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Title: Playing the Violin
Author: esteefee
Categories: Gen, Character study, pre-series
Rating: PG
Words: 1,913
Warnings: OC Character death, alcoholism (implied)
Summary: It was his Aunt Maggie who taught Rodney to love science.

Playing the Violin

by esteefee

It was his Aunt Maggie who taught Rodney to love science.

She wasn't really his aunt—honorary, a friend of the family, she took him off his parents' hands when they didn't know what to do with their strange kid; and, anyway, they were too exhausted from fighting each other to have the energy to waste on him.

Aunt Maggie taught classes at the science museum, and she enrolled him there at an early age for the after school and summer programs, classes in applied chemistry and aerodynamics and physics, even though they were disguised under more parent-friendly names such as "Model Rocketry" and "Fun With Flight!"

He didn't enjoy the "Earth Sciences" class. Playing with guinea pigs and tarantulas was not his thing, although he did have a certain fascination with feeding the boa constrictor.

And every day Auntie Maggie would sit with him during snack time and talk to him, apparently fascinated by everything he had discovered, as if she were learning it, too. Rodney never quite understood that—she was an adult, and a physicist, and quite smart. Surely she already knew this puny stuff? But she would listen, her blue eyes bright and alert, the sun glinting off the silver in her dark blond hair, as she nodded and asked, "How big of an engine would you use to counter the payload?" Or, "But wouldn't the drag coefficient be too high for a wing of that shape?"

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, unconcerned, and pointed at his diagram, "but you see, it only deploys after the rocket has launched, and we're only interested in protecting the payload from a rough landing—it only has to glide back down to earth, you see. It's a much more efficient design than that ridiculous space shuttle."

"Oh, well that's quite brilliant," Aunt Maggie said. "I'm concerned about the rubber bands that handle the release, though. You'll have to get a very high quality or they'll snap under take-off."

"Oh, that's very good," Rodney said. "I wonder where I can find some."

"I'll take care of it, dear." Aunt Maggie patted his hand. "Now eat your tuna fish."

Aunt Maggie did get him the rubber bands—excellent, thick black ones that were almost oily but had white, powdery stuff coating them. They held up well at the launch.

She was there cheering him on when his rocket set a new F-class single-motor altitude record of two thousand and sixty-eight meters. And then she clutched his shoulder tightly, exclaiming when the wing deployed and the rocket turned into a glider and floated lightly back down to earth.

"Marvelous work, Rodney," she said, and he beamed. Aunt Maggie never forgot to call him by his real name. "However did you come by the idea?"

"I-I don't know," he said. "They just seemed so stupid and wasteful, the Americans and the way they keep ejecting components during flight. Their new shuttle design is the worst by far. But this way the wings would be streamlined with the craft and so would require much less fuel to boost into orbit—you saw how far she went!" Rodney bounced on his toes. "Todd Lagrange mocked the design right up until I beat his old record. But I knew I could do it. You saw."

"I did, indeed," Aunt Maggie said, and she smoothed a hand over his head. She sounded a little sad for some reason, but Rodney figured it made sense—she probably knew he wouldn't get much attention from NASA for his suggestions in a redesign, not that it would stop him from sending them on.

Nothing would stop him. He hated idiots. In fact, there were few people he cared for at all, other than his sister Jeannie, his physics teacher, and his Aunt Maggie.

Once he finished secondary school he didn't get to see Aunt Maggie much, as he left Toronto and headed south to the hated United States to attend college. So many wanted him it was hard to pick one, but he ended up at M.I.T. because they offered him the best scholarships and possibilities of later fellowships, and also Aunt Maggie had connections there at the Center for Theoretical Physics.

In spite of the connection, however, he found he spoke to her less and less. But he began to understand, gradually, some things he hadn't when he was younger. Such as: what was that clinking sound he heard over the phone in the evenings and sometimes even during the day when he called her? Or why her speech would grow more slurred as the conversation went on.

