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The Swimming Hole


“What?” Jed asked. “Tell me you didn’t say what I think you said.” This was a month before our trip to Chautauqua.

“I said I’m thinking about cashing in my pension funds. Not all of them; just the ones from Cleary.” Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen, and Hamilton was the name of the Wall Street law firm where I’d worked before Sophia was born.

“That makes absolutely no sense from any point of view,” Jed said. “First, you’d have to pay a huge tax and forfeit half the amount. More important, we need to save that money for our retirement. That’s what pension funds are for. It’s part of progress and civilization.”

“There’s something I need to buy,” I said.

“What is it, Amy?” Jed asked. “If there’s something you really want, I’ll find a way for us to get it.”

I got so lucky in love. Jed is handsome, funny, smart, and he tolerates my bad taste and tendency to get ripped off. I actually don’t buy that many things. I don’t enjoy shopping, I don’t get facials or manicures, and I don’t buy jewelry. But every once in a while there will be something that I get an uncontrollable urge to own—a 1500-pound clay horse from China, for example, which disintegrated the following winter—and Jed has always managed to get it for me. In this case, I was overcome with a powerful urge to buy a really good violin for Lulu.

I contacted some reputable violin dealers who had been recommended to me, two in New York, one in Boston, one in Philadelphia. I asked each dealer to send me three violins for Lulu to try, within a certain price range. They always sent me four violins, three in the price range specified, and one that “is a little out of your price range”—meaning twice as expensive—“but that I decided to send along anyway because it’s an extraordinary instrument and might be just what you’re looking for.” Violin shops are similar to rug merchants in Uzbekistan in this way. As we hit each new price plateau, I tried to convince Jed that a fine violin was an investment, like artwork or real estate. “So we’re actually making money the more we spend?” he would reply drily.

Meanwhile, Lulu and I had a blast. Every time a big new box arrived by UPS, we couldn’t wait to rip it open. It was fun playing on the different violins, comparing the wood and their different tones, reading about their difference provenances, trying to glean their different personalities. We tried a few new but mainly older violins, from the 1930s or earlier. We tried violins from England, France, and Germany, but mostly from Italy, usually Cremona, Genoa, or Naples. Lulu and I would get the whole family to do blindfold tests, to see if we could tell which violin was which and whether our preferences stayed the same if we couldn’t see the violins.

The thing about Lulu and me is that we’re at once incompatible and really close. We can have a great time but also hurt each other deeply. We always know what the other is thinking—which form of psychological torture is being deployed—and we both can’t help ourselves. We both tend to explode and then feel fine. Jed has never understood how one minute Lulu and I will be screaming death threats at each other, and the next minute we’ll be lying in bed, Lulu’s arms wrapped around me, talking about violins or reading and laughing together.

Anyway, when we finally arrived at Mrs. Vamos’s studio at the Chautauqua Institution, we had with us not one but three violins. We hadn’t been able to make a final decision.

“Wonderful!” said Mrs. Vamos. “How fun. I love trying violins.” Mrs. Vamos was down to-earth and as sharp as a tack, with a quirky sense of humor. She was opinionated (“I hate Viotti 23. Boring!”) and exuded power and impressiveness. She was also amazing with kids—or at least with Lulu, whom she seemed to take to instantly. Mrs. Vamos and Jed hit it off too. The only person I don’t think Mrs. Vamos liked very much was me. I got the feeling that she had encountered hundreds, possibly thousands, of Asian mothers and that she found me unaesthetic.

Lulu played the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto no. 3 for Mrs. Vamos.

Afterward, Mrs. Vamos told Lulu that she was extremely musical. She asked Lulu if she liked playing the violin. I held my breath, honestly not sure what the answer would be. Lulu replied yes. Mrs. Vamos then told Lulu that while she had the advantage of being naturally musical—something that couldn’t be taught—she lagged behind in technique. She asked Lulu if she practiced scales (“Sort of”) and études (“What are those?”).

Mrs. Vamos told Lulu that all this had to change if she really wanted to be a good violinist. She needed to do tons of scales and études to develop impeccable technique, muscle memory, and perfect intonation. Mrs. Vamos also told Lulu that she was moving much too slowly; it wasn’t good enough to spend six months on one movement of a concerto. “My students your age can learn an entire concerto in two weeks—you should be able to do that too.”

