Palouse by vwl
Change of Direction – Fall 1984
Six Months Later
Betty’s hopes and dreams were forced to change several months later, however. A large package, insured and marked fragile, arrived for Micah from Arizona. Betty puzzled over it, wanting to open the large envelope that was taped to the box and wanting to open the box itself. But Micah was at school and wouldn’t be climbing out of the yellow school bus until after 4 p.m.; it wouldn’t be fair to open Micah’s mail. Had she known what was in the package and how much it would affect her dreams for her son, she might have hidden it away for several years.
“It’s from Mother M,” Micah announced excitedly as he tore open the envelope later that day. Inside the large envelope were two more envelopes, one addressed to Betty and one addressed to Micah, on which was written: “Have Betty open her envelope first. Do not open yours, Micah, until Betty opens her envelope.” Micah read the instructions with a puzzled look on his face. He handed one envelope to Betty, who opened it, read the note inside and looked sadly at Micah before sitting him down and putting her arm over his shoulder.
“Mother M wanted you to know that Poppa M died.” She hugged Micah to her.
“But I didn’t send the CD back to him. I knew he would be upset,” Micah said, his deep, glistening brown eyes looking up into Betty’s.
“It wouldn’t have mattered, Micah. He has been too ill to play it. Open your letter now.”
Micah opened the letter gingerly, afraid of what it might say. He read it through twice and handed it to Betty.
“That’s wonderful, Micah. Mother M wants you to have Poppa M’s violin.”
Micah opened the carefully wrapped package and pulled out the violin and bow. “He showed this to me once. I remember how his hand rubbed the wood as if it was the cat, and then he played something on it before saying he was out of practice. I liked hearing him play, though. I want to learn to play just like on the CD. I want Poppa M, wherever he is, to hear me play Mendelssohn for him. Will you teach me how to play the violin, Mom?”
Betty noted how carefully Micah pronounced Mendelssohn. “You realize, Micah, that the Mendelssohn concerto is very difficult to play. It might take years to learn how to play it.”
“I’m going to learn it really fast,” Micah said. “I really want to play it for him as soon as possible.”
“Micah, I don’t know how to play the violin, so I can’t teach you, but I know that what you learned on the piano will help you.” She paused. In an encouraging voice, she said: “I will find someone who can teach you the violin. In the meantime, you’ll learn the same music theory on the piano that you would have to learn if you played the violin, so your time won’t be wasted.
“Also, Micah, we can go to the library and get a book explaining elementary violin technique. Would you like that?”
“I don’t want elementary violin, I want expert violin,” Micah said.
Betty smiled to herself. She knew that learning the violin was difficult, but she sensed something within Micah that would push him to work hard at it. The fact that Micah might not want to give undivided attention to the piano shadow-flashed through her mind, forcing a sadness in her.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “You start with the beginner violin book and finish it as fast as you can. Then, I’ll get you the intermediate book, and then you’ll be ready for the ‘expert’ book, okay?” She didn’t know if an ‘expert’ book existed, but figured that, as with the piano, advanced books that stressed technique would be available.
That Saturday they went to the library to look for a book on how to play the violin. There were no books in stock at the Endicott library, but the librarian – her desk placard said her name was Janet Larsen – thought she could get a book from the Whitman County library system. Micah waited impatiently as Mrs. Larsen telephoned the central library, and when the librarian smiled at him and gave him a thumbs up, Micah could barely restrain himself from bounding around the room in joy.
“It will be here Thursday in the mail,” the librarian said.
“Why can’t it get here any sooner?” Micah asked.
“Micah, hold your horses. Mrs. Larsen is getting the book as fast as possible,” Betty said. “Janet, what time does your mail come on Thursday?”
“We’ll be here at 10:01. Is that okay, Micah?”
“I guess so.” Micah shrugged his shoulders. He was disappointed, but he figured maybe he could handle the wait.
At 9:45 on Thursday, Micah climbed into Betty’s van and impatiently waited for her. Betty arrived less than a minute later, climbed in, turned the key and started off. She was smiling inside at the eagerness of this boy who had so recently joined their family.
Micah was out of the car and running up the steps the minute she parked at the Endicott library. He quickly opened the front door and hurried up to the library desk, leaving his mother in the wake with a bemused expression on her face.
“Hi, Micah. Your book arrived. May I see your library card?” Micah’s heart stopped.
