By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
My mother took me to see my great grandmother at the home. I was in elementary school. I think my mother knew the scythe was waiting for Mutty and wanted me to meet her before it came swinging. Everyone called her Mutty, it was a cutsie version of the German word for mother.
We sat at a table just like the ones in my school cafeteria. The floor was white tile. The table was flat and hard. It was evening. The room was pretty empty.
Mutty was thin and wrinkled. Her hands were brown and felt like old cloth. They were uncannily soft.
I spoke the little German I knew to her, and then she started in with it and I had no idea what she was saying. After a little while she switched back to English.
There would be 5 to 10 minutes of us talking before she’d start to fade and my mom or I would ask if she knew who I was and she would smile and say no. A few times when asked she would concentrate very hard and say wait you’re Daniel I know you. And there would be a look of vague recognition on her face and this pleased simper. Daniel was the name of both my grandfather and my uncle so I wasn’t sure which she was mistaking me for. I tried to hide my laughter but nobody seemed to mind it, not even Mutty.
When I was in my mid-twenties and my mother was trying to join my life again, she took me out to dinner with my sister. I was engaged and she wanted to be invited to the wedding. A little ways into the conversation she had my sister hold up her hand. There was a large diamond engagement ring on it. I asked if she was getting married too. She said no. It had belonged to Mutty and my mother passed it down to her.
My mom had gotten the ring appraised and it was worth quite a bit. She said she wanted to tell me the story behind it. When Mutty was young she was beautiful and wild, liberated and strong willed. Eventually she was with a man who was a master of violin. He earned his money playing concerts. He was a very well-respected musician. He was also a compulsive gambler. He spent much of his time in the smoke and clatter of backroom games with politicians, cops, gangsters. He loved cards, music, and my great grandmother. He wanted to marry her.
He couldn’t help himself, he couldn’t stay away from the hustle, the gamble, the crooked hook of it. He put up his instrument when he didn’t have the money to cover a bet and he lost it. It was a very rare and expensive violin. But not long after that in another game he won the ring, The ring he proposed to Mutty with, the ring my sister spun around her finger.
That story, the violin and the ring, the soiled beauty of old New York: I hadn’t lived it. I didn’t own it. I didn’t have much to do with it besides the passage of blood. But there was a sort of strange pride to this bit of history and I held it, I still do, because it goes both ways and there are enough ropy devils that pull me to other histories.