By Jodi Hiser
One sweltering Friday afternoon, Addie Wilson parked the old Chevy truck into the gravel lot and turned off the engine. She cranked the handle to roll up her window and pulled out the key, dangling it in the air.
“That was better AddieBelle,” said Papaw, who sat in the passenger seat. He took the key and put it in his overalls pocket. “Ya didn’t hit a tree this time.”
“You know I’d rather you just drive the old thang,” said Addie. “It’s bigger than a boat, and drives just as bad. When are you goin’ to accept that I’m just no good at drivin’?”
“Now, now,” said Papaw. “Granny believed in you, and I do too. It just takes some practice.”
Addie climbed out of the truck and pushed the door closed. “You know as well as I do that Granny never let me drive on the mountain roads. She always said I’d drive right off the mountain and not even know it ’til I woke up in Heaven. I don’t see why now’s any different.”
“It’s different ‘cause you’re fifteen and you’re growin’ up, and I ain’t gonna be here forever. You’s gotta be able to know things, is all.”
Addie smiled. “I hope you ain’t thinkin’ of leaving me, Papaw, at least not yet. Jasper and I still need you.” She hooked her arm through Papaw’s, and leaned against his burly frame as they walked past the rows of parked cars.
The crowds had come out in droves on that particular Friday for the annual weekend highway yard sale. All along Highway 27, yards glittered with one man’s junk and another man’s treasure.
With a myriad of lawns awaiting them, they walked arm in arm across the dusty pathway directly past the old Mountain Opry building. Peelings of paint hung limp off its dilapidated siding like flowers wilted from the heat. The doors hung crooked, and the roof sagged. A sign in front said:
Mountain Opry Restoration Gala
Help save the Mountain Opry for the next generation!
Saturday, November 5
Tickets on sale at the front office
“That gala’s comin’ up next week. Are you gonna play for that event?” asked Addie, pointing to the sign. “You and The Broke Folk Brothers always bring in the crowds with your bluegrass tunes.”
“Yep,” said Papaw, with his gaze far ahead. “Thought you might play with us this time,” he grunted.
“I cain’t play for people Papaw, you know that,” said Addie. “Me and the stage just don’t mix.”
They crossed the highway and began their annual scavenger hunt, a search for anything that could be useful to them on their homestead: big jars, extra tools, clothes for her brother Jasper, extra garden equipment, and new church outfits for herself. Addie was in the market this year for a new dress to wear to church. She was tired of the one she bought last year.
Country tunes from front porch radios floated in the air and serenaded Addie as she searched for the best deals. She walked past a yard full of half-priced furniture and another yard filled with wall hangings, paintings, and decorative flower pots. While she examined a clothesline filled with women’s clothes, Papaw looked over at the yard sales farther down the road.
“I’ll be a few houses down, AddieBelle,” said Papaw. “You come get me when you’re done.”
Addie meticulously combed through the piles of clothes. She found some church pants that matched Jasper’s husky size 10, two dresses for herself, a work shirt and overalls for Papaw, and a soft blue checkered tablecloth for their kitchen table.
She found Papaw three yards up the road. “I got us some good clothes,” she said to him. “Whatcha got there?”
Papaw held up a large paper bag. “It’s somethin’ I bought for ya.” He reached inside and pulled out a faded maple-colored mandolin.
Addie dropped her bag of clothes and gasped. “Papaw,” she said in a breath of a whisper.
“I knew you been playin’ on that borrowed mandolin from the community center,” said Papaw with a twinkle in his eye. “And I saw you eyein’ the one in the music store. I know it ain’t new and all, but I thought ya might like one of your very own.”
Addie reached up and hugged her grandfather’s neck as she swallowed back tears. “You were supposed to save your money,” she whispered.
Papaw just smiled. “I got it for a good deal,” he said. He pointed to the lady with the fanny pack of dollar bills hanging out. “That lady said it sounded pretty rattly. I ain’t sure if it’s cracked, or has an issue with its bridge or soundboard, but I thought we’d fix it up in ma’shop.”
As Papaw drove home, Addie couldn’t quit looking at the mandolin. “Papaw, it’s so beautiful,” she said.
