“I need some every day…”
My good buddy Ray Bellaga just raised his right eyebrow. We were seated in the Adirondack chairs that were positioned near the weeping willow some fifty yards from his country cottage in Essex. He looked into his Dewars on the rocks, stirred the whisky slightly with his index finger. He quietly admired his handiwork, took a thoughtful sip… looked left and right. Expecting to espy an eavesdropper?
You have to understand. Between Ray and me there is rarely a pause in the chatter. For Ray to fuss with his Scotch in such a studied manner could only mean one thing: he didn’t know what to say.
Also understand this: we are famous for switching directions in conversations. It’s part of the fun. Keeps us on our toes. The challenge is to figure out how we got from point “A” to point “D”. In this process, whisky helps. Ray drinks Dewars. I drink Wild Turkey Straight Rye.
“I’m talkin’ music, Ray.” Maybe I should have kept him guessing awhile longer. But he’s a good friend… my best friend really.
“Vivaldi, Four Seasons.”
“Nice try…” This was actually an excellent guess. Although he could have guessed a dozen other music pieces or artists. I do listen the Four Seasons often, I can’t tire of it. I could brush my teeth to the ‘Winter Allegro‘.
“No. I’m talking about Natalie MacMaster. I’m into my Gaelic-slash-Colonial-Folk period. Particularly reels. I’ll listen to the Chieftains, the Big Sea and Clannad, too. But it’s really Natalie MacMaster… you should see her. She wears her blonde hair loose and natural… like she just got out of bed. As she moves to the rhythm of the tune her hair adds visual emphasis to the lively tempo. Then she begins to kick up… she adds tap… and then she drops the fiddle to her side and really steps into a dance. I can’t get enough of her.”
“You can take medicine for this, you know.”
“I’m serious! She’s a great musician. Her music breathes living.”
“I’m going to renew my Dewars, can I bring you an additional Wild Turkey?”
There is something about sitting near a weeping willow with a soft breeze moving thru its drooping branches and leaves that promotes reverie. Sure Natalie MacMaster is great; but she is not the first lady fiddle player who had caught my attention. That honor goes to my Aunt Meggie.
Some folks are natural to music. Here I love music and can’t hold a tune nor play a note. My Mother was the same way. But Meggie and Saul? Sure they earned their keeping following other professions… but that was only to make a living. Music was their life. It’s how they met.
It was in 1930s Paris, Saul was trying to make living as a jazz musician, and Meggie was studying dance. And Meggie was studying dance because she didn’t want to play the violin anymore… something that my Grandfather had forced on her when she was young.
When the money and opportunity ran out, they returned to America. It would be a few years before they got married. Saul got his degree in Law. And Meggie got her Teaching Certificate and they continued their life in Woodbury, CT.
As a little kid I saw Meggie as a teacher who made great oatmeal raisin cookies. No… better put: she was a great oatmeal raisin cookie maker, who happened to be a teacher. At that time her musical past was unknown to me… that’s what happens when your world revolves around cookies, dinosaurs and the Dodger pitching rotation.
Then… one Sunday my Mother and Father took me into the City. It was an early Spring day. We took a Hansom Cab ride thru Central Park… bundled up. I couldn’t see the fun in this. I am sure I complained bitterly. I am sure I thought that we were so close to the Museum of Natural History… that’s where we should be!
It turned out that the cab ride thru Central Park was merely a “space filler.” The purpose of our visit was to go to this place on the Upper West Side. We sat at a table that had been reserved for us (I thought that was special!). And then a group of musicians stepped out on to a small stage… there was Aunt Meggie!!
I can remember the day like it happened yesterday. She wore a long cream coloured skirt with a tiny floral print in it. It moved with every step she took. She wore a white blouse with slightly puffed sleeves and a rounded lace collar. And an unbuttoned slate blue vest. She had a violin (I was told later that it was a fiddle)! She acknowledged us… took her bow and pointed it to me and smiled. She turned to her fellow musicians, said a word or two… tapped her foot and then launched into the first number. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Was this the same person who made the best oatmeal raisin cookies on planet earth?
I don’t think the music made an impression on me then. I wasn’t used to hearing Gaelic reels. But that is not to say the music went unappreciated by those sitting at the neighboring tables. At the conclusion of each tune warm applause filled the room.
And then there was a number that began slow… it sounded vaguely sad to me. It reached a point, and then the speed picked up… Meggie’s left hand danced up along the frets. Her head moved to the faster tempo with an occasional emphatic head stop as punctuation. The music accelerated… the other musicians nodding to one another. Then Meggie dropped the fiddle from her chin, put her hands to her side, hitched up her skirt a bit, and began to dance in place… the upper part of body was stationary… as if it were detached from what was happening from the waist down… she turned to one side, keeping her pace, then turned her back to us to face the drummer… never leaving the music… and finally to the other side, her feet never stopping. Finally she came back to face front and center and returned the fiddle to her chin. She joined the music with an even faster display of her hands. She was a 5’2″ powder keg of energy.
Your heart had to beat faster. Even if you didn’t know the music.
There were hoots and hollers when she finished the number. She graciously bowed and pointed to the other musicians.
I could hear the man at the table next to us say, “The lady can play the fiddle!!”
I might have said, “Yeah! And that’s my Aunt Meggie!!” That’s pride. You might be clapping because you like the music, but I know that she is special because she makes great cookies!
Yeah, special. In every way.
“Here’s your poison.” Ray now returned to his Adirondack.
The sun breaking thru the shifting willow limbs. “Thanks, Ray. L’chaim. The Russians won World War II.”
“Does this mean we’ve gotten over our infatuation with Natalie MacMaster?”
“The lady can play the fiddle. And I should know… it’s in my family.”