For decades, Roman Totenberg, a legendary master violinist and teacher played his beloved Stradivarius violin all over the world. And then one day in 1980, he turned his back after a performance and the violin was gone.
The music was stopped.
Award-winning National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg penned a piece earlier this summer on how the stolen instrument came to rest in the FBI’s hands and finally back to her family.
The theft of the violin was a crushing loss for her father. “As he put it, he had lost his musical partner of 38 years,” Totenberg wrote. Her father would later buy a Guarneri violin from the same period as the Stradivarius, but he had to rework the fingering for his entire repertoire for the new instrument and never got the same enjoyment.
“My father would dream of opening his violin case and seeing the Strad there again, but he never laid eyes on it again. He died in 2012, but the Stradivarius lived on — somewhere.”
The violin did indeed live on, but the trail for it went cold until this June when the ex-wife of a deceased California man found an old violin in storage and asked an appraiser to take a look at it. After a detailed inspection, the appraiser told her had some good and bad news for her. He told her that she had in her hands a rare violin dating back to the 17th century. Unfortunately, however, the violin had been stolen and he was obligated to contact law enforcement.
The FBI soon contacted Totenberg. “As the reality of his message washed over me, I had a hard time actually believing it. I called my sisters right away, and we were soon laughing and crying on the phone,” Totenberg wrote.
Thinking of my own father
My own father never played the violin. He wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a Stradivarius and cheap toy violin. He never played any instrument for that matter and didn’t have a lot of time for music. When I heard this story, however, I instantly thought of my own father. He’s been dead now for more than 11 years. I thought about the treasures my father would have liked to have reclaimed in his old age that would have brought a joyful tear or smile. Is there something that would have touched him the way that the Stradivarius touched the Totenberg family? What would have brought a smile to my father’s face?
I heard a rich man once talk at length about his first car, a beat-up Dodge Dart. The man regularly drove a Porsche to work and could have any number of fine cars at his disposal, but the thing he cherished the most in his life was a rusted, fender-missing, beat-up Dart. Life is funny. We cherish different things.
My father’s Stradivarius
My father was never a rich man so the items he would cherish the most would have to be run-of-the-mill objects that might not mean much to someone else. A few items popped up in my head right away: my father’s old Army uniform; the keys to his old Kay-Vee ice cream truck, the one job he used to talk about more than any other else; possibly a photograph of the old sea captain my father saw when the ship taking him from basic camp in the U.S. dropped anchor in Europe (England I believe).
The longer I thought, more items came to mind. My father never seemed to be without a pocket knife or two. He treasured them. He had specific ones for whatever task was at hand. I’m sure that holding one or two of those long-forgotten knives would bring him a smile.
The more I thought, more things came to mind. He spent a good portion of his life carving and he created some doozies: various sea captains, hoboes, hunters, and one of a comical-looking dentist pulling a tooth with a pair of pliers. They would mean something to him, but they always seemed to mean more to others than him.
Finally, I came back to family. My father loved his grandchildren. They held a special place in his heart. He could be the father that he wasn’t able to be in his youth. He could pass along wisdom to his grandchildren without anger or undue financial stress. He could be a mentor and grandfather.
I’m sure a picture of his family, especially his grandchildren, would mean much to him. He would get much enjoyment seeing his grandchildren graduating high school and college and making something of their lives. I like to think he would cherish seeing the smiles on everyone’s face.
I finished out my make-believe list with one last possession. I added my father’s wedding band. My father wore his band until his death. My mom and him never had it easy, they fought like cats and dogs when they were younger and later fell into the comfortable routine of two older people who’ve grown used to each other, but he cherished the band and everything it represented above most everything else.
My own list
What about me? What do I cherish the most?
I’ve been pretty lucky. I haven’t misplaced a whole lot of items in my life. My high school class ring was stolen in college, but no one has ever stolen my own version of the Stradivarius. I’ve been able to hold onto most of the things that have meant the most to me.
In the end, my wife and kids mean the most to me and I’ve been able to hold tight to them.
Here’s hoping it stays that way.