Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Stradivarius in the Basement

In her new book THE STRADIVARIUS IN THE BASEMENT, Kristina Simms shakes her family tree like a middle-Georgia pecan farmer harvesting crop and out fall writers back to the immigration in 1766 of her English ancestors to North Carolina. Tina’s Georgia-born grandmother Adrianne “was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, her father having fought in the Civil war, and I know she was really hankering for… ancestors who fought in the Revolution, but, alas," their loyalty was to the English royalty. Thanks to family memoirs, her father Sidney’s letters home from WWII in the Pacific, and even home movies by her grandfather Oscar, a Swedish immigrant who settled in the U.S. Midwest North Country, Tina has collected treasures worthy of a Ken Burns PBS special.

Tina had grandfather Oscar‘s 1940's 8mm home movies converted to twenty-first century DVD: “Under Oscar’s direction, the rest of us gather on the lawn. It is time for the parade of persons past. Here comes my grandmother Adrianne, Sidney’s mother, neat in a well-fitting skirt and jacket, shorter than I remember, perfectly coiffed, and smiling tolerantly. She has more brains than the rest of us put together and likely knows it. She picks a camellia, walks toward the camera, and disappears. My Mother, Violet, and her mother, Hulda, make a cheerful appearance. Violet is getting plump like her mother, and both are wearing dresses…We are treated to a final Georgia scene before Illinois takes over again as a favored location for Oscar’s movie-making. It is a one minute film noir in which my father, in full business attire, including hat, digs a hole with a spade. Three of his children, Charlotte, Sid, and I, somber-faced, stand close by, watching carefully. Then Sid steps forward and throws something in the hole. It’s a small dead animal of some sort. Action ends. Due to the vagaries of aging film, this brief, but undeniably gothic moment is morbidly shadowy, and not a little ridiculous.”

Oscar’s daughter Violet, Tina’s mother “went into newspaper work right out of high school. By that time her father was a successful realtor in a town about forty miles from Chicago and the log cabin days in Minnesota were fading from her memory. As a beginning reporter, in her Midwestern home town, she learned on the job and she read, read, read. She bobbed her hair, shortened her hemline, and read, read, read.” Tina was in graduate school with my wife Annette 40 years ago, but I knew Tina’s mother Violet even before that. I worked as a very junior reporter for The Atlanta Journal in the early 1960’s, and as such often took dictation over the telephone of news stories and features from Miss Violet, the Journal's middle Georgia “stringer,” someone paid by the column-inch, a system that rewards persistence and thoroughness over brevity. I am delighted all these years later to learn from Tina that Miss Violet helped put the roar in the 1920’s with her bobbed hair and flapper hemline.

Tina’s Midwest North Country Swedish grandmother Hulda was “a crack shot and an expert at cooking game. In fact, she supplied a large portion of the family’s meat by her skill at rabbit-hunting. To keep the family from tiring of rabbit, she devised various ways of cooking and seasoning her recipes and once fooled some visitors by telling them it was pork," Tina writes. Adrianne, Tina’s Georgia grandmother, who read Latin and Greek and whose favorite newspaper was The Christian Science Monitor, agreed with Grandmother Hulda on one thing--”they both loved Violet,” Tina explains. “I write this because I don’t want the memory of these two women, each uniquely American in her own way, to be lost forever.” Me, too, Tina. Me, too.

The essays in THE STRADIVARIUS IN THE BASEMENT also include descriptions of growing up in the South in the 1940’s and 1950’s: Notes from a Confederate Childhood. Tina writes, “In those un-airconditioned days, we didn’t even know it was hot. Shoot, we didn’t even know we were dumb!” She also writes of her interests as a photographer, botanist, and ornithologist. But her most moving essay is A Place of Their Own, which the author has made available for you to read here.

THE STRADIVARIUS IN THE BASEMENT can be ordered from the bookstore section of www.authorhouse.com or by calling 1-800-839-8640., Amazon.com, Barnes & Nobel, and other internet outlets.


Tina said...

Thanks Bill for your kind comments! I am fortunate in that my family seems to have left a significant paper trail over the years...memoirs, letters and even movies. I really enjoyed putting this book together & appreciate so much your thoughtful review.

Anonymous said...

Loved your image of shaking the family tree like pecan farmers harvesting crop.

Paw Paw Bill said...

The pecan tree image comes directly from the book being reviewed. I also thought it was a good one when I read it.

wayne said...


What a wonderful piece! I loved reading A Place of Our Own as well. What a persuasive woman! Many thanks.


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