The Maier Museum of Art
at Randolph College

2014 Calvert Award: “The Memorial” by Jordan Long

The Memorial

by Jordan Long
after John Frederick Peto’s Violin, Fan, and Books

John Frederick Peto (1854 – 1907), Violin, Fan, and Books, 1880, oil on canvas.

John Frederick Peto (1854 – 1907), Violin, Fan, and Books, 1880, oil on canvas. Collection of the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, founded as Randolph Macon-Woman’s College, Lynchburg, Virginia.

I could have suffered it all, if not for the violin. The books she so loved, cradling tenderly as she read aloud in her voice of satin, the bits and pieces of her stuck in every nook and crevice of the house, little memories waiting in dark corners to come out and trip me, I could have stood them all. They had been there before her, they would continue to remain, and eventually her influence on them would fade from me and the sight of them would no longer ache.

But the violin could not be ignored. It was an anomaly, something that could not be explained away by the rest of the house. It did not belong the way a book or a chair belonged. It was too unique to be pushed into the background. I could not look at it and recall a use for it beyond her music, or a time it had been there before, because it hadn’t been. It was hers, and hers alone. Only she had ever drawn the quivering notes from its cursed strings, and now each day it glared at me, offended that I should look upon it when its loving mistress no longer could. It was all I had left of her, and I couldn’t even look at it. I was ashamed of my own weakness. It was only a silly thing of wood and strings, and yet, every time I looked at it, I felt guilt.

For a long time, I could not bear to touch it, not to sell it so it would bother me no longer, nor to move it so it was at least out of constant view. I could only leave it to gather dust and wait in accusing silence. For what, I wasn’t sure.

Nearly a year passed before I finally brought myself to lift it. I had been straightening up the table, smoothing out the tablecloth that always seemed determined to bunch up and wrinkle. A memory floated by of her doing the same, her long, elegant fingers smoothing out the cloth, and I felt that pain again, but dulled by time. And that’s when I saw it again. That damned instrument, sitting on the far end of the table, the hideous glare subdued by the thick sheet of dust on its surface. The sad, defeated thing looked so different from the sleek instrument she had once held, and suddenly I felt a rush of panic upon me, that I had let her beloved violin fall to such a state.

With trembling hands I picked it up, grasping the neck of the thing in one hand and setting the bow to the side. Dust fell off in thin sheets as I held it up. I balled up part of my sleeve and began wiping off what dust remained. Slowly, the sleek shine of the red wood began to show underneath. I worked in frenzied silence, not thinking or reflecting, until it looked once again like the proud creature it had once been.

Now that my task was done, the energy of panic fell away, leaving me drained and confused. A sort of shaky weakness fell over me. I held the violin awkwardly by the neck at arm’s length. I was no expert. I hadn’t the skill that she’d had, to draw haunting notes from its wooden frame. It was useless in my hands.

As I gazed at it, inevitably, the memories came again. All the times her notes had echoed into the soft silence of night, all the hearty tunes she had played for company and friends. But this time, they did not hurt. Instead, I felt a great fondness at the remembrance of her. I could almost hear her voice, soft as a sigh, praising me for restoring her violin and keeping the memory of her alive. My face, hard and weathered by frowning, began to smile again.

I took the violin in a firm, confident grip and strode towards the center of the table. I knew my task now. Once I set the violin down, I got to work. I arranged them all. The books that she’d read so often the spines showed sign of strain, the candle she lit beside her bedside every night so she could read into the late hours of the night, the fan she’d bought once at a fair that became a favorite of hers. I laid out the last book she had ever read, still frozen on the page where she’d read her final words, the spine bent obediently backward to display them. A bit of her make-up, which she used to say distracted from her abundance of freckles. I had always noticed them, as I always replied, and each one was as precious to me as as she was. The only thing I didn’t lay out on the table was my ring; that I would carry with me a while longer.

Finally, with reverence, I laid the violin out, the spine resting on one of the books, the bow laid across another stack of them. The instrument completed the picture. A collection of her favorite haunts, a silent memorial. In gazing at it, I felt her presence in every memory, every crease and every line of it. It was as though I had released all that pain and loss through dedication to building this shrine. Now that it was done, only love and fond memories remained. I felt cleansed. More importantly, I felt forgiven.

I turned away with a lighter heart, to return to the tasks of a mundane life. But every time after that I looked upon that memorial, it was like a friendly wave from a happier past. The violin’s glare became an adoring gaze. Even as I turned away, each time, I could hear those notes again, playing softly in the silence.