He was almost a mythical character, rarely seen in town, and when he was he hardly spoke a word. Gabe was gnome-like in appearance, stooped and rounded from years of working on his farm. His face was deeply crinkled and his eyes nearly disappeared when he smiled. He lived alone on a simple farm far from town. He had no family, few friends, and was rumored to be massively rich.
Gabe was in his 80’s and I was in my early teens when I knew him. He would sometimes shuffle in for coffee at the only restaurant in town, a place I worked in the summers. I would often overhear the chatter after he left; old women clucking over what was to happen to his fortune when he passed away. He was always kind to me in his silent way and would leave me a tip bigger than his coffee bill. His low, fuzzy voice was almost inaudible to me when he did speak. My 13 year old self was timid and skittish around him.
When I wasn’t working I was practicing my violin. It was around this time that music began to play an increasingly important role in my life and its unfolding identity. On a whim I began competing in and winning local competitions. I auditioned for a youth orchestra an hour and a half away. When I was accepted I used my prize money to pay the tuition. I lived for Saturday morning rehearsals. To me, delving into the symphonic repertoire was as refreshing and energizing as a holiday in a magical foreign country and it always seemed to end too soon. I would return to mundane weekdays eagerly anticipating and preparing for the next rehearsal.
I worked hard and practiced harder, traveling hours for competitions and auditions from my home in rural Saskatchewan. Sadly, it became glaringly apparent that my drive, work ethic and musicality would only take me so far. Until this point I had been playing on a violin worth $300 and my family’s financial situation was such that an instrument of higher quality was out of the question. Even as a young student the disparity between my instrument and those of my peers was obvious, most of which were valued in the thousands. In a town of 300 people, where every success and every trip out of town is noted and discussed at length in the coffee shop, the fact that I had stopped competing spread rapidly. It must have been at one of these conversations that silent, gnome-like Gabe caught word of my situation.
One evening I was preparing for bed—early, because my shift at the town bakery began at 4am—when there was a knock on the steel door of the factory where we lived. Although I was only wearing my pajamas I hurried through the darkened factory to answer it. Gabe was on the other side. Though we both seemed confused to see each other, I invited him into the lunchroom. Small talk between an awkward teenaged girl and a man who didn’t talk much proved impossible, but he eventually mumbled something coherent, something about wanting to buy a violin. He gestured awkwardly and recalled hearing me perform once; saying that I had played his favorite hymn, one that his mother used to sing to him. I clearly recalled the performance. It had been months back. I had been playing for an evening event at a local church, and he had lumbered noisily in while I was performing, even muttering out loud with no regard for the music. He sat down close to the front for a moment, then bumbled out again before I was finished.
The broken hearted prayers I offered night after night for a competition-worthy violin were answered in the factory lunch room that evening in the form of stooped, awkward Gabe. He handed me a cheque for $5000 and almost inaudibly said something about buying myself a violin so I could play hymns for more people. I remember standing in my pajamas after he left, my bare feet on the concrete floor of the darkened factory, sobbing and feeling like I was flying at the same time. This new violin would be my wings.
To this day I am still not sure why he showed up at my door that night. Gabe didn’t want anyone to know what he had done for me and we never discussed it after that day. He was too shy to attend my concerts in the city, so he never heard me play again. I wonder if this quiet, gentle farmer had any idea of the possibilities he created for me from that day forward. Within a year of buying the instrument I was performing with a professional orchestra in the nearest city. I wept those same tears of gratitude when I eventually sold my precious “Gabe” violin to a dealer so I could buy my professional instrument seven years later.
Gabe passed away when I was studying at university completing my undergrad in violin performance. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral, but whenever I play hymns, or even step into a violin shop, I think of the day I purchased my Gabe violin. I give thanks for this beautiful, quiet soul whom I hardly knew. I give thanks for the innate power of music that inspired generosity in him and now in me.