Monday, March 4, 2013

the red violin.

Are you in the mood for a story?

When I was a freshman in college, I decided to spend my spring break visiting my grandparents in Nashville. It was a momentous decision for me: I felt so adult, traveling by myself. Gram and Granddad helped to bolster that adult feeling by making the trip extra special and doing things like taking me to a jazz club for a late-night dinner to hear a favorite local band (I can still taste the tuna steak and mashed potatoes I ate - one of the best dinners out I've ever had!). On one night, we decided to stay in and watch a movie - my grandfather was very excited to rent a movie he had heard great things about called "The Red Violin." I enjoyed it enough - a romantic story about a beautiful instrument with a tragic history - but I didn't really think that much about it, since there were so many other adventures from my trip to focus on.

In fact, I had forgotten all about the movie when, during the final week of spring term, I found a large package waiting for me in my residence hall's mail room. Upon opening it, I was shocked to discover a bright red violin and a short little note from my grandfather explaining that he wanted me to have one "just like in the movie."

yes, that's me - Granddad and I always shared a love of music

Perhaps now would be a good time to interject with a few details about my grandfather, who was a creative genius and life-long tinkerer and also a man on a mission who, once an idea was in his head, was sure that it was a fantastic one that needed to be carried to completion. Sometimes this meant beautiful results, like the gorgeous rocking horse he built for me or the amazing secret formula he created for repairing cracked porcelain so that you couldn't see the seam. But it also meant misfires, like when my fashion-savvy mother wanted one of the chamois-cloth shirts that were all the rage in the late 1960s, so he made her one...out of chamois cloths he picked up at a car repair shop.

Because of this history, I was a little nervous about the provenance of the blood-red violin I now found myself staring at. My music conservatory buddies were all too eager to find out the bloody details, too, so with some sleuthing help from other members of my family, I discovered the truth:

my grandfather, circa 1960s

Once I left Nashville after my trip, Granddad decided I needed a red violin to add to my instrument collection. He went to local music shops and pawn shops and found a violin that he thought would suit his purpose, and then went strictly against the advice of a luthier he met with and stripped all the varnish off. (For those of you not in the know, the varnish significantly contributes to the sound a stringed instrument produces.) He then set out to create the perfect red color with which to revarnish the violin. After mixing up a magic potion of red paints and dyes, he knew something was missing, so he set off for his doctor's office.

"I need some blood drawn," my grandfather announced to the nurse once he made it past reception. "Are you having some tests done? I don't see anything noted in your chart," she inquired.

"No, no tests. Actually, I'm using it to make my granddaughter a violin. I just need you to put it in a vial I can take home."

"Sir, we don't draw blood for those purposes. And we don't allow you to take blood home with you."

"But that's what happens in the movie. I just need a small amount."

"Sir, does your wife know where you are?"

Poor Granddad left the doctor's office empty handed that afternoon. But a few slits of the wrist later when Gram wasn't watching and - ta da! - a red varnish with just enough gore to make it interesting. Once the violin was painted a glossy new shade that would make even Christina Hendricks jealous, Granddad carefully and tenderly wrapped it and shipped it off as a token of his love.

Was I more than a little creeped out by his grand gesture? Yep. And the story became lore among my music geek friends at college. But all these years later, as I reflect on my memories of my kooky, big-hearted grandfather, this is one that comes to my mind first: a tangible sign of his excitement about our time together, his desire to be a part of my life, and his love for me and my passions and pursuits.

Granddad died last Thursday, one month after his wife. I miss him so dearly already.

p.s. My Granddad was perhaps best known as a master storyteller - and, much to Gram's chagrin, he sometimes played fast and loose with the truth in order to get a certain effect. I promise that this post is truthful to the best of my knowledge, but I think Granddad wouldn't mind if a few of the facts went to the wayside in order to better tell you the story.


  1. Courtney, I'm so charmed by your family. That story brought me to tears. I am so sorry for your loss. I would love to hear more stories about your fascinating grandparents.

  2. This is so such a sweet beautiful story. What a wonderful Grandpa. Hugs & prayers to you!

  3. I read Ann's comment just as I was wiping a tear of my own away. What a beautiful and crazy story. Please tell me you still have the red violin. I'm so sorry for your loss, but happy that you had such a character for a grandfather.

  4. What a remarkable story! How wonderful for you to have had such a creative and passionate grandfather. I'm so, so sorry for your loss, Courtney.

  5. I wondered last week if you grandad had died, but I thought, "no, it's too soon." Then I saw you and didn't ask; my apologies. You family just sounds delightful and I am sorry that you lost your grandparents so close together.

  6. I remember this and think of this story from time to time. When I heard about your loss this week, it was one of the first things I thought of. Thinking of you. lots of love to all.

  7. You come from such a lively and delightful family. Reading your stories, it's easy to see where your passion and creativity come from. I, too, could read many more stories about your grandparents. I'm so sorry you've had to say goodbye, and hope your memories are lifting your spirits when they need a boost. Hugs to you.

  8. well, now, that's just about one of the best stories i've ever heard.
    grandpa's are great.

  9. Oh that story! It's so wonderful that you have these anecdotes from your grandparents' lives, what wonderful memories of them you must have :) So sorry for your losses, they both sound like they were amazing people.

  10. Thank you so much, everybody, for wading through that massively long post! Your words of condolence are much appreciated - and I'm so glad I got to share my funny (and slightly gross) story with you. :)

  11. Oh Courtney! What an awesome awesome awesome story to have; thank you for sharing a bit of your memories with us. Our thoughts and prayers have been with you for the past month, and even more so the last week; sending you all hugs and hoping you can find peace!

  12. Oh my! This is such a great story. I so love reading it.

  13. This is a crazy but awesome story! So sorry to hear of your loss though xx
    Vic @ Frankly Vic

  14. What a charming story! Reminds me a bit of the movie, Big Fish. Sounds like your grandpa left quite a legacy.

  15. Also, that picture of you is beyond sweet. Look how earnest you were.

  16. So loved this story. Thank you for sharing!