I've found something that's possibly more addictive than coffee or even Facebook: Ancestry.com.
Yes, I've been digging around in the family history. By the way, I've found I'm unofficially a Daughter of the American Revolution on my mother's side. But that's not the line that interests me. I want the scoop on my German great-grandparents on my father's side, Marie Ungar and Albert A. Geiger, whose parents came to America from Germany on a boat in the late 19th century. Marie and Albert married, had my grandmother and her brother, then both promptly died, leaving their children orphans. My grandmother was three.
Their uncle's family took them in; but though they adopted the brother, they did not give my grandmother their name, because she was a girl. Gertrude would marry and take another name, so what did it matter? She remained a "Geiger" until she met my Irish grandfather and became a "Noonan," but the whole naming business remained a source of bitterness.
They took care of her, though, and they did give her something from her father: the violin that his family, the Geigers, had brought over on the boat.
Very little did I know of all this, when I was a little girl. I found that violin in the attic in my grandparents' Rocky River, Ohio, home. Everything in the attic smelled of mothballs, and in the summer, it was a good 20 degrees hotter in there than in the rest of the house. I wasn't really looking for a violin that day; I was looking for dress-up clothes. I looked at the violin with interest, then forgot about it when I spotted a promising-looking trunk, which turned up some shiny red and purple leotards.
I started playing the violin later, when I was nearly nine, exactly on this date, Feb. 18, 35 years ago. I lived in Aurora, Colorado, far from my grandmother. A girl named Sarah had come to play for my fourth-grade class -- she was helping the recruiting efforts of our school music teacher, Linda Walker, who was hoping to build a stronger strings program. I saw the violin, heard it, and knew immediately that I could do it, that I had to do it. As a matter of fact, I was dying to do it. My mother said no, I was going to learn to play the piano.
"But Mom, we don't have a piano!"
"Good point," she said. "Okay."
So I started with Mrs. Walker and two other kids, one named Melanie, who said, "Today is my birthday!" Every year thereafter, through our senior year in high school, we remembered that we'd started violin on her birthday. (BTW, happy birthday, Melanie!)
Eventually I grew to need a full-sized violin, and we bought a very awful one at a local music store, an off-year Roth. I didn't quite know how bad it was, I was too busy playing it.
Soon thereafter, my Ohio grandparents made a great pilgrimage to visit us in Colorado. They actually drove across the country (and the speed limit was 55 mph!). With more ceremony than I could understand, they gave me that violin from Germany -- my grandmother's violin, from her parents. They'd had it restored it at a shop in Cleveland -- in Cleveland they know what to do with a fiddle. The violin sounded nice, so much nicer than what I'd had! It was not a fancy fiddle, and it had no pedigree; it was a German factory fiddle. But it responded to me easily, and well. I used it for many years, all the way through college.
And I still didn't know the story! I knew vaguely that the fiddle had come over from Germany on the boat, with my great-grandparents - the Geigers.
"Really, 'Geiger'?" a friend said, years later, when I was in graduate school at Indiana.
"Yeah," I said. "Maybe the Germans gave me my musical talent, because no one in my family is a musician."
"Are you sure?" my friend asked. "You know the word 'Geiger' in German means 'violinist,' or 'violin maker,' right?"
"It does? No way!"
It does! I confronted my grandmother with this. Why didn't she ever tell me what her name meant?
"It wasn't my name any more," she said with a feeble smile. I suppose her name meant many painful things to her. But for me, it meant that she gave me something. I started playing the violin 35 years ago today, but it's clear to me, it started long before that.Tweet
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