And as he grew older, Aunt Maggie started to be less careful with what she said and how she said it. She had a deep well of bitterness that had apparently remained untapped for many years, and now she let it loose in sarcastic, cutting remarks at the expense of her colleagues, people Rodney was now studying under. It was eye-opening and also a little thrilling, to hear Aunt Maggie refer to Professor Jenkins as 'a gas-powered wind-bag whose ass was a perfect illustration of radial linear motion without angular momentum.' Or, Rodney replied, laughing, it was an ever-expanding example of the Big Bang.

As quirky and prickly as she was, Aunt Maggie was his touch-stone. She should, as such, be unchanging and eternal, which was why, when his mother called him two weeks before he was to defend his second dissertation, he was so ill-prepared to receive the news.

His Aunt Maggie was dead. Had died, in fact, almost a week earlier, alone in her apartment, but since she wasn't expected anywhere until Wednesday, when she was to have lunch with Rodney's mom, no one had noticed.

The thought was unbearable, a stone in Rodney's mind, so that while on one hand he was grieving, on the other he was furious. He knew she had heart problems—had urged her to get the angioplasty the doctor had prescribed as treatment, but Aunt Maggie was distrustful of doctors, called them quacks and snake-oil charmers, and Rodney knew she was terrified she would die on the table if she let them try the procedure.

He had fully intended to finish up his second Ph.D. and then fly up and coax her into doing it. He would have taken her into the hospital, sat by her side—anything to get her to do what was needed. But now it was too late, and he was so helplessly angry knowing it.

He would never talk to her again. He would never tell her his latest, greatest ideas.

She would never get that proud, wistful, awed tone to her voice again, and ask him, "However do you come up with these wonderful concepts, dear one? Let's explore that."

Rodney went to Professor Alderson to break the news, and to request he tell Maggie's other friends on the faculty.

"Oh, dear," Alderson said. "That's just terrible."

"Yes," Rodney said shortly.

"You two were fairly close, I know." Alderson gave him a sympathetic look.

Rodney shrugged. "We kept in touch."

"Hmm." Alderson went back to staring out his office window, his face ponderous and overly grave. "Such a tragedy. What a waste of a great mind. If only she'd taken my advice back when."

Rodney frowned. "Back when what?"

"Back when they were deciding tenure, of course. Oh, dear boy, you have no idea how it was back then. I advised her most strongly to get married—there wasn't the slightest chance she would achieve tenure without being attached, especially since, well," Alderson grimace delicately, "she wasn't the most feminine of women."

"That's...despicable," Rodney said through his teeth.

Alderson looked surprised, and vaguely amused. "I offered to marry her myself, actually. Just for show, you realize, though we were quite close. And I wanted her in the department alongside me. But she was adamant she get the position without deception of any kind."

"And she didn't get it."

"No, she didn't," Alderson said heavily.

There was too much Rodney understood now, all too well. He was a shoo-in for tenure, he knew, but he was feeling less and less like he even wanted to play the academic game anymore. And definitely not here at M.I.T., at the very department where they'd screwed Aunt Maggie so thoroughly.

He wondered if Alderson knew that. Looking into the man's eyes now, Rodney thought maybe he did.

"Thanks for...the history lesson, Professor," Rodney said.

"Not really my field at all," Alderson said.

"You did just fine."


Maggie's sister was a bitter, wretched woman who came swooping in like a vulture to claim all of Maggie's worldly goods—what there was of them—since Maggie had died intestate. It was another thing Rodney cursed angrily about, not that he wanted money or anything of value, but he wondered whether she had left him any personal message that was now being swept out as garbage while Sue Ratham sold all of Maggie's more precious items for whatever she could get on the open market.

Rodney defended his dissertation and went to go work for the U.S. Military.


Many years later, Rodney thought he'd come to absorb a little too much of the bitter lessons Maggie had taught him, and perhaps not enough of the other, more subtle messages she'd tried to impart. It took him far too long and too many light years to discover this. The freezing winters in Siberia were certainly instructional in that regard. Lauding his intelligence over Samantha Carter's wouldn't have amused his Aunt—he knew that. Yet he was still so very angry at Maggie for leaving him unnecessarily.

