Uncle Benny's Stradivarius
Ruth Z. Deming
We are the Walkers. Some of us have lived in this old stone house in Glenside for three or four generations. We are as different as each of the flagstones that hold up the house, but we are bound together, through hate and love, through greed and gossip, through just plain meanness and jealousy.
We are running out of money. Mama summons the lot of us. We gather around the huge dining room table where father once presided. He was a successful rug merchant in downtown Philadelphia, who left Mama a hefty sum nearly fifty years ago. Her daughters clamored for the money – Dahlia, Emily, Audrey and me, Geraldine.
Mama swore up and down, “This is the last time I’m giving you a penny, darn it,” but we always wore her down and she hadn’t the gumption to say no.
We took our accustomed places around the table. In latter years, I couldn’t abide the smell of the house, even as Mama served us her pecan-studded chocolate brownies and steaming black coffee. If you must know, our home caused me to gag, so I pushed away the plate when it arrived in front of me.
“What? My brownies aren’t good enough for you, Gerri?” Mama asked me.
“Just not hungry, Mama,” I said, smelling what seemed to be all four generations of Walkers, their body odors, their moldering ancient breaths, their assortment of conditions that once filled the house – breast cancers, childbirths, Father’s pancreatic cancer, his bowel movements in the commode, and all the spiders dancing across the ceiling, too high for short, white-haired Mama to reach. Plus she was fat. She practically lived on chocolate. The happy drug.
“I was watching television the other night,” she said.
Mama spent most of her non-baking time in bed watching TV. Two years ago, she stopped paying her cable-television bill and Comcast finally disconnected it. In bed - she takes her chocolate to bed with her – Nestle chocolate chip morsels or Wilbur Buds - and nibbles as she watches her non-cable shows, always losing the remote in the depths of the quilts, all hand-sewn by other Walkers.
“That Antiques Road Show is coming to Philadelphia,” she announced, as she tucked another brownie bite into her chocolate-covered lips.
“And...” interrupted Dahlia, “we’re going to get rich!”
“Yes indeed, D, we certainly are.”
Mama explained that her Uncle Benny, her late Uncle Benny from Cleveland, Ohio, had a Stradivarius violin, and Mama was now prepared to part with it.
“Why didn’t you ever tell us about it!” howled Dahia. “Keeping secrets from your very own daughters. For shame!”
Dahlia was quite the beauty, with long brown hair she often wore in Indian braids. Like everyone but me, she wanted a man but no one would have her. First question she’d wrangle out of them was, “What’s your line of work?” and then calculate how they were going to make her rich. Her one desire on earth. To be a rich man’s wife. Because Mama gave her money, she did look like the upper classes, her latest purchase a huge silver ring shaped like a butterfly. As a barista at Starbucks, she made small talk with as many men as possible, and Mama paid for her condo where no rich folk dwelt.
“Where’s this so-called violin?” asked Emily, a beautiful name for a fearful woman, a gossip, a woman who never left home, plagued with self-imposed agoraphobia.
The violin, explained Mama, with her mouth full, was up in the attic, so we had to find it. At eighty-eight, Mama hadn’t gone senile on us yet, and told us we’d find it off to the right behind a mirror from Aunt Ethel and be sure not to step on the candelabra that she had heard tumble over during a thunderstorm.
Sure enough, as Dahlia, Emily, Audrey and I climbed up the ladder into the attic, we found Uncle Benny’s violin wrapped in a blue pillowcase. We all reached for it at once, wanting to be the first to lay our hands on it.
“I got here first,” said Emily. “Move, all of you, move away!”
Then we began to sneeze. Yes, the whole lot of us. Dust particles swam like pollen in the air.
Emily carried the violin in her arms like the newborn she never had. Emily believes that total strangers look at her and fall madly in love with her.
“Don’t look now, Gerri,” she will say as we stroll through the mall, “but that guy with a mustache who looks like Omar Sharif has a crush on me.”
“Sure, Emily,” I say with feigned compassion.
Holding the violin, which we nicknamed “Strad,” Emily sat back down at the table, undressed Strad and let the pillowcase flop to the floor. Dust went flying as she wiped the violin off with a paper napkin.
Mama looked on, satisfied.
Audrey began to yell. “Whatever is the matter with you, Emily, whatever is the matter with you, Emily, whatever…..”
“Stop right now, Audrey,” I said firmly. Audrey had beautiful shoulder-length auburn hair, blue eyes, and was lovely to behold. A car accident on one of the highways leading to downtown Philadelphia caused irreversible brain damage. Always hard-working, unlike Emily, who never worked a day in her life, Audrey had a paid job at the Glenside Free Library where she shelved books, pushed around a book cart, and at closing time, flicked the lights on and off. She also went around to all the patrons and whispered, “The library will close in fifteen minutes.”
But converse with her, and her momentum was stopped. The poor woman could not think on her feet.
“Audrey,” said Mama, “you open the violin case.”
Audrey, whose head hung low after the accident, carefully slipped “Strad” out of its cover, revealing a black violin case with mottled indentations.
Audrey patted the top and then slipped her slender white fingers around the clasp to open the case.
