Tuesday, November 11, 2008


When Mom got religion and decided that dancing was sinful, Pop put away his fiddle for awhile and packed it in its case in a closet. He had been saved, Mom said, and would now walk the path of the righteous. All of that dancing, with people hanging onto each other and wiggling around as though in some kind of ecstasy would cease and Pop would toe the Biblical line and mend his devilish ways. It had probably been a dream of hers for many years, because Pop wasn't beyond a flirtatious stint with a neighbor's wife or a brief liaison with a woman at a square dance and, through the strict instructions in the Bible, she felt she could keep him under control.

It didn't work long, though. After a short while, Pop began playing at the square dances again, his fiddle tucked beneath his chin, a smile on his face. I didn't know him then, but Bud told me about the way my father was back then, a wiry, well-built dark-haired man, with a hank of black hair falling over his forehead as he played, his brown eyes, flecked with yellow, trained on the crowd of dancers. A good-looking man, Bud said, not professionally trained in music, but with the strains of the violin pouring out of him in some natural way, as happens with many Southerners. He could play any tune you mentioned and I loved to sit at his feet and listen to him, but as time went by and Mom continued with her disapproving glares and her comments about the dire consequences of being a "backslider," he slowly played less and less and once again packed the fiddle away.

His attraction to the neighbors' wives didn't cease, however. I can remember one day when Mom took off for the house on the hill, where another farmer and his wife lived, a remote couple that I had never met, but had seen working in their garden occasionally. I didn't question why Mom was going to their house, nor did I ask to go with her. There was something in her angry, stern expression that kept me quiet.

When she came home, she had Pop in tow. Her face was as red as a ripe tomato on a hot, sunny afternoon and she was so angry, all she could do is go to the kitchen and start banging pots and pans around. Pop went to his chair and lit up his pipe. When I tried to join him, because sitting on his lap while he smoked his pipe was something I always did, he discouraged me by shaking his head and just sat there, blowing billows of smoke into the air.

I never knew what happened in the house on the hill, but from that moment on, Mom shook her head and mumbled under her breath when the neighbor's name was mentioned. Pop didn't try to take out his violin for a long time after that, but once in a while, when Mom was gone to visit Helma, he would take it from his case. What a treat that was for me! I would tap my foot to the beat of the music and occasionally get up and waltz around the room. We were like two drunken sailors, Pop and I, giving ourselves over to the music and acting like two little kids.

I gave some thought to religion then, wondering why God would mind if Pop and I enjoyed the music that he played. It seemed to me that a loving God would encourage people to laugh and dance. It seemed to me that every church I had ever attended relied upon music to affect the mood. All over the country there are congregations stomping and singing and holding their arms aloft. So, why did Mom decide to take Pop's music away from him? What was the answer to her reaction against the joy of dancing to the beat of a lively song?

I think, but I do not know, that Pop looked just too appealing with the fiddle in his hand. He would laugh and banter and be completely different from the hard-working fellow in the fields. I think that Mom was keeping her eye on this attractive man she had landed and, to keep him on the straight and narrow, she banned the fiddle from our lives.

In a strange contradiction, she never complained when Helen took violin lessons or I was sent to study the piano. Hubert and Gerry would sit in the living room and sing country western tunes, while Hubert strummed the guitar, and Mom enjoyed it as much as the rest of us did. She also sang constantly in the kitchen with her high soprano voice, singing the church tunes that I remember to this day. She sang religious hymns as she mixed up the biscuit dough, as she put the beans on to simmer. She sang religious hymns as she melted snow when the pump was frozen in the winter. She sang religious hymns as she set the table for another meal for the family, but mention the fiddle and she would only shake her head and turn away.

My sister, Hazel, had a beautiful, lilting voice. She used to sing in local bars and other gatherings, never intending to make it a career, but enjoying the opportunity to sing. Her grandson, Rodney, had the most beautiful male voice I have ever heard, bar none! So, somewhere in this big, sprawling family is a strain of musical talent. I won't be surprised if one of my remote relatives suddenly appears on national television, crooning a tune from their hit album!

When we were very young, Herman bought Helma a piano. I don't believe she ever touched it, but we all knew it belonged to her. I found that I had inherited Pop's ability to pound out a tune. I played the piano incessantly, singing along in my high, juvenile voice. Pop was my audience and he would sit in his chair and encourage my efforts. Since the radio was often broken and the wind-up record player was confined to Sir Harry Lauder tunes, my amateur efforts were the only music we had, if one can call it that. At times, I begged Pop to bring out his fiddle to join me, but he refused. The only time the fiddle came out was when Mom was away.

When both Mom and Pop were gone, there was a question as to what to do with the piano. I didn't feel I had any claim to it, since it belonged to Helma, even though I was the only one who ever played it. So the piano ended up with Norma Jean, my old childhood friend and niece, where it resides today in her basement. I think Helma tried to claim it once, but Norma told her it was a fixture in her basement and would remain that way. I have always felt that I would rather have the memory of that piano than the instrument itself. Old pianos lose their heart and soul and eventually decay into dust, but memories last forever and no mold or decay can damage them.

I have never known what became of Pop's fiddle. Perhaps it was eventually thrown away, or given to someone along the way. It, too, is only a memory in my heart, that shining, orange-ish, instrument that turned into magic in my father's hands. So much of their lives is gone now, lost in the shadows of fading existences. We live, we gather possessions, we leave them behind, and we never know in the darkness of death what becomes of items we treasured for a lifetime. But, somewhere up in Heaven, I am sure there is an angel, an old, whiskered man, sitting on a cloud somewhere playing on his fiddle, while the angels gather around him to dance!