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Emily Grossman

August 23, 2005 at 7:24 PM

My grandpa Reese was a fiddler, a bluegrass fiddler with West Virginian roots. I say this with the same pride as a schoolgirl telling her classmates, “My dad’s a boss,” or “My dad’s an engineer.” My grandpa carried a legacy of tunes that was passed down aurally through many generations. As far as I know, his jigs and reels came over on the boat from Ireland with a mysterious red-headed chap (or lassie), who had a handful of "greats" preceding his name. I won’t know for certain all the tales that lie behind each link in my heritage, and I cannot be sure of the specific branch on my tree that leads me back to my fiddling roots. Written documentation failed over time; it crumbled, or burned, or was moth-eaten, buried, or blown out to sea. The genealogy that my parents have tried valiantly to resuscitate over the years bears the resmblence of a snowflake, at best--small and full of holes.

Grandpa Reese was my most distant grandparent; divorce kept him isolated, and we never visited him for the major holidays like we did the others. However, in my earlier recollections, I see him gathered with all the great aunts and uncles and friends of his that I didn’t really know, playing music late into the summer night out in rural Oklahoma. Guitars, mandolins, dulcimers, and autoharps chimed in rustic accompaniment, but that fiddle--it sang! Too young to join, I sat out on the porch with my cousins, telling ghost stories and playing with kittens and June bugs, listening to the happy din.

The question arises regularly: why violin? I don’t recall specifically what it was that drew me to the fiddle, but I like to think that perhaps it was already in my blood, calling to me. I coveted Grandpa’s oldest fiddle, the very first violin I ever held; the first time I smelled that powdery rosin buildup was on its bridge. He showed me the horsehair, the pegs, and let me blow an A on his pitch pipe. I would be a fiddler, too, someday. He promised me I could play on his old violin someday when I knew how. Perhaps he would even give it to me!

Someday couldn’t come quickly enough. The years passed, and we saw less and less of Grandpa Reese. I set about the regular study of the violin in my public school orchestra, and it took a while to develop enough skill to start picking out tunes by ear. Finally, the day came when I loaded up my own red, beginner-level violin into the car to play at Grandpa’s. He was older and quieter, and much of the brightness of his mind had succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. He had forgotten almost everything from recent history, and the memories he still clung to were his earliest ones. He didn’t know me, or even my mother, but if he got a fiddle in his hands, his tactile memory would flip a tune or two out of his fingers without conscious effort. He taught me Devil’s Dream, Carolan’s Draught, and Blackberry Blossom.

Over the years after my first and only musical sharing with my grandpa, my parents researched and acquired the tunes he would play, and I learned as many as I could, myself. We visited him in the nursing home and played, my mom and dad and I. As much as I disliked doing it and hated the way it made my mom feel to see her own father in complete incoherence like that, I’m glad we went. I like to believe that he still remembered the songs, and that the familiar acquaintance comforted him in his final days of hostile confusion.

It was during these years that my grandpa’s second wife chose to have him rewrite his will to exclude his children. He unknowingly left them nothing and gave all of his instruments to her. The guitars, mandolins, and violins sat unused and neglected under the bed for years, and now I don’t even know where they are. I wonder if anyone at all plays that old black fiddle. I suppose it’s important to remember that it was not the instrument that held the music, but the man who held the instrument.

You see, the wood cracks and warps. The pitch pipe, my only keepsake, falls flat when you blow on it. The paper that holds the family tree yellows, tears, and returns to the earth eventually, just like the people whose names fill the branches. I possess the only true legacy of his that continues to flow through the generations: Grandpa Reese’s music.

From John Lanceley
Posted on August 23, 2005 at 8:16 PM
Are you bringing out a paperback version of that Blog, Em? 'XD'
From Bill Platt
Posted on August 23, 2005 at 9:18 PM
Emily,

Thank you for posting that story. It reminds me of my own grandmother in some ways, in other ways not. She too was musical, though not to that degree, and she too lost her present tense as well. When I was little, she could play (piano) and sing all sorts of tunes from the teens and twenties--and the football songs of her brothers! Gosh how I wish we had recorded all of that! My mom and aunt can only remember some of them.

When she was in the nursing home with Alzheimers, she suddenly lost her ability to walk one day--perhaps it was a stroke. For a few months afterward, she was in a wheelchair, until one day she just stood up and walked! It was in that period that my mom was visiting her one day and she took her mom over to the piano. My grandmother started to play one hand (the other had not recovered yet) and it was a tune that my mom could play the other side to. The nurse was astonished--I think every one cried with both joy and sorrow that day.

Instead of a will gone awry, she had her Lewis siler stolen by a neighbor when she was in an apartment, and she gave the good stuff to the junk man (an original large Maxfield Parrish painting was among the gems!)...so like you say, the material things fade...but our memories we can pass on.

That tunes can be passed from generation to generation, for hundreds of years, that is perhaps one of the most human of exploits.

Regards,

Bill

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 24, 2005 at 1:17 AM
That's beautiful, Emily!
From Peggy B.
Posted on August 24, 2005 at 4:31 AM
Thank you, Emily.
From Clarissa Ng
Posted on August 24, 2005 at 5:08 AM
Emily,
Wow...speechless I am. I wish I had known my grandpa better before he went.
Clarissa
From Alan Wittert
Posted on August 24, 2005 at 5:45 AM
Emily, you are a fine writer...a moving essayist, a wordsmith of heart.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 24, 2005 at 6:18 AM
Well, thanks guys... I'm blushing! I get a lot of inspiration these days around here.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on August 24, 2005 at 6:32 AM
Emily, that is absolutely beautiful. You're so fortunate to have had this man as your grandfather and to have warm, pleasant memories of him. My own experiences were quite different (see my blog).

I know what you mean when you talk about the blind rage of Alzheimer's. I know a couple who lived with and cared for his elderly mother, who had Alzheimer's, for years. Sometimes they'd take out her violin and give it to her to play. She would often put it on her shoulder upside down, and they'd turn it over for her. Once she got started, she'd play pretty well, and she'd be happier and more "with it" for days afterwards. Their daughter started playing the violin around the time that the old woman passed. I remember hearing her play her first song, "We Shall Overcome." Her father said to her, "Your grandmother would be so proud of you. Do you remember how I used to play music with her? In a few years, I'll be playing music with you." He does. Now she plays quite well and attends a special high school for the performing arts. I've played violin duets with her, too, and we've both had great fun.

From Dougie Lawrence
Posted on August 25, 2005 at 9:29 AM
My own inspiration also came from my grandfather who was self taught but had a wonderful ear for music and played to the best of his ability.It was only really when I was asked to play at his funeral that I realised how much he had meant to me over the years.
The time goes on but his music is still there somewhere.
It's one thing to have talent but when you can pass some of it on is greatness beyond belief.
From Heather Wilson
Posted on August 25, 2005 at 2:00 PM
Emily,
I am in tears after reading your blog. Family members have so much power both to inspire and to hurt one another. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on August 25, 2005 at 7:49 PM
She's tearin' me up too.

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