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The Music Desk

The Cello Courier

After a death in the family, a precious musical instrument must be transported a thousand-plus miles. Should it break, a lot more is at stake than just music.

"Walking the Cello," 2014, courtesy Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen

My mother died in 2011, leaving behind a pink stucco house in Boca Raton full of kitchenware, beading gear, and scrapbooking tools. Two months later, I shipped 12 boxes of her things to my New York apartment. My sister Amanda packed a suitcase of photographs and mementos and turned her back on the rest. Except her cello.

Amanda had left the US in 1998 to do social justice work in Zimbabwe. From her daughter’s departure for Africa until her death, my mother had held on to Amanda’s cello, a handsome Czech piece from between the wars. Weighing far less than it looked, especially given its ample, autumnal sound, Amanda’s cello, varnished the shining red-bronze of buckwheat honey, stood four feet high without its tailpin. Getting a large stringed instrument from Boca Raton to Harare is no picnic, and my sister prides herself on not being overly sentimental about material things. “The question is,” she asked when we visited Florida to scatter our mother’s ashes, on the first night we would ever spend in our mother’s house without her, “can I let it go?”

The next day, after shipping myself a first load of boxes, I returned to find Amanda playing the cello, every note a golden lozenge. I realized that for the past two decades’ worth of Christmas visits, the instrument had been a balm to her in our difficult mother’s house. When we stayed with her, I often wished our mother would show as much of an interest in my life as I showed in hers. Instead, I would ask questions and she would answer them, or I would wait for her to ask me questions, and she never would. “The difference between us,” Amanda told me after our mother died, “is that you never gave up hope that you two could have a real conversation, so it was hard for you the whole time. I gave up hope when I was 10 or 11, so it just got easier and easier.”

During our visits, my mother spent a lot of time smoking in bed with a sweating glass of iced vodka and a romance novel. From this hebetude erupted facts—recipes, china patterns, the succession of the English royal house—and the occasional opinion: “You don’t work fast enough to make it as a writer.” “The United Nations is a scourge on our shores.” Being around our mother was a balancing act, surfing Mama’s moods as she cycled, with a daily drinker’s regularity, between stony exhaustion, obsessive attention to holiday detail, self-pity, and rage. I handled it by absenting myself in situ, reading or emailing in what I hoped passed for companionable silence. Amanda handled it by becoming our mother’s second pair of hands. When our mother said, “I need one of you girls to pound the roast and massage it with mayonnaise,” my sister, a vegetarian, jumped to do it. Amanda balanced her helpful zeal with solitary bursts of activity: she’d go out for a swim, or a long run. Or she’d play the cello. It was a zone of freedom for her, of expertise, of grown-up competence, something she alone among us could do, and could do alone.

Now my sister’s music washed over our mother’s living room as I set down my new stack of folded boxes. With Mama gone, I mused, maybe Amanda wouldn’t need the cello anymore.

Amanda lowered her bow as the last notes rang in the air. “I can’t let go of it,” she said. I was wrong.

 

Online research revealed that Amanda would need a special case to take the cello home to Africa by plane. On her last day in Florida, the case she’d ordered still hadn’t arrived, so Amanda, our aunt Gail, and I devised Operation Cello Schlep: on my next trip to Florida, I would take the cello home from Aunt Gail’s place in Fort Lauderdale to New York by plane, since Amanda was more likely to travel to New York than to Florida. We called my mother and Aunt Gail’s third sister, Linda, who lived on Long Island in a house larger and more temperate than my overheated New York City apartment. Once I got the cello to the city, Aunt Linda said, she would bring it to Long Island, to keep until Amanda came through town to pick it up.

I returned to find Amanda playing the cello, every note a golden lozenge.

Perhaps a person more secure in her sister’s affections would have resented the trouble and expense involved in Operation Cello Schlep. But Amanda had missed a Christmas one year and lied about it, stringing us along to think she might show up at any moment. She had missed my wedding. She had missed our mother’s memorial service. She had been telling me for years how much she hated the 30-hour trip from Harare to Boca Raton, and that she only came for Christmas to please our mother. It might have been magical thinking, but I was glad that Amanda wanted her cello, because it meant that she’d have to fly to New York to get it: one day we’d see each other again.

 

The following March, seven months after Amanda and I parted, I flew back to Florida to visit Aunt Gail and retrieve the cello. It was only when I saw the instrument and its massive new case in my aunt’s small Florida bungalow that I realized just how big a project we had taken on. Gail and I Velcro-strapped the delicate cello into its relatively cello-sized inner case, which in turn nestled inside a wheeled, coffin-sized, outer carapace. After Aunt Gail zipped the outer shell closed, the two of us sighed with relief, until her gaze lit on something in my hand. “What’s that?” I looked down, alarmed: I was holding a chunk of foam from one of the cases. We unzipped them both again, and I sheepishly wedged the foam back into place.

At the airport that evening, I paid the fee to ship the cello and walked the woman at the ticket counter through the airline’s instrument-transport guidelines, which I’d printed off the Web. She checked them against the instructions on her monitor, then she threw me a curve ball. “You need to loosen the strings,” she said.

“I what?”

“You need to open up the case and loosen the strings.”

“How much do I loosen them?” I asked.

She shrugged.