Even though the honey hue of the wood had long lost the shimmer of its original golden color, she loved the curve of its scroll, and the dainty f-shaped sound holes. She strummed the strings and heard a buzz-rattle noise. “Yep, it’s fuzzy alright. What do ya think’s wrong with it?”
Papaw shrugged. “I’m thinkin’ that mandolin hasn’t been played for years. Looks like it was stuck in an old shed, by the look of its wood. But we’ll get it back in good order.”
Addie knew that if anyone could get that mandolin in working order, it would be her Papaw. He had been playing and fixing stringed instruments in the Smoky Mountains ever since Earl Scruggs had blessed the world with ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’. Papaw was known in their neck of the woods and way beyond their mountain ridge for being a master of his trade.
* * *
Papaw’s workshop stood on the top of a hill overlooking one of the highest points of their property. From the shop’s cedar barn doors, Addie could stand and look upon three states, with a view of the rolling mountains fading into the horizon of the sky. Beyond the workshop sat their home and garden, nestled inside a protective covering of mountain forest.
The mandolin lay motionless on Papaw’s worktable like a wounded animal. One banjo, three guitars, a mountain dulcimer, and two newly fixed mandolins decorated the walls, waiting for their owners to collect them. Neatly ordered and organized, the north wall displayed a congregation of specialized tools, hung with precision and care. Addie leaned her elbows on the ancient table across from her grandfather and quietly watched. She had memorized the pattern of his methods when working with instruments. First, his knobby fingers lightly touched over the surface of the instrument, softly fingering the contour of the wood, checking for inconsistencies or hairline cracks.
When Papaw turned the mandolin over on its side, they both noticed a curious marking in the side of the wood.
“What’s that, do ya think? A trademark of some sort?” asked Addie. She reached over and gingerly fingered the etched design. The outline was one continuous circle, with no beginning or end. Inside the circle was a tree with a network of branches above and a web of roots below. No matter which way Addie cocked her head, the design steadfastly remained the same, always looking like a tree inside a circle.
“Your Granny played an instrument with that same marking,” said Papaw, as he was concentrating on his work. “It was carved into the wood of her dulcimer. Best one I ever heard.”
“Is it from a certain maker?” asked Addie.
“Don’t know,” Papaw grunted and shrugged his shoulders. “I ain’t never seen another of its kind.” His head bent down farther, meticulously studying the underside of the instrument.
He fingered the back and stopped. “Looks like a crack here needs to be fixed.”
Addie watched as her grandfather carefully placed the mandolin inside a large wooden brace. Taking a warmed pallet knife, he methodically took apart the backing. As he removed the vulnerable piece of wood, Addie froze with wonder.
“There it is again, the tree in the circle,” she said, as she pointed to a larger design of the original carving, stenciled inside the belly of the mandolin. “And look at the writing written around the circle,” said Addie, pointing to the insides of the opened instrument. She read it out loud:
May the knot of our love be eternally tied,
May the music of our home be forever blessed.
“Papaw, have you ever seen anything like that before?” asked Addie twirling her head around to read the circular blessing a second time.
“New to me,” said Papaw.
She watched Papaw for several minutes before he spoke again. “Ya better head back and check on your brother, AddieBelle. He’s probably home and wondering what’s for dinner,” said Papaw. “This’ll take me a long while. I’ll be in later on.”
Addie reluctantly obeyed. She walked the pebbled path by the edge of Granny’s garden, which was sadly overgrown with weeds and overripe produce. Ever since Granny’s heart had silently stopped at the end of the previous spring, Addie felt as though she was swimming in chores. Even with Jasper’s help, the garden had gotten away from her as the summer turned into fall. But that wasn’t why she missed Granny so much. She missed Granny for the way her stubborn spunk had filled their house to a lively brim, a house that now sat in solemn stillness.
* * *
That stillness kept Addie awake after dinner as she lay motionless on her bed. A cool autumn breeze floated in through her window, fluttering her purple curtains, carrying the windy nighttime chorus into her room.
Just go to sleep, just go to sleep, she told herself in the rhythm of the wind song. She tried to turn off her mind, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t release her mind’s image of that circular tree, or the thought of that written blessing.
Thinking about Granny’s dulcimer that night had also made her lonely. Granny could play that instrument as fast as a tornado and as tender as a lullaby. Addie missed Granny’s noisy singing and the old gospel tunes she sang while doing the dishes.
