The Rug Out From Under
In the long and continuing process that is an old house, we put in a set of stairs to the attic in Blue Hill, to replace the entry hole in the ceiling of what was by then a real bathroom. When he turned 14, my son Dagan decided he wanted to remodel the attic, and turn it into the bedroom of his teenage dreams.
He was ambitious and responsible, and had already demonstrated good carpentry skills. A friend of the family (the one who had installed the stairs) offered to supervise. We drew up a plan and a budget. The work progressed nicely. Nearing completion, Dagan did the cost estimates and talked me into wall-to-wall carpeting -- just a little over budget.
The room turned out well. No, it turned out great. In fact, when showing off the room to his classmates, the normal first reaction seemed to be: ``Awesome!''
After the carpet had been professionally laid, we cleaned up the scraps and took them to the above-mentioned transfer station, over to the demolition pile where such undecomposable items as plastic carpet scraps would be forever interred.
As we tossed out our offerings, some bright coloring and familiar patterns in the next heap of rubbish caught my eye. To my son's continuing chagrin (he contended -- with some justification -- that I always brought back more from the dump than I took), I tugged away at the heavy fabric. I eventually uncovered what looked like an Oriental rug about four feet wide and about 10 feet long. It was frayed on one end, was dirty from being in the dump, and had a lot of black in the pattern -- a pattern reminiscent of the Ukrainian Easter eggs I had made since childhood. I knew instantly this was not a normal cast-off.
We pulled it into our now-empty pick-up and drove home with it.
A few weeks later, I called Saliba's Rugs in Bangor. I told them I had a rug that had been in the family ``for a while,'' but that I didn't know much about its history. I asked about cleaning, appraising, and fixing the frayed end. Cleaning cost about $25, I was told, stabilizing the frayed end would be about $10, unofficial appraising was free of charge.
When I went to pick it up a week or so later, I was given a walk-through. The rug, the dealer said, appeared to be between 100 and 150 years old. Judging by the patterns and shading, she said, the rug was probably produced in the Caucus Mountains of the former Soviet Union. That's very near the Ukraine, I thought to myself, the ancestral home of my mother's side of the family. That must be why those colors and patterns got my attention.
Even in its worn condition, she went on, the rug was probably worth between $1,000 and $1,500.
I thanked her very much, rolled up the rug, and drove it home.
Dennis, who had no sense of style whatsoever, said I should sell it. After all, we had found it in the process of taking scraps from the remodeled attic to the dump, it was like a reward from God for our good work, and that kind of money would just about pay for the whole attic remodeling job.
But, I said, I like the rug. I can get $1,000 a lot of different ways. But the only way I am ever going to own an antique $1,000 rug from the Caucus Mountains is to find one in the town dump.
This violin has the longest history of any of the objects in this compendium. Yet, just weeks ago it added a final exclamation to these family tales.
The story begins when I was young. Very young.
John White Elementary School on the East Side of Youngstown Ohio gave all fourth-graders the chance to play a musical instrument, subject to availability. I picked the violin, and used a school fiddle for the rudimentary first year of public-school-based instruction. But in fifth grade, if I wanted to keep going, I would have to find my own instrument.
Found through a newspaper ad, the violin, complete with blue-lined case and bow, was being sold out of someone's attic at the hefty cost of $35. This was sometime around 1957. It was love at first sight -- the dark, almost purple, varnished violin tucked into the furry, perfectly fitted case. As I oohed and ahhed innocently in the background, my father tried unsuccessfully to offer the woman a lower price before buying the object of our quest.
I was enchanted to have my very own violin. It's tone was so much better than the flat, dead-sounding school fiddles, a real pleasure to play, despite an uncle whose perpetual musical request was: "Can you play ‘Far, Far Away?’"'
I asked my mother about the label inside, which read:
G.A. Pfretzschner, Markneukircher
Antonius Straduarius Cremonae
faciabat anno 1716
Was this violin really made in 1716, I wanted to know. Could it really be an expensive, very rare Stradivarius?
Not a chance, this midwestern mother, wife of a steelworker, assured me. It's got to be a copy. No one would lose track of a real Stradivarius, and sell it out of an attic in Youngstown, Ohio for $35. I was disappointed, but reassured. Of course, she had to be right. Nothing that exciting would ever happen to me.
The summer before I was headed to high school, I decided to refinish my violin. I was tired of the dark varnish, sure there was a beautiful violin, beautiful wood with beautiful grain, just waiting to come out from under all that gunk.
My father, who hated to see his kids making messes, even on a justifiable project, allowed me to use his workbench in the basement for the stripping and sanding. And, to my surprise, this hands-off, strong, silent man who considered his children to be their mother's sole responsibility, even offered advice, saying he thought I shouldn't use regular urethane for the finish. He stopped by a music shop in town on his way home from work and picked up a small vial of official violin varnish.
I was pleased with my refinishing handiwork, and joyfully played second fiddle in the popular Boardman High School Orchestra all four years.
And then I was grown up and gone. And I began to notice the discoveries. Every couple of years, news reports would document people who had turned up incredibly valuable historical documents or artifacts -- such as very rare original copies of the Constitution -- at flea markets or behind bad paintings. People who had lost the family's chain of tales just didn't know the value of what they had, and inadvertently sold priceless things for peanuts.
I began to wonder about my mother's assessment of my violin. Did I indeed own a masterpiece?
Then, a few years later, while reading about violin research in a magazine, my heart nearly stopped. It seems that the violinmakers of old had secrets that we are not able to duplicate today. Some of those secrets had to do with the selection of the woods, and how they were carved and shaped. But the hardest secrets to crack had to do with the very special varnish the violinmakers had mixed, with formulas so secret they often died with their makers. Even today's chemical analyses couldn't seem to unlock the secrets.
And I began to wonder if, in my 14-year-old innocence, I had destroyed a masterpiece by refinishing it to make it look pretty. The possibility that I had lost any chance of getting rich by accident was overshadowed by what I saw as the very real possibility that I was personally responsible for destroying a priceless global treasure.
That was the way things stood for more than 20 years. It was a family secret, one I shared only with my kids. The violin had been with me through two major relationships and into a third. It had been safely tucked in one closet or another while I was busy homesteading in the Maine woods, having my kids and raising my family, getting divorced, getting a job, starting and closing several businesses, getting involved in politics, starting over more than once.
I would play it occasionally, usually soulfully, solitarily, and in the dark of winter in response to a dark mood.
All those years, I didn't dare to get the violin appraised -- I knew I couldn't handle the consequences if my worst fears were ever confirmed.
And then, as my 50th birthday approached, I decided I had to know. On October 22, 1997, the day before my half-century mark, I took the violin, in its by-now-beat-up case, to Bangor violinmaker, Nathan Slobodkin. I said the violin had been in the family for a while, but I didn't know much about its history. What could he tell me about it?
He looked at me, looked the violin up and down, and peered closely at the label inside the body.
Ah yes, he said. Pfretzschner. It's odd that the label is in both Italian and German. This must be an older one, since most of the labels after World War I are in English.
But is it a Stradivarius?
Oh, no, of course not, he said. It's a copy, and not a very good one at that. You got it in 5th grade? It was probably good enough for that, but not much else. It would be worth a couple hundred dollars these days, once it's reglued. Look, it's coming apart here at the end, the peg is about to pop out. I can take the whole thing apart for [big bucks] and glue it back together right, or I can do a patch job on the loose parts for about $25. That'll get you by, for as much as you say you play. I don't think it's worth putting much more money than that into it.
Standing next to him in his small shop, I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed it hard.
``You have no idea how happy you have just made me,'' I said.