My parents sang once a day at least, often more, my mother at the piano, her long fingers ranging over those keys as if by rote. She was, back then, a piano teacher, and her greatest joy, I thought, was making music at the piano in our den. She did it for hours. It was her life, in so many ways.
It wasn't hard for me to understand that. The spiritual intensity with which my parents sang together--when he came home from work, when supper was over, almost anytime on Sunday, and always hymns, always the old favorites--made me wonder, at times, whether I was an afterthought. They sang in church too, not just up front but in the pew. Sometimes--and I was probably too much of an adolescent boy--their exhuberance seemed embarrassing because their voices, their good voices, rang out with such authority and strength, and beauty.
So I never sang much when I was kid, still don't. But Lord knows, when I was a kid, I never sang in front of them. I'm not trying to be an armchair psychologist, and the last thing I'd ever do is indict them for loving music they way they did, for loving singing, for loving each other they way they did. They were model parents. One of my novels concerns a kid who is growing up with parents who make life difficult because they seem almost too good. It can get trying to live with such exacting standards, the perfect is being sometimes the enemy of the good.
But it was my short stint in choir that got me into a quartet. Three other guys--Pete Laarman, Dan Kaat, and George Van Driest,I think--wanted to take a part in some kind of talent night at First Reformed. "Why don't you sing along with us?"--it was that kind of thing. They needed a foresome.
I didn't think I was that good, and I was scared to death to sing up there in front of church; but I consented--I liked the guys who were asking and, quite frankly, I was proud of being asked.
They were the ones who insisted I sing in a community chorus who was doing Handel's Messiah that year, or parts of it. I knew very well that my parents would be thrilled with my participation, and, like I said, I liked the guys who asked, so I did. "Come on, Jim--sing along. We're all going to do it."
At that community event, my mother sang "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," and when she did, when we were all up there in the choir loft of old First Reformed, something happened that wasn't exactly an epiphany, if an epiphany is something that brings instant enlightenment. I don't know if I still understand perfectly, but as long as I'm in the armchair, I'll give it a thought.
Here's the story. My mother sang Handel, this very famous solo, and her son, behind her in the choir loft, tried as best he could not to let anyone see his tears.
I played in the defensive line in football, swing guard on the basketball court, third base on the ball team, and, in the spring, I threw the discus far enough to go to state twice. I was 18 years old, becoming a man.
But that Sunday afternoon, in front of a whole church, I cried.
Why? Most simply, because I was proud of her, which is to say, I'm sure, I was, in part, proud of being of her. There was no doubt in my mind that when she sang that gorgeous line, there was no artifice in it. She was telling the world, through the music, what I knew she believed--to wit, that she knew her redeemer was very much alive.
Here's what I understood that afternoon in First Reformed. What was coming from her lips was coming from her heart and soul, and that kind of fidelity--that kind of true-ness--was something I'd never quite fully known before.
That day she was my mother, but she was also much, much more. And I was humbled. And proud.
And that's why, to this day, whenever I hear this magnificent solo piece, I'm brought back to a downtown church that's now gone and Mom who just yesterday left the rest of us behind, a woman who is without a doubt still singing that gorgeous piece, from the heart, from the soul.