The living, breathing memory of wood

When I was a child my grandparents lived in Lawrenceville, NJ.  We drove down from my childhood home in Vermont on a regular basis to visit them, trying not to miss the tricky exit off of the New Jersey Turnpike.  I have vivid memories of arriving at my grandparents’ house, running up the steps to their home while hearing their poodle barking and of the smell of that unmistakable mix of bourbon and maraschino cherries.  My grandfather would be waiting at the door holding two Old Fashioned cocktails, one for each of my parents.  He had mixed them at his bar made of teak wood, commissioned and made for my grandparents in Hong Kong in the early 1950’s when my grandfather was stationed there as a foreign diplomat.  My grandparents brought their bar with them to each exotic location in which they were stationed, traveling mostly by boat in the 1950’s and 60’s.  They were wonderful hosts, throwing parties regularly, sometimes serenading guests with acts from Gilbert and Sullivan (both grandparents sang and my grandmother played the piano), and of course making drinks at the bar.

The smell and the look of the bar were so particular; the aged wood, the mirrors, the old-fashioned (and Old Fashioned) glasses made of thick, durable glass.  In time I came to associate the smell of the teak bar with my grandfather, a serious and brilliant scholar whose very presence filled me with awe and reverence, and my grandmother, an equally brilliant musician and eccentric thinker.

Later in life after my grandfather’s death, my boyfriend (now husband) and I were sharing a brandy with my grandmother at the legendary bar, this time in Houston where she had moved.  Even though the location was entirely different, the bar still retained its magisterial presence; the sweet smell of wood, bourbon and cherries unmistakable even though she hadn’t made an Old Fashioned in years.  She looked at us and said in her classically dry cadence, “when I croak, you guys get the bar.”

The bar came to us years later in a huge moving truck several months after my grandmother’s death at the marvelously full age of 90.  The bar was wrapped in heavy plastic and it took a very long time to unwrap.  Once we opened the beautifully handmade compartment doors, that strong smell came roaring out, flooding me with memories of 20-30 years before, an entirely Proustian experience.  We shared the arrival of the bar with friends, hosting The Great Hong Kong Bar Party I and sharing Old Fashioned and Negroni cocktails in honor of this piece of furniture that had served so many people in my grandparents’ presence across the world. 

We take our entertaining very seriously because of this piece of furniture in our home.  Not only does its presence remind us of the history of its use throughout the past 65 years, it also asks to be used well.  At a molecular level the bar has absorbed conversations in various European, African and Asian languages, it has been exposed to secretive CIA discussions, and it has witnessed over-the-top performances of musical theater and hours of piano practicing and improvising.  Like other pieces of wood, the bar retains its vibrations; it is a living and breathing material that is marked by its experiences.

I only began to think about our bar in this context when speaking to a friend about the way that stringed instruments change and deepen with age.  As a professional violinist, I have played on many instruments of varying ages and pedigrees.  Some were made during my lifetime, and others, hundreds of years before my time.  The finest, irreplaceable ones, made by famous families such as Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri in the 1600’s and 1700’s have extremely distinctive sounds and personalities based on the experiences of their 300-400 year-old lifetimes.

The movie “The Red Violin” chronicles the tale of a 17th century violin, the people who played on it and the way it was used throughout the centuries.  Although this is a somewhat sensationalist account (spoiler alert: the red quality of the instrument’s varnish is attributed to the maker’s wife’s blood added to the mix), the idea the film presents, of a magnificently crafted violin that takes on the qualities of its players, is absolutely accurate. 

When playing any instrument, one can feel the way the instrument has been played (or not played) in the past.  So if the previous player was a delicate player, the instrument will not respond readily to a lot of force; likewise, an instrument that was played for a while by an overly aggressive person feels beaten up.  Any instrument sitting un-played in a shop or collector’s home takes some time for the sound to “open up” again. For this reason, some notable instruments have nicknames based on their previous owners.  The “Rose” Stradivarius cello, for example, is named so because the well-known cellist Leonard Rose was the cello’s owner for many years, and the way he played was indelibly marked into the cello’s resonant chamber.  For newly made instruments, the same reality applies: my friend has been the only player of his viola for the past seven years—not surprisingly, the instrument responds beautifully to his playing style and continues to deepen and grow as he does.

All of this has to do with wood as an animate material, responsive to people and their playing styles as to weather conditions and environment, much like the tree from which the wood came.  It sounds magical—think Harry Potter wands and the wardrobe from C.S. Lewis’ series—and it kind of is.  So my intuition that our bar commands a certain kind of respect because of its history is a real thing.  And string players’ assertions that their instruments seem to “have a mind of their own,” that they “play themselves,” this is also an example of the personality inherent in wooden masterpieces.  My own violin was made in the early 1800’s in Naples, Italy, and the tree’s wood carries the properties of a humid, seaport town.  Perhaps someday I will take a pilgrimage to Naples to see how my violin responds to its birthplace; if I’m lucky, maybe in its town of origin, close to the geniuses that made it, my violin will reveal more of its secrets.