The violin lay on a bed of purple satin. Not an ounce of dust or a single spider spoiled its beauty. Audrey lifted it up and showed it all around.
Emily took it from her. Her hands, which always trembled, tilted the instrument toward herself.
“There it is!” she said excitedly. “Stradivarius, 1748.”
We all gasped.
Then began a hasty recitation of what we would do with the millions when they came our way. On order: a Vitamix Blender, a set of Cuisinart pots and pans, Persian carpets like Daddy used to sell, jewelry from Jeweler’s Row downtown (Dahlia would have a diamond), “everything on sale at Marshall’s or T. J. Maxx,” a grandfather clock like they have in the lobby of the local hospital, and a Keurig coffeemaker.
“I want a family portrait,” I said to impress the girls with my feigned family devotion.
“And for you, Mama,” said Dahlia, who bore no love for her own mother, much as a person hates the hand that feeds her, “your very own gift card for a manicure and pedicure at the nail salon up the street.”
“Don’t be silly, Dahlia. You can look like a hussy in your glossy nails. All’s I need is good health and a fear of the Lord.”
We left for Antiques Roadshow on a sunny Wednesday. I drove over in my shiny white Nissan SUV, the model always escapes me, they’re all alike – Rogue, Vogue, Plague, Sage. We put Mama in first. It wasn’t easy pushing the butterball up the steep stairs of the SUV and then strapping her in next to me.
Audrey easily slipped into the backseat, wearing a bicycle helmet in case we would crash again, then Dahlia and Emily. I handed “Strad” to Mama, which was wrapped in a puffy quilt we pulled out of the attic. After I started the ignition and pulled out onto Edge Hill Road I got real nervous. There were only a couple of times I was nervous driving. One, when I was very young and got lost on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I didn’t know east from west and couldn’t figure out how to exit. Hotel California on wheels.
We drove along the highway. The other side was jam-packed with vehicles coming home from work in Philadelphia, a few black and white police cars threading through to control speeding. They always scare me to death and I practically jam on my brakes when I see them.
I pulled down the sun visor as the sun seemed to find its way directly into my eyes.
“Twenty-three million miles away,” I announced, “and the sun makes a beeline trying to blind me.” I patted the quilt on Mama’s lap.
Swoosh! Swoosh! I was in the middle lane and felt rocked by the cars passing in the right and left lanes. Deciding not to switch on the radio – we would never agree what station to listen to – I began to enjoy the ride and promised myself I’d remember every little detail on this day that would forever change our lives.
Suddenly, a tirade in monotone from the backseat broke into our thoughts.
“A Stradivarius is one of the violins, cellos, and other stringed instruments built by members of the Stradivari family, particularly Antonio Stradivari, during the 17th and 18th centuries. According to their reputation, the quality of their sound has defied attempts to explain or equal it. The name "Stradivarius" has become a superlative often associated with excellence; to be called "the Stradivari" of any field is to be deemed the finest there is.”
“Brilliant! Bravo!” cried Mama as Audrey ended her solo.
“Where’d you learn all that, Aude?” asked Emily.
“Glenside Library. Mrs. Peters found it for me in the Ref Section,” she said.
“Well,” said Emily, “you will soon be rewarded for your hard work.
“You’ll be the Stradavari of our family,” I said, looking at my helmeted rocking back-and-forth sister through the rear-view mirror.
The Convention Hall was in University City. So many universities and only one of us had ever graduated. Emily went off to a junior college in Boston when we had money, but she returned home at semester break. Homesick. The start of her phobic disease, but she didn’t wear white like Emily Dickinson did. Dahlia, the braided one, went to Empire Beauty Academy, wheeled around a mannequin at home, practiced cutting our hair, and dropped out.
“I don’t like it,” she said. “Too boring.”
Boring? Try, “too much work,” I thought.
And what did I do with my bachelor’s in Comparative Lit? Worked at The Cupcakery, baking yummy cupcakes with all sorts of luscious icings. People ask me why I’m not fat. “I have the thin bones of my father,” I’d say, not even thinking about his wasting away in the last stages of his cancer, which I saw on the doctor’s chart is abbreviated “Ca.”
“I think that’s it up ahead,” I announced, looking in the mirror at Dahlia, the smart one.
“Drab-looking, but yes, that’s the Convention Center, all right,” she said.
“I was expecting columns,” said Emily.
“Whatever,” I said, pulling up at the door of the Center. We were two hours early on purpose. Everyone was to get out and lead Mama in by the arm.
“Ma!” I said. “I need two twenties to park.”
She picked up her pocket book and peeled out two twenties.
“I’ll find you inside,” I said, as I drove off to park in the parking garage, going round and round to get to the first space on the tenth floor, my head spinning like a top.
When I walked into Antiques Roadshow, ushers in bright green vests directed everyone where to go. “I have a mother with a Stradivarius,” I said to a woman in curly gray hair.
“A what?” she said.
“Oh, you know,” I said. “One of those old violins.”
“Musical instruments,” she said like a school marm correcting me and then pointed where to go.
“It’s a long walk,” she said.
