One cold February morning, I was bundled up from head to toe in a snowsuit, helping my daddy toss leftover wood scraps into the back of his pickup truck. I was five years old. It was blindingly bright outside with the sunlight reflecting off the snowbanks that were piled high against the house, almost touching the icicles that hung from the eaves. This wood was for Peter, my mom’s eccentric artist friend.
Peter was an old man who lived in the bush in a tar-paper shack with no running water or electricity. He often came for dinner, after his chance meeting with my mom in the post office, and always brought suspicious-looking gifts that made my parents squirm — gold-rimmed monogrammed wine glasses from the Banff Springs Hotel, random china dishes with an antique CP Rail logo, coat hangers belonging to the Queen Mary ocean liner.
Whenever I went to visit him, he’d seat me on an overturned pail and show me his ancient scrapbooks of bygone glory days, when he sang in great operas, partied with famous people, and hitchhiked back and forth across Canada, selling his paintings along the way. Peter’s shack was a disaster — oil paints and paintbrushes mixed on the counter with half-eaten cans of food, a thin sponge for a bed, and stacks of dusty art books cluttering the floor. Peter dressed strangely in brightly coloured polyester pants that stretched across swollen legs. His eyes were a piercing blue that contrasted with his few white wisps of hair.
Now Peter was running out of firewood and could no longer keep himself warm during this unusually cold winter. So my daddy and I drove to his house, unloaded the wood, and stacked it neatly against the tar-paper wall. Peter watched through the window with watering eyes. When we finished, he came outside.
“How can I thank you enough for doing this?” he said with emotion in his voice.
“Don’t worry about it,” my father replied. “You’re doing me a favour by taking these scraps off my hand.”
“But I must pay back your kindness in some way,” Peter insisted. He disappeared into the shack and emerged shortly after, carrying a strangely shaped black box. “This is for you, little girl.” He leaned down and placed it in my arms. “Open it.”
My mitten-covered hands fumbled with the rusty clasps. Inside was a tiny violin. Several strings had snapped and there was a crack in the wood. The bow was missing hair and looked badly mutilated, but I could still imagine the music it would make.
Peter watched my reaction closely. “Fifty years ago, I traded a painting for this violin from some gypsies I met out West. I never had any children who could learn to play it, and none of my nieces or nephews were interested, so now you must take it. Good luck, young lady.”
It took my parents a year to find a violin teacher and we were just lucky; someone had recently moved to the area who wanted to start up a Suzuki music school. Peter was in the hospital by then, not doing well. When I called excitedly to tell him the good news, a strange voice answered the phone: “I’m terribly sorry to tell you this, but Peter just died last week. I’m his brother.”
Six years later
I’m in Toronto, walking down Bloor Street on my way to the Royal Conservatory of Music for an exam. My music bag is heavy and my violin case bangs my leg awkwardly. I’m in a rush. In the distance, I see an old man — a panhandler, I suspect — limping toward me. He comes nearer, wispy white hair blowing in the breeze and tight polyester pants stretched across his swollen legs. Then I notice his bright blue eyes focusing on me. He comes closer, closer, and finally stops in front of me.
“Young lady,” he says, looking from the violin case to my face, “Do you know how to play that?”
“Yes,” I say.
He nods his head and smiles. Then, without another word, limps on.
— the true story of how I started playing violin