Unable to quench her thoughts, Addie got up and tiptoed downstairs to Papaw’s room. His bed was empty; he was still at work in his shop. Addie opened Granny’s closet and felt around on the top shelf for the instrument cases: one banjo, one mini guitar, and one mountain dulcimer. Addie pulled the dulcimer softly off of its shelf and opened the case. A long slender instrument of cherry wood appeared with heart-shaped sound holes on either end. She pulled out the dulcimer and turned it over on its side. There it was: the never-ending tree inside the circle. Why hadn’t she ever noticed that design before? She pulled it to her lap and strummed the strings. A warm flood of memory surged her insides like a swig of Papaw’s whiskey. Her chest squeezed together, and she swallowed hard.
As she placed the instrument back, she noticed a small card in the lower left-hand corner of the case. In scripted letters, she read the words, Rowan Tree.
Could that be the maker of her mandolin? A faint memory flashed through her mind. She quickly closed the instrument case and snapped it shut. After placing it back on the shelf, she hurried out of Papaw’s room and crept to the upstairs family room. She scoured the bookshelves and found a handwritten leather-bound book bearing a collection of songs that Granny had transcribed over the span of her entire life. Addie quickly leafed through the pages and found The Ballad of the Rowan Tree. Addie even remembered its tune. At the top of the page, in Granny’s wobbly cursive was the note, ‘Contributed by Robert MacRae, Rowan Tree Music Shop, 1964.’
A surge of energy went down her spine.
She had found a name!
Moving from the family room to Papaw’s computer, Addie searched online for ‘Robert MacRae, 1964’. After an hour of clicking on a myriad of dead-end rabbit trails, Addie finally found an old article from Ashton Hollow News:
July 25, 1968
Robert MacRae of Ashton Hollow was killed in the line of duty on July 17. He was hit by enemy fire outside of Saigon in Vietnam, not far from Long Binh Post. Robert is survived by his wife Aileen, and his two sons, Archie (5) and Colin (3).
Robert and his wife Aileen were married in 1962, and together they managed the Rowan Tree Music Shop.
Robert is remembered as a tender father who loved teaching his boys ukulele and outdoor skills. Aileen remembers him as a kind and protective husband, a trustworthy business partner, and best friend. The community remembers Robert as a comedian on the bluegrass stage, making people laugh with his humor, and dance with his music. His family crest, The Rowan Tree, continues to make its stamp on the world as his instruments have become well known for their high quality of sound. Robert’s family will be holding a memorial service at Ashton Hollow Baptist Church on Friday morning, August 2, at 10:00 am. Flowers, donations, and condolences for the widow and her boys can be made through Ashton Hollow Baptist Church.
Along with the short obituary, the newspaper had also posted a photo of Aileen and Robert with their two boys, in front of a large tree that loomed up around them, like a protective wing of foliage.
Addie wondered about the family in the photo. How had they survived without Robert? Addie had a soft spot for children with absent parents, and her heart ached for any kid that grew up without a dad. What had happened to Aileen and the children?
Thoughts of the photo swirled with the words from that blessing inside the mandolin. Could the desire to love someone for eternity be more than just a dream that belonged in fairy tales?
Addie knew what she needed to do. She couldn’t bring back Robert MacRae, but she could bring the mandolin back to Aileen. Aileen deserved to have the mandolin back, even though it would disappoint Papaw, after his working on it all evening, just for her.
After a long while of thinking and planning, Addie finally drifted to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, with Aileen and Robert on her mind, and the song of the wind in her ears.
* * *
The sun went straight from hidden to hot in the early morning of Saturday. Addie dutifully made Jasper his favorite Saturday breakfast: eggs over-easy and homemade biscuits. Addie had worked for months trying to get Granny’s recipe just right, and on that morning, she actually accomplished it: the underbellies of each biscuit were perfectly golden brown.
Jasper looked up between bites of breakfast. “The boys down the street wanna play basketball this morning and have lunch at Joe’s,” he said. “I told ‘em I could play. I can, cain’t I?” Jasper and the neighborhood boys all played together on the same fourth grade team.
“Sure,” said Addie. “But Granny always said Saturdays was workdays. How ‘bout we work in her garden after you get home later this afternoon?”
Jasper frowned and took a bite of biscuit. “Awww. Alright.”
