At 5 years old, my son was a stick figure of a boy with round eyes and a desire to seize the world in his fist. In his karate lessons, he practiced his katas and basics with dexterity: front jack, side jack, turn. His oversized gi fell over his shoulder as if he had borrowed his clothes from a husky 10-year-old kid.
He loved karate, but then I took him to a Sunday concert to listen to a soloist play violin. He sat on the edge of his seat, his feet dangling as he watched the musician play a Niccolò Paganini solo. At the end of the concert, my little boy tugged at my shirt.
“I want to play violin,” he said.
“Sorry, honey, but I can’t afford karate and violin at the same time,” I said. “You will have to choose.”
“I choose violin,” he said after thinking about it for a whole weekend.
I didn’t tell him how excited I was. Instead, I said, “Are you sure? That’s a big commitment.”
He was sure. We scanned the classified ads for violins.
A used violin cost me twice my monthly income, but I knew he would become a great musician. I thought, He’ll be a soloist and will introduce me as his mother.
The first time he played, it sounded like somebody had stepped on a cat’s tail. “He is just beginning,” I reassured myself. His classes were in the middle of the afternoon, which meant I had to take time off work to board a series of connecting buses back and forth.
My son serenaded me with his out-of-tune screeches on Mother’s Day, birthdays and holidays. I bought strings, paid for repairs and helped him prepare for recitals while the image of my son as the greatest violinist on the surface of Earth kept growing in my head — despite serious indication that he progressed with difficulty at best.
One day, I caught him practicing in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“It sounds great in here, Mom.”
He enjoyed violin for the first four years. The teachers praised him and encouraged him.
During his fifth year at the conservatory, a stricter teacher demanded two hours of daily practice. My nagging over my then 10-year-old’s ill treatment of the expensive instrument mutated to constant arguments with him. We argued about how much time he needed to play.
“I practiced already,” he’d say.
“Not long enough,” I’d say.
“I want to play with my friends,” he’d say.
He never learned to sight-read music. The hyperactivity that had led him to take karate lessons and ride his bicycle down the stairs interfered with the need for stillness that this demanded.
One day, the teacher told him, “You’ll be second violinist all your life if you don’t practice.”
I complained to the director and continued to bring my son to classes until one day he came out of the classroom earlier than usual.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The teacher cut my hair.”
My son had grown a four-inch ponytail. The teacher didn’t like it and, without consulting me, cut it off.
Despite the violation, I wasn’t ready to give up the violin. “It’ll grow back,” I said, encouraging him to keep playing.
My son pushed back. “I won’t play anymore,” he said. “It’s not just the hair. I don’t want to practice two hours every day.”
I honored his wishes, but I could not let go of the violin. It remained in the closet, inside its beat-up box until a year or so later, when my former husband and I moved from Venezuela to Canada in search of a better life for our children. We sold everything except 34 boxes of books and the violin.
My second son followed in his brother’s footsteps. First, they took karate lessons together, but when my older son left for college, my younger one picked up the violin.
I thought: Maybe this time I’ll become the mother of a famous violinist. I’d wear beautiful floor-length gowns to his concerts.
His new school didn’t have an orchestra program, so he joined the marching band. By 10th grade, though, he dropped the violin for the French horn.
Again, into the closet the violin went. Just before Kid Two was about to start college, we moved to California, downsizing to fit our much smaller home in Los Angeles. Because we were done raising kids, we decided to sell the violin.
My youngest tried eBay, Craigslist…anything to make a buck out of his instrument, but he had no luck.
“You know what? I’m gonna trade the violin for a guitar,” he said, and so he did.
The first time I visited him in college, he serenaded me with a twangy rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on his guitar.
My sons didn’t become professional musicians, but they did become disciplined men with good work ethic, capable of making their own decisions about what is important to them. They both practice music on the side. The geologist has a recording studio at home in Denver. The biologist plays gigs in bars in San Francisco.
I’m grateful for the years that the violin was in our lives, holding my hopes for my beloved children, giving me a structure on which to base their education, a guiding light in times when I was lost and didn’t know how to raise my kids. I didn’t become the mother of a famous violinist, but the proud mamá of two wonderful men.
Lisbeth Coiman performed a version of this story in the Listen to Your Mother and Library Girl shows. She is the author of the memoir “I Asked the Blue Heron” and poetry collection “Uprising / Alzamiento.” Originally from Venezuela, she lives in Los Angeles.