Beneath the print of Diego Rivera’s “The Flower Seller” and behind the African drum stands my cello, safe and silent. It is now enclosed in a hard storage case that my father gave me in 1984. If I had only had that case before the move to Tennessee, when a moving company delivered my cello in pieces to our newly purchased home. They had failed to properly pack the cloth case and fragile body within, but it was I who had exposed it to danger by not taking better care from the start. Or so it felt.
I took in the wreckage swiftly. The graceful neck broken from its body. The once smooth back jaggedly split in three places. Graceful curves of the front of the cello nearly collapsed under a failing sound post. The perfect bridge which held the strings in place now just gone. My own flesh and bones recoiled. I left the house and family to take in gulps of open October air, too warm in a strange land. Devastation trailed me. I wept the tears of one who had lost her beloved, bitter sobs slowing to moans. My children were held back by my husband as I lay on a porch.
What was left of my cello was sealed away in its soft case, pressed into a dark corner of a walk-in closet behind a box of shoes and purses. The maiming of my cello felt like an omen of worse to come but there was little time to worry. Within the day I was immersed in mothering and adjusting to our new community. I pushed away the lingering sorrow. A task I dreaded was telephoning my father, giving him the bad news.
My cello was his gift to me when I was twelve years old. I had studied music–a little piano and violin, a little harp–since I was old enough to hold an instrument for long and would go on to study classical voice. Making music was as much a part of daily life as hands being held around the table at dinner with a prayer offered or seven of us managing a fast shower in the crush of early morning hours.
I had begun more public playing in fourth grade music classes, the third of my parents’ three daughters to profess a desire to play cello. My two brothers sampled wind instruments as well as violin and viola. Since Dad administered and developed the public music education program as well as conducted, we often had him as a teacher both at school and home. I aspired to great heights–to play like my eldest sister (my other sister changed to flute and bassoon) at the least, or like the famed Jacqueline Du Pre, if at all feasible. So I devoted myself to it as best I could. The tedium of practice, the pressures of perfecting skills could be tough but I loved my instrument. Apparently by sixth grade my father felt I had made enough progress to graduate from the school’s rather mediocre cello, as he took me aside one spring when he got home.
“There’s a widow woman in Bat City who says her husband made stringed instrument and also collected them. She wants me to take a look at them. There are a few cellos. Some might be decent. Do you want to go with me?”
The next morning we wedged in our trip between his piano tuning appointments. I was as excited about spending a few hours alone with my father as I was about looking for a cello. I wasn’t certain I would actually take one home but secretly thought I might. A quiet man unless espousing on his favorite topics–including music, history, Scripture, science and math, and perhaps oddly cars and motorcycles–he said little on the way over. The air fairly hummed with our separate thoughts. I glanced at him a few times, noted a smile visiting his barely lined face. He bought, sold and repaired stringed instruments; he harbored a profound appreciation for craftsmanship. I suspected he felt like a treasure hunter.
The large, dusty attic of the woman’s house was half-full of instruments. I learned she had requested that my father appraise them before she sold them. I poked through worn books, a collection of porcelain dolls, a stack of yellowing Life magazines, waiting for the adults to stop talking business. One by one, the instruments were examined by Dad, his touch intuiting and testing, wavy black and silver hair shifting a bit over his forehead as he leaned in closer. He then pulled a bow across a few violas and violins and shook his head. He tried another bunch of bows, too, peering down their length, loosening horsehair on each. He was checking for any deviations; I had watched him in his home workshop doing the same work there.
I quietly made my way to the five cellos and plucked the strings gingerly. My hand rested on the one I was most curious to try.
“Find anything?” Dad asked. Anticipation seemed to color his large blue eyes bluer as he moved closer and stirred up a tiny swirl of dust.
I shrugged. He looked over the cellos of deep red and rich brown woods and then stopped at the one that was tinged a slight yellowish-green. Lifted it from its resting position. The one that had drawn me to it.
“That’s the one I wanted to try,” I said shyly.
“Well, time to see what it does.”
A high-backed chair was found and I sat upon it with suitable cello bow in hand, the instrument settled between my knees. I drew the bow steadily across the C strong, then the G, D, A strings. The muted tones drifted through the rafters. I adjusted the pegs until it was tuned. Played a scale, then, encouraged by my father’s nod, a short exercise. The notes rang out more robustly, as though released from a long sleep. The sound rang out, warm and bright. With a sudden determination to make this cello mine, I played an adagio only learned a week before, the strings letting go a resonant timbre, the notes clear, sure.
“It’s a little homely, but I think it has a strong voice, don’t you?”
I studied his face, unwilling to make assumptions, but he smiled reassuringly and then–the giveaway–winked. I could not imagine that we had enough money to buy this instrument. He wrote a check then and there for one hundred fifty-dollars, a fortune in my thinking. They finished their business while I stood with hand about the fine neck, twirling it now and then on the point of the endpin, light from a small window bouncing off its smooth wood.
“It sure is an odd color…I’m not yet sure what that is…but he was an excellent craftsman. In fact, that cello is remarkable for the cost.”
“Thank you, Dad,” I said as we backed out of the driveway, waving to the older woman. He patted my knee and off we drove.
All this I recalled in Tennessee one day as I settled by the first wood stove fire in early November. It was barely cold enough, but the habits of a northern life lingered. The sunset behind the west woods of our acre dissolved in a thunderous, restless rain that stirred up treetops and longings. I had resolved to call my father, had planned what I would say. It had taken a month to develop the courage and my heart was jumpy. I dialed the number.
“Lawrence Guenther here.”