There they were, seated on benches on the periphery. Mama held a big black and white number reading “76.”
Soft music played on the loudspeakers along with announcements that said, “Will Mrs. Hightower please report to the Information Desk” or “If you have a red Buick, license plate RFT 2026, you must attend to your car immediately or it will be towed.”
This was as exciting as a Phillies’ baseball game when they were on a winning streak. Thinking of the hot dogs on soft as silk buns, I felt hungry. Sure enough, over on the right, vendors sold an assortment of foods. I spread hot spicy mustard and relish on my hot dog and walked around while finishing it off.
You should see all the junk people had lugged inside the Convention Center. Stuff you’d avoid at garage sales: lamps with their shades askew, chairs with the stuffing coming out, gaily painted bureaus, one with a tree design on it, golf clubs bearing the name “Bobby Jones.”
Hot dogs are all alike. Same as bacon and French fries. Love them or hate them. Licking the mustard off my fingers, I joined the family. Naturally they made a fuss over me, thinking I had gotten lost or was still trying to find the parking garage.
Our family doesn’t have faith in anyone, except for Mama. Perhaps it’s because Daddy left us so early.
“Seventy-six!” called a female voice through the loudspeaker.
We all walked up in unison, like the Rockettes. Audrey held the violin shrouded in the quilt.
“Where are the cameras?” asked Mama.
“Preliminary interview, ma’am,” said a man in a gray ponytail and suit and tie. I know I’d seen him on television. I fell in love with him immediately and wondered how I might get his attention.
“Whatcha got there, Grandma?” he asked Mama.
“My Uncle Benny’s Stradivarius,” she said. “He’s originally from Cleveland, Ohio.”
Mama had on her “no-nonsense don’t mess with me” look.
Mr. Ponytail placed quilt and violin on a large table and opened up the quilt, as if he were peering at a doll.
He peered inside the black case at the purple satin bedding on which the violin lay.
We heard him give a sort of snort and laugh. Then he caught himself and cleared his throat to cover himself.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” he said, glancing at our hopeful faces. “It was common during the early twentieth century – that is, the early 1900s, as if we were dodos, which of course we are – “to make what we refer to as ‘faux Stradivarius’ violins. No harm was meant. They weren’t forgeries, they were just borrowing the name, the way you might say, ‘here’s my Baron Rothschild champagne, when you mean just regular ole champagne.’”
We said nothing.
“What I’d like, though, is to interview you for the taping of the program. How about it?”
“Don’t see nothing wrong with that,” said Mama.
The Ponytail got on his cell phone and spoke to someone.
In a moment, the cameraman appeared.
We didn’t even have a chance to feel disappointed, as Mr. Don Whittaker, Ponytail’s real name, had us repeat the whole sad story. We never got a chance to say, “Oh my God! I hadn’t realized it was worth so much!”
Suddenly, I started tearing up. Oh my God! Whatever were we going to do. We had no money.
“And your name, ma’am?”
“Oh, we’re the Walkers,” said Mama. “And I’m wondering something, Mr. Don Whittaker.”
That was Mama. Irrepressible Mama.
“See this here yellow blanket the Strad-ee-varius is wrapped in? Kindly pick it up and take a look at it.”
Mr. Whittaker, who I couldn’t keep my eyes off - I’ve always loved guys in earrings, ponytails, and little scruffy Bruce Springsteen facial hair - shook out the yellow blanket that was much larger than he thought, as it spread itself, like a bridal train, across the floor.
“Absolutely shocking!” he exclaimed.
“Mrs. Walker, this is a one of a kind quilt. May I ask you where you bought this?”
Mama told him that Daddy had been a rug and quilt merchant in downtown Philadelphia. Not here in University City, she said, but in Center City before he had to relocate because of the deteriorating neighborhood. No one was interested in buying the yellow quilt, which was filled with all sorts of designs and sayings.
“Mrs. Walker,” he said. “This is a genuine patchwork quilt made by slaves in the 1860s.”
“Slaves?” said Mama. “You mean black slaves in the Deep South before they was freed by Mr. Abraham Lincoln?”
“That’s right,” he said.
He opened his cell phone again and summoned a few people over.
“At auction or on the market,” he said into the camera, “this slave quilt would bring a minimum of sixty-thousand dollars.”
“Told you so,” she said, smiling into the camera and showing two missing front teeth.
On the ride home, Audrey tightened her helmet in the back seat. “Mama, may I sleep with the quilt tonight?”
“You sure can, Darling,” she said from the front seat. “You sure can.”
Then turning to me, she added, “Wish it would cure her.”
“What we going to do with that fake violin,” asked Dahlia.
That was the question we rode home on. That, and thinking of all the purchases we’d make from the slave quilt. I always wanted to buy some stocks like rich people do. Or maybe I’d buy the newest Joni Mitchell album.
“Mama!” said Dahlia the Starbucks barista. “You’re now going to get a lifetime supply of my Mocha blend – that’s chocolate mixed with coffee, you know!”
At that, Mama reached into her pocketbook and brought out a Ziploc bag with enough M & Ms to eat until we got home.