“Oh, no,” I murmured, unzipping one case and unlatching the other. My sister’s cello was going to break en route and it would be all my fault.

On arrival, when I opened the two cases in Newark airport, I discovered that although the orphaned chunk of foam I’d replaced didn’t seem to have moved, two of the strings I’d loosened had popped off en route, and part of the armature that kept the strings tight across the instrument now wiggled in a subtle but sickening way I could swear it hadn’t wiggled before.

It couldn’t be good for an unstrung cello to sit around on Long Island for what might be years, I fretted in the oversized van-cab home, wincing for the instrument’s sake as we surged over every bump and plunged into every pothole. Home, I unzipped and unlatched the cases again in the vestibule and stared at the unhappy cello. I twined the popped-off D string around its tuning peg, but felt my stomach go cold at the resistance I encountered when I tried to turn the peg taut. That’s when I decided to I research instrument repair shops.

Certain luthiers—for so a violin or cello maker or repair-person is called, I discovered—serviced the instruments of orchestra professionals, and charged accordingly. Ideal Musical Merchandise in Chelsea, on the other hand, received praise from serious amateurs both for its work and its moderate prices: I could bring in the cello the next day. 

 

I lay awake for much of that night, thinking about the half-strung cello in the vestibule. My sweltering apartment lay above the boiler room, which in turn lay above the PATH tunnels linking midtown Manhattan to eastern New Jersey. Could the heat from the boiler damage the cello? How about the vibrations from the PATH train? Would I hear it if it broke?

Listening for sounds from the vestibule, I pictured the cello’s dainty cinched-in waist, its flaring hips. The womanly shape of the cello called to mind the fact that I had recently been diagnosed with a uterine fibroid the size of a six-month pregnancy: my first-ever major surgery loomed a month away. My anxieties blended in the night. When a sound from the vestibule jerked me awake—a pop, like firewood heating or floorboards underfoot—it was my belly I clutched, as if to calm the thing inside.

 

Ideal Musical, a raw, cluttered, linoleum-floored loft on West 22nd Street that has since moved to a more elegant space on West 25th, smelled like resin and sawdust. When I arrived, an older woman named Kate took the cello into a back room and asked me to wait a few minutes.

“This is a very good piece,” Kate remarked, holding up one of my sister’s bows by its mother-of-pearl grip. “It might even be worth more than the cello.”

It wasn’t long before an older man emerged from the back room to offer his diagnosis: “The center post has fallen,” he intoned, his voice gloomy with Yeatsian portent. Before he could go on to tell me that the falcon could not hear the falconer, he showed me a long black crack on the lower bout of the cello, tucked into the runnel where one plane of wood met another: “And the seam needs to be reglued here.”

The womanly shape of the cello called to mind the fact that I had recently been diagnosed with a uterine fibroid the size of a six-month pregnancy.

I didn’t know what he meant about the center post, but I felt as rattled to hear of this mysterious damage as I’d been to learn, just weeks before, about the creepy ball of muscle growing inside me. He also recommended new strings.

“Does the cello have a name?” Kate asked, bent over a large receipt pad. “Amanda’s Cello,” she spelled out in starchy cursive very like my mother’s.

Amidst the instruments, bows, strings, and tailpieces, I didn’t see a single computer in the room. I saw buff-colored file cabinets with labels inked in wavering block print, and on the desk, a Rolodex. Not only did the office equipment date from an earlier time, the prices did too. “Are you sure you want the German strings?” Kate asked. “They’re $10 more than the regular ones.”

 

When I returned to Ideal Musical a week later, the repairman tuned the instrument and drew Amanda’s good bow across the strings. A smooth, tawny sound resonated through the cluttered loft, calling forth my sister as she’d been in high school: coltish, busy, curved around the cello in her ratty shorts and no-name T-shirt, affectionate and easily-swayed around friends and family, profoundly and fiercely alone in private. Amanda’s steely core shone through in her playing, passionate and dogged. After giving up on our mother’s succor, she’d had her cello. She’d had herself.

“How long has your sister gone without her cello in Harare?” the repairman asked.

“Thirteen years,” I said.

“Why does she want it now?”

“She was keeping it in our mother’s house all this time,” I said. “But then our mother died last summer and we had to sell the house.”

“Ah,” he said.

“I’m so sorry,” said Kate. “You only get one mother. My own mother and I didn’t get along so well when I was young, but by the time she died, we both finally came around.” She patted my shoulder.

I thanked her. “I have someone waiting outside,” I lied.

The repairman packed up the instrument as I paid, and I waited outside for my Aunt Linda to pull up and load the cello into her trunk for its Long Island sojourn. I reflected on how many of us it took to look after this one instrument, something my mother had done for years without a second thought. My shadow on the ground sported a jaunty basketball belly, echoing the bulge of the cello in its case. My surgery lay just weeks ahead. Once the large fibroid was gone, my partner’s yoga teacher had assured me, all the organs that had been displaced by its mass would move around inside me, slowly but surely finding their new homes. It was cold and bright outside, and the wind blew tears out of my eyes.

The only writer ever to have won the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery is the author of two novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2007), which have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards and been translated into six languages. The editor of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations column on the Public Books blog, Avery teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and out of her home in the West Village. More by Ellis Avery