“Well, hello. Did you want to talk to you mother? All okay?””
“Yes, no, I mean, I want to talk with you about something.” My breath caught in my chest and any composure was futile. “It’s so terrible, what happened. My cello was broken when we moved. It’s all in pieces and I don’t think it can be salvaged. It’s just lost, Dad, gone just like that!”
There was a moment of dreadful silence between us before he answered. “How about if we come down to Tennessee and take a look at it?”
More tears took my words until I pushed on. “Yes, please come, Dad.”
I was thirty-four years old. I had not seriously played my cello since I was eighteen. Unforeseen events–assaults, drug abuse, failed marriage and a second one with dear children–had altered my life course radically over the years. I hadn’t done a lot of things I had planned like finish degrees or becoming a performer. A scrabbling, zigzag course had taken me far from the passionate center of my self: music. The truth was, I had been afraid my father would be angry at such carelessness–or worse, offer simple condolences and suggest I get on with my non-musical, pedestrian living.
When my parents arrived he took one look at it and shook his head in disbelief. He caught himself and sighed. I stepped away and chatted with my mother, waited from his pronouncement. At the end of their visit, they took with them what was left of my cello. Never once did my father say it wasn’t worth the effort and cost it would take to mend it. My insurance company would reimburse some of the cost but I knew it would take more than allotted. I tried not to think of it. He was a fine string repairman after forty years of such work, but I hadn’t known him to fix one that ruined.
After about two months he called to tell me he had shipped my cello to me–in a new hard case. He didn’t assure me it played well, only saying it was playable.
“You’ll see,” he said.
The day it arrived I was alone in the house. I opened the box and its new hard case, afraid of what I would see: a badly scarred instrument not worth the wood it was made of, a cello deeply changed and without its telling voice. I ran my hands over the shattered but now healed places, each rupture sealed almost imperceptibly. It felt strong to my touch and glowed, refreshed, even more than it had. It was all of one piece in my hands. More or less.
I rosined my new bow–Dad had given me one that was far better than I needed–and inserted the endpin, pulled up a chair in the living room and nestled the cello against the bony spot on my chest, between my thighs. The strings were surprisingly in tune; I drew the bow across them with verve, as if to challenge them to talk back to me. The first notes lurched into the stillness and I tried again, drawing horsehair against taut metal strings until sound billowed bit by bit. I ran through some scales, warmed up with an exercise or two. Then I played the opening measures of “Allegra Appasionato” by Saint-Saens. Then, emboldened by notes issuing from awakening strings, gave over to Faure’s moving “Elegy.”
Time ceased. Every fiber of my flesh and portion of my being were transported. It had not forgotten the sound of its own singing. My father had brought my cello back to life. I was excited to share the news with my family when they came home.
But I was right about the sense of there being an omen. The stay in that small town in Tennessee could be enchanting but it finally too trying, the weather too often dangerous, the kudzu and snakes and insects so insistent. As Northerners in a yet Confederate South, there was a loneliness that dogged us. We left after less than two years, cello and five kids and husband and all.
Twenty years later I took my cello in for refurbishment. The shop was in an exclusive part of the city and the proprietor was pleasant but unimpressed with my instrument.
Uncertain whether he would have time, he inquired about my musical background, I admitted I am a sometime-musician if that, certainly more a has-been than a will-be. It was a little embarrassing. I knew he worked with some of the best musicians and their instruments. But there must have been something in my eyes because he reconsidered.
“It’s always good to make music, no matter the age or circumstance. I’ll see what I can do.”
When I picked it up later and handed him a good sized check, I lingered a moment. It seemed to have lost its greenish-yellow hue. That didn’t seem possible so I didn’t remark on it.
“This is costing me a lot more than what it cost my father to buy it in 1962,” I said with a half-smile.
“Well, I can tell you the bow far exceeds the value of your cello–it’s a truly fine bow– but it sounds pretty good and it’s yours. So play it, you must play it to keep it alive.” As he showed me out he offered a real smile, his bright critical eyes warming.
But something inside me knew I was unlikely to draw from it the music I had before and left with sadness tinging my relief to have it back again. I was writing, I was working every day at my job. I was not really making music.
It has been over fifty years since my father gave me my instrument. He has long exited this atmosphere. Sometimes I wonder why I have kept my cello so long. Other times I wonder why I can bear to leave it so silent, untouched. It has a past that, though short of being illustrious, is not so unremarkable to me. It has played under the open sky and on velvet curtained stages. It has competed and won and has been attendant to the hurt of defeat. My cello endured all kinds of lovely and ghastly weather as I lugged it from one event to another. A lot of sweat. It was for years almost my closet companion, led me into a life shaped by discipline and challenge, a devotion to beauty that can be heard and felt. To moments where epiphanies awaited. Without my cello, I would have been far less courageous, found less relief and hope.
And yet I do not play it now, not truly. I have fewer excuses since being retired from counseling with greater solitude. But it has gotten harder to pull the bow (it yet bears a minuscule sticker with my father’s initials, LWG) across the strings and elicit sounds I am happy to hear. Every now and then, though, when the apartment has the sort of stillness that begs for the sweeping alto of my cello, I take it out. Play fumbling and coaxing until it sings a small song. It harbors that voice, brings to life something good and lustrous that has always been there. Something I had the gift of sharing just ten or twelve years with other young musicians. But more so, God, and my deepest self. So whenever we try to speak with one another, my cello and me–oh all that reunites us still.
(Note: This is a revision of my previously published creative nonfiction piece bearing the same title. It first appeared in VoiceCatcher, an anthology, copyright 2006. I retain the rights to this work.)