A Viola that Meant Something

Last night we had a cash exchange with a stranger at dusk in a park. 

It all began 4 years ago when my oldest daughter decided to take up viola. The school tried to sell us on a program where you pay a small car payment and contribute a fraction your soul in exchange for a used instrument that they would fix for free, but you would return at the end of the year.  I don’t know if you get your soul back, I didn’t look too deeply into the contract. 

We were working on a budget, so we picked up something low end knowing it probably wouldn’t last. It was shiny and new and played just fine for a beginner.  We also got to keep it at the end of the year and only had to tolerate a few snarky remarks from the instructor including “not to buy these crappy instruments” and an all out mutiny attempt to turn our child away from her parents decision.  It’s fine, I assertively explained where we stand. Oddly enough, that darned “crappy” thing has been just fine for 4 years now, while the cult members have gone through constant repair. Weird.

As time progressed, so did our daughters need for a better instrument, so I mentally donned my finest Heavens Gate purple track suit and Nike’s, and made the call to the cult.  They were very nice on the phone and encouraged us to go to the rally they host every year where kids try out new instruments and mass sales take place. When asked what brands of instruments they carried, they did not list specific ones, just that they had various options. I did my best to suppress the red flag, said thank you, and hung up.

Off to Facebook marketplace I went. If I was going to dive into a well thought out budget for an instrument, it certainly wouldn’t be without research. Also, let’s just be clear, I have no business shopping for an instrument that I neither play or know anything about, but darn it, I’m stubborn. 

I sifted through the listings knowing very little.  I might as well have been shopping for the best cat toys for mountain lions. Seriously, not a clue. Then, I found it.  A copy of a Stradivarius viola from 1713.  I had heard that name before.

Antonio Stradivari

You see, my great grandfather was a famous musician. He played the harp and traveled the United States for many years, including the performing at the World’s Fair.  As I have been told, he sold his Wisconsin cheese factory just to purchase this beautiful harp and pursue music.  The family always told me it was the Stradivarius of harp’s.  So, I did my due diligence and researched the Stradivarius copy viola.

My Great Grandfather, Otto Baganz. “The Worlds Greatest Harpist”

I sent the seller a message.  She was lovely and knowledgeable.  She had had the instrument serviced and refurbished. It was intended for performance but had just sat in the closet due to Covid.

I contacted several other professionals and had them examine the listing.  It appeared to be a perfectly good instrument for what we needed and it had papers to go with it.  Bingo!

The Deal.

I sent the seller a note and said “let’s make a deal!” She encouraged us to just come to her apartment so our daughter could try it out. I explained I had to meet her in public as I need to set a good example of safety.

“But where will she play?” She can’t play in the middle of a Starbucks to see how it sounds”.

So we agreed on the park at the apartment complex.  That’s right, a fiddlin’ hoedown would take place in the park so she could hear it and be safe.  This was absurd and shifty, but it happened. I felt like I was making a drug deal.

I contemplated getting the money in one dollar bills and just putting it in a duffle bag.  “You don’t need to count it, it’s all there”.

I contemplated just driving around the parking lot and sleezily asking random strangers if they knew where I could score a viola. 

Instead, I grabbed my husband, daughter, and my favorite long coat (it was cold) and we headed to the meetup.  

Once we arrived, I stood next to an empty playset waiting.  Nearby construction workers peered up occasionally wondering what was going on. I continued scanning the area, standing in my ridiculous long coat with a secret pocket full of cash.  Moments later a woman in dark clothing and a mask (Covid) emerged with a stringed instrument case. 

I waved. Ugh, why did I wave? I’m so uncool. This was such a cool set up and I’m over there flipping my arm around like it was on fire. So stupid, so stupid. Thankfully, she was very cool and just ignored me. She walked up and said “are you sure this is where you want to do it?” I straight faced nodded yes. 

We walked over to the edge of the grounds and she opened the case. The construction workers were now eyeing us.

She pulled out a gorgeous viola and handed it over. (I bet you thought it would be a tommy gun, didn’t you?) My daughter played a scale or two and the sound was rich and beautiful.  The seller remained very serious and talked about her “Strad” explaining the humidity, resin, and everything else that comes with caring for a good instrument.  Then, I heard her voice quiver in regret of selling it as she looked it over.  My heart dropped. She glanced up and told me she was so glad that it would be played often in it’s new home.

I had planned to wheel and deal knowing that I could get it for just a little less. Upon seeing it, I felt that it was worth more and now I knew that it was actually special to someone.

I told my daughter to gently put it away and I reached in my pocket for the cash.  Full price. I didn’t have to sign my soul away to get this instrument, but I think the seller may have given away a piece of hers. 

I reassured her that we would follow all instructions and I let her know I would be sending her an invite to performances once they resume.  She seemed very pleased with this.  I believe we may have had an open adoption of a viola with visitation.

I reached into my pocket and tried to slide her the cash without being too obvious.  She carefully counted it and told me to call her if the viola has any issues or we have questions.  She said she didn’t like carrying that much cash so we offered to hang out until she was safely in her home. 

While it was a quirky situation, it was a little bit profound. I hope my daughter keeps the viola for many years to come and if she ever decides to sell it, I hope it triggers a little quiver in her throat and a memory of standing in the park at sunset with her mom, dad, and a viola that meant something.

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