Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What she knew and what she knows

I sang in the choir during my last year in high school.  It was not a highlight, as I remember, the young, pretty teacher having real trouble keeping control of the masses. But I knew my mother would enjoy my being in choir, and I probably had a credit to waste or something. Singing wasn't my life.  It was my parents' life.

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 cried. 

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.


Dutchoven said...

...When I stand in glory I will see His face
And there I'll serve my King forever in that holy place..."*

May you find peace and assurance today Jim, along with your family, with the warm embrace of your Mother's...and our Redeemer.

*(Keith Green - There Is A Redeemer Lyrics)

Jennifer @ said...

Just beautiful, Jim. Thank you for sharing this lovely reflection. You and your family are in my prayers and have my sympathy.

Creede Community Church said...

Jim, That sounds just like my Mom and Dad. Singing every day. They too are singing together, but I can only hear them in my memories. They are good memories. Our prayers are with you and Barb in the coming days and weeks as you also adjust to singing memories.

Jim and Jenny

jfschuu said...

Beautiful Jim. Your piece floats like music.
Janet and I send our ondolencences.

Sarah Schaap Troxell said...

Jim, what a wonderful story about "Auntie Jean" as I always called her. She had a lovely voice and sang from her heart. She also played my ukulele and sang "Anybody Seen My Kitty?" to us and our little daughter Laura in about 1984 or so. Laura remembers her, too, as Auntie Jean. My prayers are with you all as you remember your dear mother and know she is now with the Lord and Uncle Cal, too.

Sarah Schaap Troxell

Laura Boggess said...

And you just made me cry in this telling. I came over at the suggestion of Jennifer Lee. I'm so glad I did.

cortru said...

Dear Jim & Barb. We're thinking of you today as you celebrate your mother's life and say your final goodbyes on this side of that great river. May you rest in the peace and comfort of our Redeemer's arms.

Janine said...

Thank you, Jim. Now I'm crying... because of the beautiful way your mother touched you (and many others, I'm sure) that day, and the beautiful way you share the story. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thinking of you and Barb today. Thanks for sharing that beautiful piece. I am envisioning your mother singing beautiful music in heaven for her Lord, right now.
Phyllis Van Gelder

Anonymous said...

I read this the day you refered to it on your Facebook account. I read it again today. A really fine piece, Jim. It reads like it was easy to write, and that's usually where the best stories come from. DS