I park the car at the entrance to the lot, and Madeleine and I walk up the incline with her fiddle and mandolin teacher, Doug, to a side entrance of the Pioneer’s Home. We meet up with another musician, Mick, who also will be playing in today’s gig. The fourth member of the group, Matt, is already inside with his mandolin. The four of them are set to play an hour show for the elderly residents of the Home. A full year before Arizona became a state, the Pioneer Home opened in February 1911. Perched on a hill overlooking the county court house and heart of Prescott, it is a massive red brick building. It houses a couple hundred old folks who have been residents of the State of Arizona for at least fifty years.
Madeleine is somewhat nervous, but Doug’s easy-going demeanor lowers her stress. As we enter, Doug says the gig will be more like jamming in someone’s living room than a concert. He adds that there will likely be a group of people already seated and waiting. It’s likely the highlight of the day for many of them who are no longer able to go out.
Doug leads us down a hall, past unoccupied rooms, each with a bed, dresser, and window. It’s somewhat depressing, but the natural light and real wood furniture assuage the institutional effect. The residents are not confined to their beds or even their rooms. Eventually we enter a large room with the occasional loveseat and chairs arranged in rows. The cafeteria is off to one side and is busy and noisy as lunch service ends for the day. On the opposite side of the room are large windows that look out on the courthouse plaza. We are high on the hill and there is a sense, even far from the windows, that we’re on the edge of a precipice. It doesn’t feel frightening, but more like we’re on top of a mountain with nothing blocking the view.
As Doug predicted, there are at least a dozen people already assembled and seated, ready for the concert. The musicians gather chairs and prepare to play. The set begins. Doug announces each song, sometimes sharing some history or lyrics. It is all very informal and simple and lovely. The tunes are traditional and the four musicians easily find their rhythm together.
At some point, an ancient-looking man shuffles in during a song and sits next to me. When the song is over, Doug nods at him and says, “Hello, Ray.”
Members of the audience regard him and begin to call out, “Ray, where’s your fiddle?”
He says, breathless, “Well, it’s upstairs.”
This is no excuse. “Well, go get it,” they call, one after another.
He says he will, but it’s a bit difficult to tell if he’s pleased that they want him to play or if he’s exasperated at having to make the trek. He manages to get his stooped body out of the chair and wanders down the hall.
The group begins another tune, and Ray reappears as it ends, fiddle and folding chair in hand. He manages, eventually, to get the chair set up and he prepares to join in on the next tune. His hands shake quite a bit as he brings his violin to his chin and he holds his bow in a very unconventional way. But when he begins to play, his tremor lessens significantly. They play quite a few more tunes together, some that Madeleine knows and others she doesn’t. But she’s poised and comfortable there on the makeshift stage. During “West Virginia Waltz” one couple gets up and dances around the room. Eighty years separate Madeleine from Ray, yet while they play, those years make no difference at all.
When the concert’s over, several of the old ladies fawn over Madeleine. They want to hold her hand and compliment her. She beams, glowing in their appreciation. One asks for a hug and she obliges. Others call to her, urging her to never stop playing. I think of the many proverbs across cultures about honoring the elderly. By the time she reaches me, she is grinning and full of pride.
“I want to do this again,” she says. “Old people are so cute.”