After breakfast cleanup, Addie found Papaw inside his workshop with another instrument on his surgery table.
“It’s ready for ya, AddieBelle,” said Papaw, as he nodded to Addie’s mandolin hanging on the wall. “It looks good as new. I rummaged through the scales just a minute ago. Sounds pretty good.” He handed her the instrument. He must have been working late into the night, only to turn around and continue earlier than the sun cared to rise.
“Papaw, I been thinkin’,” she said, as she cradled the mandolin in her arms. Looking at the beauty of the mandolin’s new shine, she began to rethink all of her thinking from the night before.
“Hmm-mmm?” grunted Papaw.
She shook her head resolutely. “I think I found the shop that made this instrument. It’s called The Rowan Tree Music Shop. Papaw, it’s run by the MacRae family in Ashton Hollow, and—” she took a deep breath. “ Well, Robert MacRae died in Vietnam, but I think his widow may still be living there. I’d like to find Aileen MacRae, if she’s still alive, and give her back this treasure.” She placed the mandolin back on the table. “I could barely sleep last night. I just cain’t shake the fact that it seems like this mandolin just don’t belong to me. I still got the borrowed one to play on. Wouldya be too disappointed if I gave away your work like that?”
Papaw looked up and smiled. He was silent for a moment while he wiped his hands on a shop rag. “Naw, Sweetheart. It’s yours to do with what ya’want.”
“Well,” Addie began, but hesitated. “Ashton Hollow’s just about an hour from here, right? Would you be willin’ to take me there sometime this mornin’?”
Papaw nodded. “That’d be fine,” he said.
“Thanks Papaw… you drive,” said Addie. “I don’t feel like havin’ no run-ins with trees today.”
* * *
Ashton Hollow was a one-stop-light town, with a lazy Main Street, cutting through tired businesses. Papaw drove past a few sleepy shops and stopped at the community center. A stout brick building with double doors and a large front window boasted a sign for weekly BINGO, scheduled for 1:00 pm.
“I figure this is a good place to start, if you’re lookin’ for someone in this town,” said Papaw as they got out of the truck.
They stepped inside to find a noisy room full of tables and chairs, all occupied with senior citizens boasting the latest hair colors from white to blue. Addie followed Papaw as he went up to the front of the room and talked to a lady with a large fishbowl of letter tiles.
“Excuse me,” he said. “We’re lookin’ for an old shop.
“Old Bob?” she yelled back, with her hand cupped around her ear. “He went to go get a hotdog. He’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
“Naw, Naw, not Bob!” Papaw almost yelled at the deaf woman with a fancy blue mushroom hairdo. “And old shop! A MUSIC SHOP.”
“Oh! Lucy Cobb?” she yelled back. “Lucy died last year. Where you been?”
Thankfully, a younger assistant noticed the troubles of translation and stepped in to help. “What kind of music shop are you looking for?” she asked. Her face was kind, and she wore a skirt that looked like it had been made from old curtains.
“The Rowan Tree Music Shop,” said Papaw, exasperated.
“My oh my, I haven’t heard that name in ages,” she said. “It burned down about fifty years ago. Old Widow MacRae never rebuilt.”
“MacRae!” shouted Addie. “That’s the name! Does the…uh…Widow MacRae still live around here?”
“Oh, yes, she doesn’t get out much,” said the assistant, “but she lives on Rowan Hill. Just head north on Main, take a left on MacRae. Her house is at the top of the hill. Ya cain’t miss it.”
Grandfather and Granddaughter thanked the assistant and headed out the door; many of the senior citizens waved goodbye to them with their BINGO markers.
The drive up Rowan hill revealed a small farm house with a large tree in the front yard. Dark blue wooden shutters decorated every window in the front, and a large porch circled around the house.
Papaw pulled into the drive and looked at Addie. “You sure ya’wanna do this?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” she said, grabbing the bag with the mandolin.
They walked up the manicured stone walkway and rang the doorbell.
A petite elderly woman with a flowing linen dress came to the door and opened it slightly.
“May I help you?” she asked, cautiously looking at them through the small opening.
Addie blurted out, “Ma’am, I know this may seem weird and all, but my Papaw is a master craftsman, and wella, I think you might like to see what he’s restored.”