“My library card?” Micah responded in a stressed voice.
“I’m sorry. I forgot that you just arrived. We’ll get you fixed up right away. Meanwhile, you can use Betty’s card.” Betty had arrived at Micah’s side, reached into her purse and pulled out her card just as the librarian handed Micah an application for a card.
Micah stared at the application and reached for a pencil from a cup on the desk. He got to “Last Name” and stumbled. It was the first time that he had formally been asked to write his last name since he had arrived in Endicott. He hesitated then wrote in neat capital letters a very unfamiliar K-I-N-G-M-A-N instead of his Navajo name Begay. He completed the remainder of the application quickly, signed it and handed it to Betty to sign it as well – as the responsible adult.
Micah grabbed the book from the counter and tucked it under his arm and waited impatiently as Betty chatted with the librarian, with whom she’d been friends for years. Betty noticed Micah’s shifting from foot to foot, smiled, and bade Janet Larsen farewell.
Micah was out of the van in a flash when they arrived back at the farm. By the time Betty entered the kitchen door, Micah had his violin case open at the kitchen table and was starting to read the library book.
“I’ll show you how to tune the violin using the piano,” she said. They went to the music room, and Betty played the G below middle C on the piano, a note whose pitch Micah would memorize and never need to have played again.
Six hours later, Micah was still working between his book and the violin. He had learned how to tighten the hairs on his bow and how to use the rosin. He’d followed the pictures in the book as closely as he could. The first tones he played were on the G string, and because they were the lowest tones the violin could produce, the screeching was somewhat bearable.
Betty had brought lunch to the music room at noon and had brought some cookies and milk in mid-afternoon. She was amazed at the concentration of this 9-year old, and she continued to be amazed over the next two weeks as Micah worked his way through the book at the same time as he was excelling at his piano lessons and practice.
Betty knew quickly that she needed to find Micah a violin teacher. She surveyed her fellow piano teachers until one pointed her to Rudolf Schmidt, who happened to live only 20 miles away, in Colfax. A telephone call to him secured an appointment two days later.
The Thursday of the appointment arrived hot and dry. East winds off the Selkirks promised several days of low-humidity weather. The van was already sun-warmed when she and Micah climbed in for their ride to Colfax. Micah clung to his violin as if his arms were its seatbelt.
Rudolf Schmidt was a short, thin man with gray hair that rimmed a bright bald head. He wore dark-rimmed, round glasses. Sporting an old-fashioned wool jacket and a blue bow tie, he looked as if he could have just stepped out of a Middle European city in the 1930s. His house was a small bungalow on a tree-lined street below the sharp hill rising to the east of downtown Colfax. The lawn was tidy, and there was a flash of color from autumn chrysanthemums that surrounded the base of the house.
“Welcome,” he said. “Would you like some coffee, Mrs. Kingman? And, Micah, would you like some milk?”
“Call me Betty, please, and, yes, I would like some coffee.”
“Call me Rudy,” he responded politely. “Micah?”
Micah shook his head; he was eager to start, but he would have to wait until a cup of coffee was poured and consumed. Rudy guided them to the kitchen table. Betty and the violin teacher discussed fees and schedules in case Micah was accepted as a student. She explained that Micah had been through the library book on beginning violin and seemed to be going beyond it. She knew he needed some professional instruction before he learned bad habits that would be difficult to break.
“All right, let’s see what you can do, Micah,” Mr. Schmidt announced finally. Micah opened his violin case, picked up his bow, set the violin under his chin and began to tune it in preparation for the lesson. When he finished tuning the violin, he turned to Mr. Schmidt.
“I don’t know very much,” Micah said. “But pretty soon I’m going to play the Mendelssohn concerto for Poppa M.”
“Just play something you know. I want to hear what you sound like and watch how you do it. We can wait a few weeks for the Mendelssohn concerto.” He looked behind Micah at Betty’s understanding smile.
Micah took up his bow and played some simple, beginner scales, followed by Mary Had a Little Lamb. Rudy Schmidt’s eyebrows rose as Micah played, and he nodded to Betty.
“May I look at your violin?” Micah passed the violin to Rudy, who turned it over in his hands. “This is a beautiful instrument. You are lucky to have something this nice, Micah.”
“Poppa M wanted me to have it so I could play the Mendelssohn concerto,” Micah said.
