bubbled with congratulations for her fine performance. Natasha bowed earnestly before us and we asked for an autograph, for her name was on the program. Her grandfather was busy in the spare room. What was he up to? He emerged carrying an old black case.
My father sat beside my daughter and showed her what was inside: a homemade fiddle. During the Great Depression, my grandfather had traveled through winding prairies and over mountains, across Canada and the United States with his group of players. Folks in those days did not have much money. Sometimes they could only spare a meal as payment. But people like my grandfather brought joy and sunshine into listeners' lives. From his voice and his guitar came beautiful music. He and his fellow musicians rode the rails, or inside the train when they could afford it.
Somewhere along the way, Grandfather's precious guitar was lost. He continued on, though he missed his six-string dearly. When his group performed for a prairie wedding one day, the father of the bride heard of my grandfather's misfortune. The man gave my grandfather a fiddle, a fiddle the man himself had fashioned.
Oh, it took a while to learn how to play, but Granddad soon became skilled at picking out tunes for people to dance or clap along to. In the 1940s he married and settled down, but occasionally he'd get out the fiddle and play old French folk tunes and country jigs for the entertainment of a selected few.
My daughter's eyes opened wide with delight when she saw the instrument. It was marked with the kind of love that comes from years of use. The strings were a bit brittle, but they could be replaced. The charm and music of Granddad's times would soon fill the family house again.
I had seen the fiddle before, during my brief fling at trying to learn to play music. But my gift was not to make it sing the way my grandfather had. The instrument had been put away, wisely, by my father to await a new and eager talent.
Natasha still plays her rented viola with care. But at those times when grandparents visit or memories of the past bring us together, she takes out the old fiddle. The folk tunes from her great-grandfather's yellowed music folder will sing once more, brought to life by a great-granddaughter, stringing the past to the present and future with beautiful melodies.