Looking rather curious, the woman opened the door and looked at them up and down and back up again.
“And you are?” she asked with a gruffly tone.
“Addie and Jacob Wilson,” said Addie, pointing to herself and her Papaw.
“We come from the mountain an hour away,” said Papaw.
“I think we found somethin’ that belongs to ya.” Addie held up a large paper bag.
“Well, come in,” said the woman. She led them through a hallway into a large living area, and gracefully directed them to a circle of matching floral couches and chairs.
Sitting on a fluffy wingback chair, Addie turned to face the woman. “Well, Ma’am,” she said.
“Aileen MacRae. That’s my name.”
“Oh. Right,” said Addie. She pulled the mandolin out of its bag. “Ms. Aileen, I do believe… this is yours?”
The woman gasped and put her hands to her mouth. She sat staring at the mandolin, frozen like a statue.
“You owned the Rowan Tree Music Shop, right?” asked Addie, pointing to the tree trademark that was stamped into the side of the instrument. “That’s your logo, right?” Addie held it out for the woman to see.
Aileen seemed stuck in her shock. She didn’t even appear to breathe. She blinked a couple times, and looked at the instrument as if she had seen a ghost.
“Oh my lands,” Aileen whispered.
Aileen gingerly took the mandolin in her arms and nestled it close to her like a newborn baby. She gently turned it over in her hands, and fingered the symbol of the tree that had been marked into the wood.
“My Robert….” she whispered. “Oh my…it’s come back ‘round… I cain’t believe it’s come back to me.” Aileen shook her head in disbelief.
“So it was yours?” asked Addie.
“I’ve mourned the loss of this mandolin for fifty-three years.” Aileen’s words came out in one breathy exclamation. “I just cain’t believe it.”
Aileen stared at the instrument with admiration in her eyes, the way an artist appreciates a painting. “My Robert was a craftsman too,” she said. “He made all kinds of mountain instruments in his shop.” She circled her fingers around the tree design. “That’s the Scottish Rowan Tree. It is a reminder of the Biblical tree of life.” She patted the instrument like it had feelings. “Robert made me this mandolin, the only one he ever made in honey maple.”
Addie was amazed to have found the original owner of the mandolin. “Did you sell it? Or lose it somehow?” she asked.
Tears welled up in Aileen’s eyes, and ran down her cheeks. “I had to sell it. My Robert died in Vietnam and left me with two children to feed. Our music shop burned to the ground shortly after his death. I was desperate.”
She cradled it in her arms. “Having to give it up was like saying goodbye to my Robert all over again,” she said.
Addie leaned in towards Aileen. “Do you still play, Ms. Aileen?”
Aileen shed a tired smile. She hesitated and patted the instrument again. “I played all the time when the boys were young. Robert taught me many of the ballads from his childhood.”
Aileen became quiet and stared at the mandolin in the way a mother looks at her child. “It’s been so long.”
Addie leaned forward. “Ms. Aileen, I’ll bet you’d remember if you try.”
Aileen cleared her throat, and paused for a moment, as if she were trying to remember the words of a particular song. Then she strummed softly on the shiny maple mandolin and sang in a voice as smooth as a lamb’s ear:
Oh rowan tree, oh rowan tree
Thou’lt aya be dear to thee
Entwined thou art wi’ many ties
O’hame and infancy
Thy leaves were aye the first of spring
Thy flowers the summer’s pride
There was nae such a bonnie tree
In a’the country side
Oh, rowan tree!
Addie smiled in admiration.
“Good tune,” said Papaw.
Aileen sighed. “I guess it’s like riding a bike,” she said, looking quizzically at the mandolin, like she couldn’t comprehend it all.
Papaw got up to leave. “Wella, it was nice meetin’ ya, Mrs. MacRae.”
“Yes Ma’am,” said Addie. “It was good to meetcha.”
“I’ll never be able to thank you both for what you’ve restored to me today,” said Aileen. “Do you play music too, Addie?” she asked.
“Mandolin,” harrumphed Papaw. “And she’s gonna play in the Mountain Opry next week,” he said with a grin.
“Papaw, you know I cain’t do that!” Addie said, standing up and stomping her foot.
Aileen looked from Addie to Papaw and then back to Addie again. “Well, why not, Addie?”