“Micah got it as a gift from his former foster mother, whose late husband had played in the Phoenix Symphony. Poppa M, as he wanted to be called, and Micah had formed a close relationship, and after he had a stroke, just before he died, he told his wife that he wanted Micah to have it,” Betty explained.
Rudy turned to Micah. “You’ve been playing how long, Micah?”
“I started last month. I wish I’d had time to learn more, but I didn’t. I’m sorry, Mr. Schmidt.”
Rudy Schmidt had been impressed initially when Micah tuned his violin perfectly from memory, but now he was astonished. His teaching credo, though, was that there was always room for improvement. “Your playing is remarkable for having been at it for so short a time, and for being self-taught. I would be honored to accept you as a student – if your mother approves.” Betty nodded and smiled warmly. “Can we start right now, Betty?” Betty nodded her okay. “I’m sure you have errands to run; come back in an hour, and I’ll deliver Micah back to you.” A flash of disappointment at being sent off started to show on Betty’s face, but she politely picked up her purse and slipped out the door.
Rudy Schmidt would follow the same pattern once a week for the next several years: Betty delivered Micah to his lesson, and Betty was sent off to do whatever errands she could arrange for that time; she was never allowed to stay to watch the lesson. Rudy had learned that separation of the parents from the students made it easier to teach, particularly when one of the parents was a music teacher in her own right.
From that first audition and first lesson, Rudy Schmidt realized he had a phenomenon in his hands – a music teacher’s dream. He knew that Micah would surpass his teacher in skill within a few years if the first few months were any indication. Micah was absorbing his lessons quickly and was diligent about practicing and learning his music – both the theory and the execution. He needed only to be shown once what to do with his violin, and when he returned the next week, he was accomplished in what he had been taught. What Rudy Schmidt found so astonishing was not only that Micah could play the notes on the music page perfectly, but that he also played with an amazing feel for the music itself. He was astounded that someone as young as Micah was could understand a piece and comprehend what the composer must have been feeling when he wrote it. That feel and understanding and musicianship came from some unknown place within the boy.
As a teacher, though, Rudy believed that he shouldn’t show the awe he felt at Micah’s talent. He needed to dangle praise in front of the boy, commending him for what he had accomplished but always telling his student that he needed to get better.
Life for Micah quickly settled into a routine – balancing farm chores, school and his music – with time for little else. His chores were to feed the chickens and empty the garbage, but he was called from time to time to help his father. Stan believed that each of his children should be asked to help out on the farm, even on tasks he could do himself more efficiently, so occasionally he would take Micah on the farm wagon as he drove along the fence line looking for any repairs that needed to be made. He would have a young Micah do tasks like hold tools for him as he patched the fence.
“Stan,” Betty said after one such work detail with Micah, “Micah doesn’t have time to go out on the farm to work with you. He needs to practice his violin and piano and do homework. Just look at his schedule.” Betty handed Stan the family calendar that usually hung above the kitchen bulletin board.
“Betty, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this,” Stan said. “With a schedule like this,” Stan slapped his hand against the calendar, “are you sure you are leaving Micah time to just be a boy and a son? It’s important that he spends some time working with me and we have some time to bond. I think it’s important that he spends some time playing with Greg and his other brothers and sisters. I look at this schedule and am concerned that he’s being pushed too much.”
What he really was concerned about was Betty’s over-absorption in Micah’s music development. Stan looked at his wife, though, and saw the excitement in her face as she talked about her musical-prodigy son. He was happy for her, but he couldn’t really discard the notion that Micah needed to be a child as well as a musician. But he decided to hold his tongue from any further comments. He poured himself a cup of coffee and opened the Wheat Life magazine that had arrived in the mail the day before.
* * * * *
While riding on the farm wagon one day on the way back from working with his father, Micah had noticed something he thought was worth exploring. The something that had caught his interest was one of the creek valleys that dropped from the wheat fields toward the Palouse River. It looked as if there might be an open area just below the farm fields but before the creek dropped steeply toward the Palouse River valley floor. He vowed to return that evening before sunset to explore the place.
After dinner, Micah walked a half mile from the house to the place he had seen. A creek had cut deeply into the Palouse soil, leaving a small natural amphitheater beneath the wheat fields, a basin that was about 75 feet across at the top. Cottonwoods sprang from the moister soil along the trail on the way to the basin, hiding the natural amphitheater from view from above. In the spring, Micah thought, there would probably be a small stream running through it. But in October there was no water.
