Of my mama, imaginary violins, and tough toenails


BY TED SHOCKLEY, Eastern Shore Post

My mama was not a musician of any sort. But she was quite an accomplished player of the imaginary violin.

Sometimes when I would whine or complain as a child, she bent her left arm and cocked her head to cradle a violin that didn’t exist.

With her right hand, she would slowly work an imaginary bow across the imaginary strings, serenading me with a silent song like a soloist in the city philharmonic.

Later, when I complained as a teenager about a matter of trifling importance or perceived unfairness, she would rub the tips of her thumb and index together.

While giving me a stare that wasn’t exactly sympathetic, she said it was the world’s smallest violin, playing a sad song on my behalf.

During these times, mom was a mime portraying sad music as a dismissive expression of faux sympathy to my relatively insignificant problems.

“Tough toenails,” she almost always said at the end of the performance.

I am thinking about my mother as I approach the second anniversary of the day she died — and thinking of her virtuoso work on the imaginary violin.

Mom’s theory on misfortune and mishaps, bad luck and bummers, was pretty straightforward.

Life is difficult and demanding, she would say. Deal with it.

Many people have it much worse than you.

Losing is part of life. Nobody ever guaranteed that you’d always win.

Nobody wants to hear your problem.

Nobody’s going to give you any sympathy for your problem.

And if you have a problem, go figure out a solution for yourself.

Don’t get me wrong — Mom loved me, provided for me, and was interested in me. We had a loving and close relationship.

But she did not tolerate it when I cast myself as a victim.

When I did, she brought out the violins.

It has been many years since I saw someone mime a violinist to communicate mock pity and sorrow.

Maybe such an action was a passing fad and once-creative sarcasm that ran it course. Maybe today it is a moldy cliché.

Maybe there aren’t many smallest-violin parents anymore who stop their children mid-sentence, pull out the imaginary bow and strings, and sarcastically play a solemn song of solace.

I’ve certainly never done that to my children — it is not who I am.

But some days I have the urge to do it to others.

Our culture complains a lot, mostly about embarrassingly trite and insignificant issues.

Sometimes I think we need my mama to abruptly end the bellyaching by rubbing the tips of her thumb and index fingers, playing the tiniest violin — and the saddest song.

These days, I’m glad Mom did that during my upbringing.

By and large, I don’t complain or bother people with my problems.

I try to figure stuff out for myself, probably to a fault.

And sometimes I can hear her in my head when others complain that life is difficult and demanding.

“Tough toenails,” she says.

The writer is editor of the Eastern Shore Post. Email him at [email protected].

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