In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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My mother has been gone for some years, and though I do miss her and think of her with great fondness, part of me still has trouble forgiving how she would parade me out as a child to play my violin for unfortunate guests.
From the age of seven to eleven I studied music by the Suzuki method, in which the beginning student practices playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” again and again at varied speeds: for example, to the tempo of a dismal dirge and then as a lively march. The results sounded horrific. So plagued was I by “Twinkle, Twinkle” that I dreamed of growing up and traveling to Japan to find the brilliant Dr. Suzuki, inventor of the method, and torment him with my playing. After this I might stay in the East and marry a peaceful Japanese woman, who would glide about on silk slippers and serve me wondrous tea and never again ask me to play the violin.
In the meantime I went to my lessons, for I was an obedient child. I believe my obedience had to do with the fact that I was adopted. It just didn’t seem right to refuse these people who had given me a home and who might still toss me into the streets or send me back to Hope Cottage, the agency that had placed me with these kind but tone-deaf fans of the violin.
The year I turned ten, my parents, my sisters, and I moved from suburban Dallas, Texas, to a farm in North Carolina. Our new home was a run-down mountain cabin in a brambly field. It was built of square logs whose mud mortar had chipped away, letting in drafts, and no one had lived in it for many years. During the months of renovation and removal of kudzu vines (and snakeskins that were sometimes shed atop my bed), we cooked on a gas stove, ate from paper plates, and showered beneath a contraption my father rigged to catch rain. It was like being on an extended campout, and I loved it. To top it all off, there was no one nearby to teach me violin.
My family had few visitors from the outside world. The most memorable was my mother’s elderly uncle, whom she hadn’t seen since she was a child. Uncle Mitch was a white-haired Russian Jew from a northern city. He spent most of his first night in North Carolina locating our driveway on the dark rural road. He arrived at the cabin so late that by the time he stumbled up the loose boards that masqueraded as our front steps, we’d decided he wasn’t coming. What little we had left of the evening he spent complaining about how far from town the farm was and muttering what I took to be Yiddish profanities. My mother showed him to a makeshift bed in my room, and he snored through the night and vanished the next morning right after breakfast. Uncle Mitch had planned to stay for three days but had lasted a mere thirteen hours and never returned. (From then on we advised guests to arrive before dusk.)
Not long after the departure of Uncle Mitch, my mother, who seemed lonely in our new surroundings, invited our neighbors the Smiths over for dinner. They ran a farm down the road and possessed names reminiscent of characters in primary readers: Rex and Jane. The Smiths tended a dairy herd, grew tobacco, had an outhouse, and rarely traveled more than an hour from home. They were kind people who led a quiet life with their outhouse and cows. I will forever wonder what they expected as their truck rattled up our driveway. Had they any notion what they were in for, they might have declined the invitation.
My parents neither drank nor offered alcohol to their guests, so there was little to loosen up the before-dinner conversation. The Smiths wanted to discuss weather and crops, whereas my mother hungered for gossip — in particular, the scuttlebutt on an elderly Cherokee woman who had poisoned her husband. But the Smiths were politely protective of the secrets of others.
For dinner my mother served creamed corn from a can, wieners and beans, and iced tea to wash it all down. “And now,” she announced after the paper plates had been tossed, “our son would like to play his violin.”
This was a lie. I didn’t want to play the violin any more than I wanted to model my sisters’ training bras. But, ever the good son, I stepped forward and opened my case. This was the highlight of my act, for the small violin did have a certain beauty when it wasn’t being played. I enjoyed gazing at it resting in its case — a fine fiddle with a lustrous cherry finish.
While our guests waited, I tightened my bow, added rosin, and then tested it again for tightness. I smiled at the Smiths. I applied more rosin, the way a cagey pool player might rechalk his cue. Surely if I stalled long enough, some calamity would intervene. Those days I had recurring fantasies about my biological parents coming to save me. My daydreams usually involved a chauffeur-driven limo, a suitcase stuffed with wads of cash, and a fine meal waiting once I reached my true home — a silent mansion devoid of violins. If I were lucky, the car would arrive before I was forced to play.
I remember wanting to transmit a secret signal to the Smiths, assuring them that I was on their side. An introverted child, I longed to slip away and read a book. But there was no way out. The Smiths looked on supportively. I smiled again. I plucked a string. Then, my time-wasting tricks exhausted, I raised the violin to my chin and began.
Never had I glimpsed such terror in adult faces as I witnessed that night. The fear in the eyes of the Smiths was no doubt matched by the desperation in mine as I labored through four variations of “Twinkle, Twinkle.” And make no mistake: it was labor. I won’t bother trying to evoke the dissonant and surreal sounds I produced. Suffice it to say that the violin emits such cruel noises in untrained hands that it could be used to torture prisoners into confession.
When I was done, there was the kind of stunned silence that sometimes meets a miraculous performance, but the only miracle here was that my playing had ceased.
After the Smiths left us that night — shellshocked and surely with damaged hearing — I swore to my mother that I would never again play for guests.
“Never say never,” she warned.
“No, I mean it. I won’t.”
“You’re young,” my mother said. “You don’t know what’s good for you.”
Maybe not, but I was pretty sure that my playing wasn’t doing me any more good than it was my listeners. I crept out in the moonlight with plans to run away, but, having nowhere to go and no real strategy for how to survive on my own, I eventually slunk back to my room and slid beneath blankets, keeping an eye out for snakes.