He climbed down the slope to the floor of the basin. On one side, near the rim above him, he could see a line of the wheat stubble cropping out of the dark earth; on the other rim was a stray fringe of unharvested wheat. A few lava outcroppings supported centuries of rich earth that had built up above. The wheat formed an enclosing line, like eaves of a roof on the sides of this natural miniature Elizabethan-era Globe Theater. Water had carved out the ground around a few large, stubborn stones, as if nature had decided to leave a few places to sit. There was no sign that anyone had been there that year, nor was there any reason for anyone to go there. Micah turned in a full circle, just looking around, and instinctively knew this was going to be his private place, at least during the warm months of the year – a place that he could hide in or retreat to, a place he could call his own. He wanted to bring his violin. He wanted to play something magnificent the next time he entered his amphitheater, so that God would know what he had found.
Micah lay in bed that night in the dark thinking about his secret place.
“Micah, are you still awake?” Greg asked from the bed on the other side of the bedroom.
“Do you want to practice basketball with me tomorrow after school?
“Your schedule, huh!?” There was a tinge of sadness in Greg’s voice.
“Yes,” Micah sounded apologetic. “I wish I could. It would really be fun to shoot some hoops with you.”
“I understand.” There was silence. “I don’t have your talent, bro. Sometimes, I wish I did, but there is so much fun growing up that you are missing.”
The next thing Micah knew was that it was morning, and another school day was about to start.
* * * * *
The 20 miles between the Kingman farm and Colfax were well traveled over the next several years as Betty took Micah to lessons while she did her grocery shopping at Rosauer’s and completed other errands. Occasionally, she would give Micah some money to buy lunch so that she could make the longer run into Pullman, about 15 miles farther away. As a larger, university town, Pullman offered shops that Colfax couldn’t support.
Though they both often ate at Martha’s Café in Colfax after a lesson, Betty was sometimes delayed for a few minutes, telling Micah to meet her at the café instead of at Mr. Schmidt’s. The first time going to the restaurant alone, when he was ten, was scary to Micah. However, the tables and menu became familiar, and after the waitress brought a glass of water, it was almost as if the violin case sitting on the chair across the table from him could have been his mother. By the third occasion starting out lunch alone, he felt as comfortable as the businessmen who populated the tables on their lunch hour. He even smiled when a young man at the end of the counter waved at him. Micah grew to enjoy the independence that came when his mother went on her longer errands.
Betty always worried about him even though she knew that Colfax was small enough to be relatively peaceful and safe; besides, Myra, the waitress, would keep an eye on Micah. One day, though, traffic came to a stop just north of Pullman on U.S. 195 – an injury accident that closed the highway. Betty already had been running late, and this delay increased her worry about Micah.
Micah was undaunted. He had finished his lunch and was studying his week’s lesson when he decided to go outside.
“I don’t see your mother,” Myra said protectively.
“I was just going outside to sit on the bench and wait for her.”
“Okay, just don’t go far, hon.” Myra watched Micah closely until she saw where he had seated himself.
Micah sat on the dark-green bench in the midday sun. He took off his coat and put it next to him and then took out his violin. Though it was in tune when he started his lesson, he carefully made sure of the tuning. He began to play, becoming completely engrossed in the music. Soon, passersby were stopping to listen, and a few threw money onto his coat. Micah barely noticed.
“I’m so sorry, Micah,” Betty exclaimed as she ran up to him a half hour later.
“Wha?” Micah started. “Oh, hi, Mom. I didn’t see you.” Micah began packing up his violin and bow, reached for his coat, and only then realizing that there was money lying on it. He looked puzzled.
“It’s for your playing, Micah. They thought you were a busker.” Instead of being disturbed by Micah earning money for playing, Betty was delighted at her son’s first baby step in a professional musical career. It was something she was never able to do before she got married; however, she thought smiling to herself, carting a piano around to play on a street corner might have been somewhat difficult for her.
“What’s a busker, Mom?”
“A busker is a musician who plays on the street in order to get people to drop money into their hat or cup. People thought your coat was your collection cup. There are usually buskers in big cities and college towns.”
“But, Mom, all I was doing was playing my lesson.”
“Micah, you don’t know yet how good you are and how much people enjoy hearing you play.” And, she thought, I hope that when you do, it doesn’t go to your head.