She was a tiny bump in my belly, straining against my leggings, when I bought the fiddle.
I knew it would be years and years before I could bring myself to make a purchase this extravagant and this selfish just for myself. I knew I needed something to remind myself of who I was without her, without her sister and without my husband, and that when this baby was born and home, I would be overwhelmed and need the occasional escape. I went to several violin shops before I settled on this gentle, caramel-sounding fiddle, which I played in the musty basement practice room of the folk music shop.
I played Roaring River and Bumblebee in a Jar and Courting Days Waltz, and I knew the fiddle was mine. It was easy under my chin and pressed into the space between my thumb and my index finger. It belonged to me: four strings to fence me off from the loss of self.
When my daughter was born, I set her on the floor on a blanket nearby when I practiced. One day, I saw her pull herself up on the edge of the coffee table, to stand and bounce with the music. I smiled at her, and just as quickly realized that my girl — ever the daring soul — was about to let go. I saw the thought in her head as her first hand started to lift, her tiny chin just above the edge of the table, and I made the instinctive move of millions of mothers; I dropped the fiddle and lunged for the baby, whipping her up into the air as the fiddle smacked against the wood of the table.
The fiddle earned a long scratch and a rebuilt bridge. The baby got a hug.
When she got sick, I drove her around for hours and hours to the tune of mournful minor tunes, singing Pretty Saro to her at 2am from the front seat, the fiddle part droning beneath me and Iris Dement. “Oh I wish I was a turtledove, had wings so I could fly, far away to my lover’s lodgings, tonight I’d draw nigh…there in her lilywhite arms I’d lay there all night and watch through them little wind’ers for the dawning of day…”
One night at band practice, a band mate asked me if I was really that worried about her upcoming surgery. “You know she won’t die, right?” he said, nudging me. I stared at him, shook my head, and put the fiddle under my chin to stop my quivering.
When she was well, I began to pull her onto my lap for practice time. At parties and jam sessions, she sat passively between me and my fiddle, lulled against my chest. I adjusted my hold and raised my knees a little, curling her into me. The sound of the droning notes right against her head, she never flinched.
I couldn’t draw that line between the mama-me and the fiddler-me. The line bent, swerved, rolled itself into a tangle. I played the fiddle outside in the courtyard and brought her with me to concerts. She got older and danced unsteadily with her big sister at barn dances.
As my world expanded to fill the space she left behind while she was at preschool, elementary school, and middle school, my fiddle stayed in the case more and more. I put it under my chin less frequently these days, but when I do, I hear the echoes of Muddy Roads, Jeff Sturgeon, Walk Old Shoe, and Soldier’s Joy and flash on moments in the car late at night, the hospital in the early mornings, the hungry mouth at my breast, the toddling feet in the courtyard — all the ways we melded my music and her growing and healing.
When she was four, she asked me about the lyrics to a raucous tune called Jenny Ran Away in the Mud in the Night. “Mommy,” she asked me, “did she run away to go to band practice?”
“Never!” I insisted, gathering her up into my arms. “Never ever, never never.”