The Last Thing I Loved: My Grandfather’s Violin
Zuzanna Fiminska shares her love of the violin from a young age.
My grandfather had an old violin he kept wrapped in a plastic bag on the top shelf of a very tall cupboard.
“This is not a toy,” he said, refusing to let me have it.
Once, when he wasn’t home, I was restless after building a carpet tipi in my grandparents’ living room. I wanted something to do, so I went to the kitchen and pulled on my grandmother’s skirt while she grated potatoes for placki.
“Play with me,” I said.
She looked down. “I’m cooking,” she said.
I sat on the stone floor and cried. She sighed, wiped her hands on her striped apron, and walked to that very tall cupboard. She retrieved the plastic bag and peeled it off, revealing the violin. She held it by the neck and gave it to me.
“There,” she said. “Don’t bother me.”
I held the violin by the waist. Breathing more and more rapidly, I ran my gaze along its edge. I put it under my chin. It was too big for my toddler frame, and I couldn’t play without the bow. Yet, I had suddenly become taller.
Sometime later, the house filled with the smell of placki.
“I thought you’d fallen asleep,” my grandmother said when she came to get me. “We need to put this back before your grandfather sees,” she said, taking the violin away.
I threw myself on the floor and hit it with my fists. She lifted me off the ground and promised me extra sugar on the placki.
Every day since, I’d imagined playing the violin. I never told anyone. The violin had a bad reputation; people said it was “unforgiving.” You had to be special to play. I wasn’t special.
I was 12 when I discovered how unspecial I was. That year at school, we learned to play the recorder. I hated the sound, the semi-jolly tunes we were forced to play, and the idea of spitting into something that leaked onto my lap. I almost failed the class. I told my teacher the recorder was stupid, and I wanted to play the violin.
“If you can’t handle the recorder, you have no business on the violin,” she said.
She was a musical adult. She was right.
I loved the violin in secret. I went to concerts feeling happiest in the cheap seats directly above the strings where I could watch the musicians’ hands. I saved my pocket change to buy albums, and I listened to a classical radio station to record the best pieces with religious zest. At 13, I began waking up most days with a concerto in my head. My party trick was to name a violin player or composer starting with each letter of the alphabet.
My best friend in middle school was a young violinist. I revered her for the special thing that she had that I lacked.
“Try it,” she once told me.
I shook my head.
“No, no, I couldn’t. It would be wrong,” I said.
At 16, I was too old.
Ten years later, I discovered online tutorials. I subscribed to a channel and watched a British violin teacher demonstrate how to hold a bow and show which exercises are best for finger flexibility in the right hand. For months, I practiced with a pen.
Watching this teacher gave me an idea: Maybe I could take a lesson. I put the date in my calendar, but I couldn’t afford a lesson — let alone a violin. I couldn’t dream of asking my grandparents for their old violin and, finishing graduate school, I couldn’t imagine ever having a job that paid enough to have a hobby. But I kept at it, telling myself that one day a violin would present itself. When it did, I’d be ready.
About two years into this study, I went to a folk-fiddle concert at a small venue in Edinburgh. It was a rainy day, and everyone in the room could hear the sloshing in my shoes as I walked toward my seat. A moment later, the artist arrived. He sat on a little chair in the middle of the stage and told a tale about a seal that turned into a woman. Then, he began playing a Highland piece that was like a pink kite gliding against the marble of the Scottish sky. I talked to him afterward. The loud splashes announced my approach.
“I have holes in my shoes,” I said, looking down.
“From going to concerts?” he asked.
I told him what the violin meant to me.
“It’s not that hard if you practice,” he said.
“I can practice,” I said.
“That’s plenty,” he said.
I came home that night and emailed every violin teacher who offered beginner lessons to adults in my area. There weren’t many. I only got a response from one, but one was all I needed. I ordered a terribly cheap violin. After my first lesson, breathing in the smell of British autumn and carefully avoiding fallen leaves, I walked home trembling.
Over the past two years, I have spent hours training my fingers to be strong in some joints and relaxed in others, all while teaching my ear to be sensitive to pitch but not so sensitive to scratch. I studied sheet music and performing traditions. I heard tunes and melodies that were between spells and prayers.
People told me I was wasting my time.
“You’ll never learn. Why bother?” they said.
They often suggested I pick up something easier — the recorder, perhaps. I’d nod and move on and, over time, I learned to use my violin case as a honey trap for more supportive friends.
Nowadays, I clearly hear what’s in tune and what’s not, and I’m able to correct it. My bowing is smooth, and my vibrato is luscious, though these don’t always occur at the same time. As I learn, I keep getting taller.
As I read sheet music for a short piece of Bach, a hairy spider pricks my spine. No matter my progress, this will never be my life; there are no shortcuts, and there’s not enough time. I put down the violin, and the spider spins a web. It’s heavy, it sticks, and it’s making me hunch.
I recently asked my grandfather about the story of his old violin. His father — my great-grandfather — played in orchestras and was in high demand as a wedding player. When the Nazis forced my family out of their home in 1940, my great-grandfather claimed his violins belonged to German soldiers.
“‘Instruments have to be played,’ he told them,” my grandfather said. “And he was going to play until the boys returned. Then, the Nazis let him be.”
After the war ended, and my family returned, my great-grandfather wanted the violins to be passed down across generations. The one I held in my toddler hands had been given to my mother, but she had refused to learn. When I was in college, my grandmother gave it away.
Now visiting home, my grandfather tells me stories of when his five brothers and he sat in front of their family home in the middle of a village, listening to their father play. The war was over, and they were back at their old house, filled with the dark, sweet sound of that old instrument. I ask what they played. My grandfather hums, and I pick up the tune. Gradually, the spider’s web melts, and I stand straight.
“Are you still growing?” my grandfather asks.