Then, one day on Atlantis, as Rodney was scribbling on the white board and muttering to himself about the new data they'd just acquired from the binary star system that circled within deep sensor range, he heard Radek say, "Is fascinating. How did you come by this hypothesis?"

Rodney looked over and saw Radek's blue eyes, bright and interested, fixed on him from behind his glasses.

"I-I don't know...can you think of any other explanation? There has to be a circumbinary planet orbiting the stars."

"Hmmm. How wonderful—like Tatooine, ano?" Radek beamed at him, and Rodney couldn't help smiling back, a warmth spreading through his chest that he recognized, even if he wanted to deny it.

"Oh, please. It's probably completely uninhabitable."

"But we can check in database? Perhaps there is a gate."

"Oh, brilliant! Yeah, let's go."

From then on, Rodney could hear the ghost of Aunt Maggie's delight rippling from Radek's eager observances, from Miko's sly, dirty math jokes and Simpson's giggling responses. And it was vaguely possible Rodney selected his choicest insults from Maggie's hefty repertoire and thought of her occasionally, so he supposed it meant he wasn't quite as angry anymore.

He'd found a new purpose for his science, after all, and it wasn't for bludgeoning people with anymore. Science wasn't a luxury, here; it wasn't academic, it was survival. The people here, including Rodney himself, depended on it for their lives. It didn't matter how many records his rockets could break, it mattered how big his bombs could blow.

Sometimes he wondered what Aunt Maggie would say about that. He thought maybe in her crusty old way she would have approved.

Because he was still learning—he was always learning, he'd never stopped.

And he never would.


A/N: Title from quote: Life is like playing the violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. —Samuel Butler

Estes did distribute a model rocket that converted into a glider back in the 70s. I built it! (At least I think it was Estes.) I tried my damnedest to locate it here but no go. I built so many of these, it was such a blast from the past seeing these plans. Oh, I wanted the AstroCam SO BADLY. But not a chance would Pops shell out the moolah to send a camera up into the stratosphere.


( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
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Oct. 15th, 2011 08:50 am (UTC)
This is an absolutely brilliant story! Wonderful insight into a period of his life that shaped Rodney into who he became, both good and bad. Interesting woman and such a tragic fate, a fitting comment on the theme of early female scientific geniuses and the prejudice of "gender roles" they were facing. Interesting how he finds echoes of her and their relationship in his colleagues on Atlantis, and finally lets go of the bitterness and focuses on the positive things / reasons for science. It's all very well described, put together and very touching.
Oct. 15th, 2011 09:08 am (UTC)
Aw, thank you so much. *squishes him*
Oct. 15th, 2011 10:35 am (UTC)
Really awesome and what a wonderful backstory for Rodney and why he came to love the science! :D
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
Oct. 15th, 2011 11:57 am (UTC)
That is a great look into Rodney's past! =)

Thank you! :)
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
thank you! I love backstories.
Oct. 15th, 2011 02:03 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed this story. I want Rodney to have had an Aunt Maggie in his life.
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:53 pm (UTC)
yes! me, too. thanks.
Oct. 15th, 2011 02:08 pm (UTC)
Oh, Aunt Maggie's influence makes terrible sense in light of the Rodney we first met and the Rodney we came to know. Her bitterness was well justified but of course Rodney would internalize it -- how could he not given his childhood? Still, he wouldn't be the man he is without Maggie and I'd like to think she'd be richly satisfied in knowing her work with him made such a huge difference. That's quite a legacy in its own right.

And yet it's sad to think the times didn't allow her to stand shoulder to shoulder with her peers and produce her own school of thought. (She would have loved Atlantis, yes?)
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:54 pm (UTC)
I think she would have had a very warm sense of pride just knowing he was out there being brilliant. But yes. :(
Oct. 15th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
*trying not to cry in the airport*

This was just.. really wonderful. Love miko's sly math, and radek's enthusiasm. *Hearts aunt Maggie a lot.*
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:55 pm (UTC)
*hugs you like whoa*
Oct. 15th, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC)
Beautifully written and what a wonderful glimpse into, not only Rodney's life, but also the obstacles that women scientists faced during that time frame. I'm not so certain how much things have changed. I remember one of my physics lab instructors, a woman, lamenting on how difficult it was to get her work noticed in a very male dominated and competitive department. Aunt Maggie would have been proud of Rodney.