Our second summer on the farm my mother somehow located the only violin teacher within eighty miles who specialized in the Suzuki method. Ms. Whitman had snow-white hair, walked with an erect carriage, drove a bright-yellow Toyota, and lived alone in what would have been a tasteful home had there not been so much sheet music scattered about. After hearing me play, she decided I was gripped by some physical ailment that impeded my progress. During my uninspired renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle” she would cluck her tongue and claim that I must have had bursitis. I didn’t know what bursitis was, but it sounded so serious that I spent many nights worrying that I might die of it, if I didn’t worry myself to death first.
When I informed my mother that playing the violin was literally killing me, she said, “Bursitis my foot. You’re just being dramatic.”
From then on I didn’t bother to relay Ms. Whitman’s concerns to her.
I became fairly proficient at sight reading and found I could fake my way through lessons in such a way that my teacher could not detect when I hadn’t practiced. (I actually convinced myself that I played better on weeks when I didn’t practice.) In my mind I was doing everyone within earshot a great service by abstaining from playing the violin. Aside from my mother, no one seemed to enjoy my squeaky sounds, certainly not my father, who would shut the door between my bedroom and the den each time I took out my bow.
I even considered injuring myself so that I couldn’t be forced to play. I wouldn’t have minded breaking a finger if I could have accomplished it without too much pain. I imagined pretty girls taking pity on me and saying how they couldn’t wait until my hand was fine again — to do what, I had no clue.
But I have always been squeamish around blood and broken bones, especially my own. So, rather than maim myself, I continued to perform for guests, but with misgivings. To this day I have trouble making eye contact with the now elderly people who once heard me play. I swear the few who are still alive will turn their backs if they see me coming, as if afraid I might have a Stradivarius tucked into my pants.
When I turned twelve, I pleaded with my mother to let me stop.
“When you have your own home,” she said, “you can make your own rules.”
So that’s what I set out to do. I chose a patch of woods about eighty yards from our house, and, with a hatchet, I took down dozens of young poplar trees, enough to build my own ten-by-ten-foot log cabin between a stone outcropping and a stream. Though I never managed to put a roof on my hut, I spent many days (and some nights) lounging there in Suzuki-free silence as I gazed at the clouds or the stars up above.
“I guess you’re becoming a man,” my mother said one morning when I emerged from the woods to rejoin the family for breakfast. “If you don’t want to play the violin anymore, it’s your choice.” And then she turned back to the stove, where I imagine a tear fell into whatever she was cooking.
Looking back, I think my feeble attempt to move out played only a minor role in my mother’s defeat. I’m fairly certain the real reason I was released from my musical duties was that she had no one left to invite over. Even the Smiths had installed indoor plumbing and stayed home more and more, declining her invitations. Having run out of guests, my mother began to spend entire days in her room.
Now that I am roughly the age my mother was then, I have come to see that there is no better way to begin to understand a person than by having to sort through what he or she has left behind. When my mother died, it became my responsibility to empty the home where she had lived alone for the final ten years of her life. In her closet, among the worn dentures and threadbare sweaters, I discovered half a dozen pairs of tap-dancing shoes. In her top desk drawer I found a photo album filled with group shots of my seventy-something mother alongside a troupe of much younger dancers, all decked out in gleaming sequins. Though she had mentioned her dancing over the years, I had not grasped the extent of its importance in her life until that moment. From the way my mother is positioned in each photo — front and center, doing splits with a glorious smile on her face — it is obvious that she was a beloved mentor or mascot for the group. Having lost her own mother as a little girl, my mother was shuffled between relatives as a child and never had the benefit of lessons or an encouraging adult figure who wanted to see her perform. I have not played the violin in nearly three decades, but when I gaze upon my mother’s face in those photos, lit up in anticipation of a recital during which she might bust out a tap solo, I realize that I would heartily agree to play “Twinkle, Twinkle” for her, were she still here to make the request.
Of course I did not feel this way one hot day at the age of twelve when I returned from my woodsy hermitage to spot a bright-green van with out-of-state plates parked in front of our house. For an ecstatic moment I thought, My chauffeur has arrived! But of course there were no manservants or mansions in store for me. When I entered our house, I encountered two tanned strangers seated on the heinous floral sofa where my mother spent so much of her time.
“Robbie,” my mother said with forced cheerfulness, “I’d like you to meet my new friends. The Millers have just moved here from Miami. And,” she went on with that familiar glint in her eye, “they’ve agreed to stay for dinner.”
In The Elements of Style William Strunk and E.B. White warn against the use of unnecessary words. This struck me as I read Robert McGee’s essay “And Now, Our Son on His Violin” [February 2013] and came to the second-to-last paragraph, in which he uses the vacuous “of course” twice. Alert editing catches such slips in style. Coupled with the more serious copy-editing mistake for which editor Sy Safransky apologizes in the same issue, it makes me wonder if The Sun’s brightness is dimming.
That said, I still love the magazine, and I must acknowledge that McGee’s essay resonated with me, if sorely, because it reminded me of the times I proffered my unwilling son to play the piano for family and visitors. I drove him to lessons once a week from when he was seven till he graduated from high school. After he left home for college, he gave up playing.