I really admire my friends and relatives who pursue woodworking as a hobby and turn out beautiful pieces, one of which now adorns my curio shelf. Neither my dad nor I had any talent that way. I couldn’t identify one piece of wood from another, unless it still belonged to a living tree, and even then only because I sometimes recognize an individual leaf or two.
But the exceptions, thanks to my dad, are spruce and maple. These I knew all about because of the incredible musical talents of my father’s siblings, especially my Uncle Ernie, Uncle Billy, and Aunt Theresa. Dad remembers them entertaining the family after dinner by singing and playing their most precious possession, the fiddle. As Dad said, because they were poor Hungarian immigrants, they felt uncomfortable and even pretentious calling their instruments “violins.”
Because my father was the youngest of six, as a toddler he was not initially entertained by their fiddle playing. His brother Ernie was such an enthusiastic fiddler that the piercing sounds he produced scared Dad and set him bawling and running from the living room. I wasn’t much older than a toddler when Dad told me this wonderful story, and so I still remember the glee I felt in realizing for the first time that my Superman father was once a tiny kid like me who actually cried.
Now, where was I in this essay? Oh, yes, I still haven’t connected for you why I know all about spruce and maple due to Dad’s musical family. Well, I must have been about nine when Dad was reminiscing again about his family’s spontaneous fiddle concerts. He said “Let me show you something, Elliot,” and walked over to our den bookshelf and retrieved the “V” volume of our encyclopedia. You still remember encyclopedias, don’t you — those books of endless alphabetized information that have now been made quaintly prehistoric, thanks to Google?
“OH, COME ON, ELLIOT, GET TO THE SPRUCE AND MAPLE ALREADY!” I hear you mentally screaming at me. OK, OK. Dad turned to the entry on “Violin” and pointed at a picture of the most gorgeous musical instrument I had ever seen. “That is a Stradivarius,” he said, “made more than two hundred years ago, and named for the Italian who created it by somehow realizing that making a violin out of spruce and maple woods would give it the most glorious and haunting sound ever produced by a musical instrument.” We both stared at the gorgeous swirls of red and orange in the spruce and maple finish of that Stradivarius in the picture, and to this day I can recognize by sight those two woods.
It must have been when I was about fourteen that Dad came home from work one day clutching four tickets. “I got them, Helen!” he excitedly called out to Mom. He explained that the brilliant violinist Jascha Heifetz would be the guest performer at our Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and would be playing a Stradivarius. And our family now had tickets for the concert!
Unfortunately, my sister came down with a terrible case of bronchitis that day, and so Mom stayed home with her while Dad and I went to the concert on our own. There we were on the front center aisle with two empty seats next to us. I felt like Dad and I were cocooned in our own little world as the great Heifetz started playing his magnificent Strad. The highlight was when he began Dad’s favorite piece: Mozart Violin Concerto No. Four.
This supernal concerto was also his brother Ernie’s favorite, but Ernie had tragically died at age thirty-five. As Heifetz’s artistry transported his audience, I glanced over at Dad. Tears were streaming down his face. I had never seen my father weep. I was transfixed.
Years before, my father had taught me the consoling lesson that even dads cried when they had been scared little boys. And now he was teaching me that great art can open up within us the deepest wellspring of emotion that, in his case, was Dad’s remembering a beloved brother now gone, and, in my case (watching my father cry as I now also wept), was my remembering that I was the luckiest son in all of Indianapolis that night.