The Intricate Weave
Travel Stories: Don George was in Cremona, Italy, and grieving the loss of his father, when he heard the violin soar
12.09.15 | 12:20 PM ET
(Editor’s note: This story and its introduction were excerpted from the new book, The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George.)
When my dad passed away in November 2007, it took me half a year to begin to come to terms with his passing and many more months to feel “normal” in the world again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, the journey described in this piece, which took place eight months after his death, was an essential part of that process. I was in the Lake Garda region of northern Italy leading a travel writing workshop. As part of our activities, we were making daily excursions in the area, to wineries, markets, and museums. My dad had served in Italy during World War II, and so I had been thinking about him throughout the trip, but he wasn’t explicitly in my mind the day we decided to visit the violin museum in Cremona. As a result, what happened there, and the lessons it imparted about the special people in our lives, seems all the more powerful and precious to me.
My dad passed away in November of 2007. He enjoyed a long and full life and died after a relatively swift and painless decline, so I have no unfinished longings or regrets about his life. But there are still times when I wish he were by my side so we could share something we both exulted in.
In his waning months, I understood on some level the inevitability of his demise, but no matter how I tried, I could not prepare myself for his death, or the gaping hole it would leave in the fabric of my life. Eight months later, I realized that I couldn’t prepare myself for something else that would happen after he passed away: how the intricate weave of his life would continue to thread through my days.
I was on a two-week tour of northern Italy. I was with a small group of people who had never met before the trip, and we were bonding and braiding and dissembling as such groups do—fussing over idiosyncrasies and annoyances, sharing deep-rooted passions, planting and watering dreams that were just beginning to bloom.
One of the many riches of the trip was a visit to the violin museum in the city hall of Cremona, where priceless violins hundreds of years old are reverently housed. Each day, some of these violins are taken out and played as a way of keeping them in their finest condition. We were privileged on our visit to hear the exquisite “Il Cremonese” built by Antonio Stradivari in 1715. As we sat in that simple hall, surrounded by 17th-century paintings and 13th-century stones, I lost myself to the strains of the violin. With heart-plucking clarity, they swooped, descended, spiraled, and soared until at one point I was at the apex of the room, just a shining sliver of sound reverberating.
My dad loved music; he sang in our church choir and regularly attended the local symphony’s concerts, and afterwards he would speak glowingly about how this pianist or that flutist, that violinist, had played. He also had served in Italy during World War II, and one of the memories that had stayed in the forefront of his mind was how as an aide du camp, he had navigated his beloved general through Italy without harm. So he had been with me throughout my Italian journey—and from Venice to Verona, I would catch myself wondering if he had looked at the same vineyard-latticed hills or cobblestoned squares sixty-five years before.
But it was at that moment in Cremona, at the apex of that room, that I felt his presence most powerfully, felt that his spirit and mine were intertwined in the music of those strings. And I realized that people, from new-made friends to life-long family, inevitably come and go in the composition of our lives, but that once they have appeared, they never really leave.
And I realized too that the people we love—the memory of the people we love, their enduring, pulsing presence in our lives—is like those violins. Every day, in one form or another, we take them out and play them, if just for a while. We become them, swooping, spiraling, soaring to the apex of our minds. We honor them and keep them alive—as they do us, intertwined.
Reprinted with permission from The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George. Copyright 2015 by Don George. Published by Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House, Inc.