16 September 2009

Cousin Frank's Violin

My mother kept her ironing basket in a laundry closet right outside my bedroom door when I was very young. I loved it because it also held her most treasured personal keepsakes: fancy gloves (which she never wore); costume jewelry; letters from her pen pal; and buried at the back under wrinkled dress shirts and aprons, an ancient violin. When I wouldn't go down for a nap, she would sit by the closet and fuss around with her things while I eavesdropped from my crib. Hearing her rustling set off my imagination and usually did the trick. 
Once in a blue moon I'd awaken from my nap with questions about the violin. She would pull it out with solemn reverence and open the battered case. The strings were broken, the finish dull, and it had a musty smell that could knock a three-year old girl right over. She probably initially brought it out just to humor me, but I wasn't allow to touch it! Here was this beat-up old violin and she wouldn't let me fiddle with it, literally! I would get frustrated that it couldn't be played and I think because of that shunned it when later in life I chose to play the flute instead. 

As I grew up, we'd occasionally pull it out on days when absolutely nothing was going on: probably in the highest heat of summer. What I remember most is that I could see she had really loved playing it when she was young. She had been tutored in music by her "Cousin Frank," who I had always thought was a Jones relative (her mother's maiden name) from Lawrence. Her eyes would sparkle as she reminisced about the letters he would send her when he wasn't visiting the homestead in Scituate. 

Now. I sort of forgot about this guy. My mother gave the violin to her sister, Abbie, who gave it to her daughter, my cousin, because she played the violin. I think they had it appraised and it wasn't worth much, so I don't believe she ever restored it to playing condition, if that was even possible. Note to self (ask Betsy!) If Priscilla was playing it as a young girl, it couldn't have been very valuable or my grandmother wasn't very smart. Since I know Grandma was a highly intelligent lady, then it must have been a run-of-the-mill student instrument. Anyway, it was always love, not value that made my mother's eye twinkle. That's why she gave it to Betsy, aka "Pet."

But who was this Cousin Frank? My mother passed away in 1996 when I was in the throes of raising two out of three of my wildly boys, and by then her mind was confusing details. When we talked genealogy, which was frequently, it was on the topic of brick walls and mostly in direct lines.  Looking back now, I realize that no matter how confused her memories were getting, I should have just sat down with a tape recorder and got her to tell me everything. I bet she would have got the Cousin Frank story straight because she was an original source, and it happened when her mind was fresh.

So I was left wondering. Was he the same guy that she went out of her way to honor every Memorial Day? An isolated grave, far away from the main family graves, that we would also decorate? All I knew was that she had the same kind of wistful smile when we visited that grave as she did when she talked about Cousin Frank.  I searched the cemetery but the only Frank I found was Frank E. Clapp who fought in the Spanish American War. A quick check on Ancestry places him in the 1880 household of Charles W. and Abby B. Clapp. His birth year is 1871. Looking at the NEHGS online database "Mass Vital Records 1841-1910," (Births 1871:242:441) I find he is son of Charles Whitcomb Clapp and Abby Billings (Merritt). You can't say no relation when they've all been living within two miles of each other for two hundred and fifty years, but I'll say no close relation. So the Frank Clapp is just a red herring and will have to rest in peace.

Happily, I have two artifacts in my possession that have helped me identify this Cousin Frank. They have been in my "treasures" box of old family papers and photos, preserved, but not published. It wasn't until I started the process of becoming a certified genealogist that I really began critically examining every scrap of paper. In my portfolio, I refer to these treasures as "Barnes Family Papers." Just so you know.

I found the calling card shown below and surely let out a huge AHA at the time!


F. B.[sic] Barnes
March and Circle.
1. Waltz,
2. Galop,
3. Quadrille,
4. Schottische,
5. Waltz,
6. Lanciers,
7. Caprice,
8. Polka,
9. Portland Fancy,
10. Waltz,
11. Galop,
12. Lanciers.
13. Schottische,
14. Galop,
15. Waltz,




F. P. Barnes' Concert Ball Room Orchestra,
694 Washington Street, Boston



A search on his background reveals that he is Franklin Pierce Barnes, son of Elijah Vinal Barnes and Lydia D. Studley [NEHGS (Births 1853:74:16)]. This means that he was the first cousin twice removed of my mother! His father Elijah was one of my mother's great-grandfather Joseph Barnes' twin brothers, the other being Elisha.
And what's that in his hand? A violin! He looks like a lively sort of fellow, just the kind that would turn a little girl's head. He probably taught the girls to dance, too. No wonder she got a twinkle.
To seal the deal, I found a charming letter from him to my grandmother Vernetta. At this point, my mother, Priscilla, the eldest, would have just been turning 20. Her only brother, Billy/Willie, wwould have been 14, a lot older than he sounds here.
-----
                                Boston Dec. 20th 1934
Well _ Well Well Vernetta,  
That was some card I received this A.M.
and was very much pleased with It
I see little Willie in it holding the
lantern and Myself Playing the Great Great
Big Fiddle (Tell little Willie) with my
tall hat on.
Who the Lady was singing I can not
make out, I seem to think the man
with the tall Hat, playing the trombone
is A man that drives one of the
White Milk Trucks from Wollaston, down
through Scituate. (Tell little Willie and the
children) I am very much pleased with
the card, Tell the Cildren, and how they will
laugh. and what a time they wil have
talking about it. I can well understand –
I am sorry to hear about your Cow.
We are having good weather for this
time of the year, and I hope it will
continue. When it is convenient for you,
you let me know when to come Down,
and talk music to the Children
                                                       over
Tell the children the music
on the card, was very very very
melodious, and charming, (and how
they will Laugh). What a time they
will have when you read this note
to them.
Ask Priscilla to keep at all of
them. to know the. Do. De. Ray. Re.
me.Far. etc. up and down the cromatic
scale. that is the sylablic,
they can then go ahead very fast.
Ask Her Please to have little Willie
stand up with them.
I hope you are all Well. and Please
let me know when to call.
(Is Wm. going up and down in his Car-
this Winter?)
        So good by to all hands
        until later. And a Merry
        Christmas and Love to the Children
        Franklin P. Barnes
        #83 Carver St__
                                     Boston__
How could you not love this guy? So focused on children at 81 years of age! I haven't done any more research on him, but I tend to think he had no children. Someday I will add more detail to his life (is he buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Scituate, e.g.?), but for now it is enough to reflect on how one man's spirit can trickle down through the ages. Thank goodness we have people like Cousin Frank! My son Daniel plays the violin now. And he loves his music teacher. The teacher is nothing like Cousin Frank, but he loves Dan, too, because he's an old soul. He says Dan is the only student he has that lowers his blood pressure. I just hope that someday Dan's teacher gets remembered as fondly as good old Cousin Frank is remembered today.

2 comments:

Greta Koehl said...

What a lovely story. I really enjoyed it because I always wanted to learn to play the violin, but never got beyond taking a few lessons when I lived with my aunt and uncle (who was a violin-maker). I was also interested in some of the names - I have a ggg-grandfather Elisha who had a brother named Elijah; we think they were either twins or close in age. And I have a 2nd cousin named Vernetta.

Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt said...

OK, Elisha and Elijah and can see, because of the bible, but Vernetta???? Too weird! What't the surname, Greta?