Mrs. Vamos then worked with Lulu on the Mozart line by line, transforming Lulu’s playing right before my eyes. She was an exceptional teacher: demanding but fun, critical but inspiring. When an hour was up—by then five or six students had come in and were sitting with their instruments on the floor—Mrs. Vamos gave Lulu some things to work on by herself and told us that she’d be happy to see her again the next day.

I couldn’t believe it. Mrs. Vamos wanted to see Lulu again. I almost leaped out of my chair—and probably would have if at that moment I hadn’t seen Coco fly by our window followed by Aaron on the leash behind her.

“What was that?” asked Mrs. Vamos.

“It’s our dog, Coco,” explained Lulu.

“I love dogs. And yours looks really cute,” said one of the most famous violin teachers in the world. “We can see how those violins sound tomorrow too,” she added. “I like the Italian, but maybe the French one will open up.”

Back at the hotel, I was trembling with excitement. I couldn’t wait to start practicing—what an opportunity! I knew that Mrs. Vamos was surrounded by driven Asians, but I was all the more determined to astonish her, to show her what we were made of.

I pulled out the Mozart score, just in time to see Lulu sink into a comfortable armchair. “Ah-h-h,” she sighed contentedly, leaning her head back. “That was a good day. Let’s have dinner.”

“Dinner?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “Lulu, Mrs. Vamos gave you an assignment. She wants to see how fast you can improve. This is hugely important—it’s not a game. Come on. Let’s start.”

“What are you talking about, Mommy? I’ve been playing violin for five hours.” This was true: she had practiced all morning with Kiwon before going to see Mrs. Vamos. “I need a break. I can’t play more now. Plus it’s five thirty already. It’s dinnertime.”

“Five-thirty is not dinnertime. We’ll practice first, then reward ourselves with dinner. I’ve already made reservations at an Italian restaurant—your favorite.”

“Oh-h, no-o-o,” Lulu moaned. “Are you serious? What time?”

“What time what?”

“What time is the dinner reservation?”

“Oh! Nine o’ clock,” I replied, then regretted it.

“NINE? NINE? That’s crazy, Ma! I refuse. I refuse!”

“Lulu, I’ll change it to—”

“I REFUSE! I can’t practice now. I won’t!”

I won’t get into the details of what ensued. Two facts should suffice. One, we didn’t have dinner until nine. Two, we didn’t practice. In retrospect, I don’t know where I got the strength and temerity to fight Lulu. Just the memory of that evening makes me feel exhausted.

But the next morning, Lulu got up and on her own went to practice with Kiwon, so all was not lost. Jed suggested in the strongest terms that I go for a long run with Coco far, far away, which I did. At noon we went back to Mrs. Vamos, Kiwon accompanying us, and the session again went very well.

I had harbored hopes that Mrs. Vamos might say, “I’d love to take Lulu on as my student. Is there any chance of your flying out to Chicago for lessons once a month?” To which I would have said yes, absolutely. But instead Mrs. Vamos suggested that Lulu work intensively with Kiwon as her teacher for the next year. “You won’t find anyone with better technique than Kiwon,” Mrs. Vamos said, smiling at her former student, “and Lulu, you have a lot of catching up to do. But in a year or so, you might think about auditioning for the Pre-College program at Juilliard. Kiwon, you did that, right? It’s extremely competitive, but if you work really hard, Lulu, I bet you could get in. And of course, I hope you’ll come back and see me next summer.”

Before getting on the road for New Haven, Jed, the girls, and I drove to a nature reserve and found a beautiful swimming hole surrounded by beech trees and small waterfalls, which our inn-keeper had said was one of the hidden gems of the area. Coco was afraid of going into the water—she’d never swum before—but Jed gently pulled her in to the deep center, where he let go of her. I was afraid Coco would drown, but just as Jed said she would, Coco dog-paddled safely back to shore while we clapped and cheered, toweling her off and giving her big hugs when she arrived.

That’s one difference between a dog and a daughter, I thought to myself later. A dog can do something every dog can do—dog paddle, for example—and we applaud with pride and joy. Imagine how much easier it would be if we could do the same with daughters! But we can’t; that would be negligence.

I had to keep my eye on the ball. Mrs. Vamos’s message was crystal clear. It was time to get serious.


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