Well done!!!
Oct. 15th, 2011 08:06 pm (UTC)
thank you!

I don't know how much things have changed either. My ex-boss, a woman and the Director of Engineering at my company was "layed off" in favor of a man being promoted to VP over her. And she was excellent, and it was put to "budgetary" reasons and off-shoring, but the end result was, he got promoted, she got to lay off 1/2 of her work force and could either move down in the company or leave with a very hefty severance, so she left.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Oct. 15th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
Ohh... Just so bloody brilliant. I love this; a little look into what makes Rodney Rodney! Just beautiful.
Oct. 15th, 2011 08:07 pm (UTC)
thank you! *hugs*
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow! I really liked this! It was sad and touching, but also marvelous and delightful. I loved Rodney seeing Aunt Maggie in his colleagues, especially Radek, and how his snark comes from her in a way. Brilliant job! \o/
Oct. 15th, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
tankru. I do think that kind of excellence in snark would require some training!
Oct. 15th, 2011 07:55 pm (UTC)
Everyone needs an Aunt Maggie in their lives... so glad Rodney had one!

Oct. 15th, 2011 09:01 pm (UTC)
I figured he had to have had at least one grumpy old cuss who guided and adored him. :))) Thanks, goddess!
Oct. 15th, 2011 09:17 pm (UTC)
How lovely! Aunt Maggie is a wonderful character who really SHOULD have been in Rodney's life.

I would have loved it if she'd actually been his mother, forced to give him up officially, but never losing him from her heart. (Ok, impossible, considering Rodney's sister, but I like to think it.)
Oct. 15th, 2011 10:27 pm (UTC)
Interesting idea! I was thinking Maggie was probably a lesbian (but I'm guessing she never found anyone, since she seemed awfully lonely), but I like your idea, too, just because I want Rodney to have a mother who loves him. Still, he did have someone who did, very much.
Oct. 15th, 2011 09:45 pm (UTC)
Excellent! I love Aunt Maggie - and your Rodney voice is spot on!

Must rec this on rodneymckay_gen and stargategenrec!!
Oct. 15th, 2011 10:28 pm (UTC)
thank you, you're very kind!
Oct. 15th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC)
Brilliant back-story for Rodney, and yet it was awfully sad and unfair for Maggie.
I loved how she treated Rodney when he was a child. Rodney's terrible childhood is part of the Atlantis cannon, how his parents didn't love him, how his mother left him to cry because he was a colicy baby, so it is especially lovely to read about someone who was kind to him, who treated him with a loving touch. And it is kind of fun to think when Rodney is blistering some idiot he's doing it for her, as well as because he can't stand idiots. I loved this, thank you.
Oct. 15th, 2011 10:29 pm (UTC)
yes, very sad for Maggie. she's patterned somewhat after my (Uncle) George.

I didn't know that about colicky Rodney. what ep is that from?
(no subject) - scarlettandblue - Oct. 15th, 2011 10:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - esteefee - Oct. 15th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - scarlettandblue - Oct. 15th, 2011 11:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 16th, 2011 06:19 am (UTC)
Wow. That's incredible -- very, very sweet and very sad.

Oct. 16th, 2011 11:57 pm (UTC)
thank you, DragonLady!
Oct. 16th, 2011 09:14 pm (UTC)
This is just lovely, and then poignant, and then lovely again. I really like that Maggie was such a positive influence even after getting such a raw deal.

(I have to say it was a little jarring to see Rodney's and Maggie's jokes about a Professor Jenkins at MIT, but luckily, the timeframe would have been too early for the one I know of! :)
Oct. 16th, 2011 11:59 pm (UTC)
(oooh! heh.)

thanks, michele! I liked her, too.
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