“‘Cause me and the stage just don’t mix,” she said.
After they said their goodbyes and tramped down the stone walkway toward their truck, Papaw leaned over to Addie and whispered in her ear. “Stage ain’t so scary if ya’play for people ya’love.”
And they got in their old beat up Chevy and drove home.
* * *
The following Friday, Addie found herself working with Jasper, bent over in Granny’s garden, harvesting and weeding as best they could.
“Would ya look at this?” said Papaw, coming out of Granny’s garden shed. He pointed to a piece of paper in his hand. “I found this in the drawer of her seed bin. It’s her directions for what to plant in next year’s garden.” He laughed a muffled chuckle.
“Looks like she can still give orders, even from Heaven,” said Addie. She wished with all her heart that Granny could be there, with her hands on her hips, directing everyone in her familiar bossy tune.
Just then, the postman drove up. On his normal daily routes, he usually dropped the mail in their mailbox, waved, and drove away. But on this day, he parked his car and walked up the driveway, holding a package that she loved so much.
“Hidee, there, Jim,” said Papaw. “Whatcha got for us today?”
Jim the Postman looked down at his bundle. “Looks like we got a package for… Miss Addie. If you could please just sign the clipboard,” he said, holding it out for Papaw’s signature.
Addie wiped her hands on her jeans and took the crisp brown paper parcel. As the postman retreated to his car, she looked down and stared at the large box. It had no return information, just Addie’s name and address on the front.
“Well, open it!” shouted Jasper.
Addie tore into the paper and opened the box. “It’s….It’s Aileen’s mandolin!” shouted Addie. Her knees felt weak, and she crumpled to the ground, holding the shiny instrument in her lap. A purple letter was pinned underneath the strings. She opened the letter and it read:
Thank you for finding me, and for your generous gift of this mandolin. I had forgotten how beautiful it was, and how gorgeous of a sound it could make.
The miracle of this mandolin circling back to me is a reminder that our lives are circular: looking towards the past to those who’ve stepped into glory, and looking towards the future, to those who’ll carry on in our place. The connecting piece is God’s eternal love, forever reaching in every direction.
You reminded me of something the day you came…you reminded me of myself!
I, too, once feared the stage. I loved music, but I feared sharing its gift with other people in public. It was my Robert, through the gift of this mandolin, that gave me the courage to play for others.
And that is why I am giving it to you. The gift of music is meant to be shared, and meant to encourage those who hear it. Please do the MacRae family the honor of spreading your music with our mandolin. As you play on, our memory lives on.
I wish you many blessings in your future. Remember, the stage isn’t frightening if you love the people for whom you play.
With love and a Grateful Heart,
Sitting there upon the grassy ground, Addie was overcome with awe. She now owned her very own mandolin—but it came with a responsibility. Could she live up to the task of… the stage?
* * *
The night of the Mountain Opry Gala had arrived. Musical groups from all over the mountain and its surrounding areas awaited their turn upon the stage for a rip-roaring time of clapping, clogging, and sing-alongs.
Papaw looked at Addie and patted her on the shoulder. “It’s time, AddieBelle.” He picked up his banjo and pushed her up the steps onto the stage.
Addie’s mouth went dry and her heart thumped wildly in her chest. Was this what Granny felt when her heart gave out? Oh Dear Lord, am I gonna die? Prodded by Papaw and the other Broke Folk Brothers, she robotically walked to her place on stage surrounded by a banjo, guitar, string bass, and fiddle. The stage-hand brought the microphone up to the middle of their semicircle, and pointed it straight at Addie.
“Go on, AddieBelle,” whispered Papaw, with a grin. He nodded at her like he knew a secret that she didn’t know. “Go on, it’s your time.”
Addie cleared her throat and squeaked. “This song—” She cleared her throat again and tried to sound more confident than she really was. “This song is for my Granny, b’cause it was her favorite. And, also for my new friend Aileen, who taught me somethin’ about singin’ for those you love.”
And with that, the banjo began picking out the sweet melody while the bass boomed its low, cradling tones. The fiddle and guitar began their rhythmic harmonies, and Addie joined in with the soprano song of her mandolin. She bravely closed her eyes and opened her mouth to sing:
Will the Circle
By and by Lord,
by and by~
There’s a better
In the sky, Lord, in the sky!