Soon after our wedding last year, I discovered an unexpected blessing from having married a woman who can sing. Patrice serves as one of the cantors who leads our church congregation in singing. She has perfect pitch and a musical range that few possess. Yes, I am not at all objective about this, but her singing has been known to cause my spirit to overflow in tears. So it comes to pass on many a Saturday evening that our home is filled with the sounds of music as she practices the selected hymns for the next day’s worship service. I often sit quietly in another room and allow my soul to get a foretaste of the next day’s heavenly musical feast. She may sing for a congregation of a 1,000 on Sunday, but on Saturday nights, I am a grateful audience of one.
While Patrice sings like an angel, I sing more like a crow with tonsillitis. I can only wonder how, with such a lack of musical talent, I ever developed a love for hymns. I suspect it began when I was nine years old and growing up in Decatur, Georgia. Ever since I can remember, one constant in our home was a piano. My mother would occasionally walk into the living room, sit down and start playing favorite songs from her youth. More often than not it was a church hymn that resonated throughout our home.
Mom signed me up to take piano lessons when I was in the third grade, but at that time in the early sixties, most 9-year-old boys were more interested in Little League baseball, playing cowboys and Indians or watching Superman on TV. Playing the piano just wasn’t cool, at least not for this all American adolescent.
Watching my mother play the piano, I soon discovered she had a unique talent. She played the piano “by ear.” Despite having never had any musical training, she could play the piano without the aid of sheet music. Once she heard a tune a few times, she could play it. As a teenager in the 1940s, she served as her church’s piano player playing hymns common to a Methodist congregation — all by ear.
I have noted in other reflections how much I enjoy old church hymns, some so familiar that I can name that tune in just a few notes. And the words associated with that hymn quickly flow through my mind and occasionally spill over to my lips. I can’t explain it, but a sense of reverence usually follows. These oh-so-familiar songs and lyrics inspire such sacred feelings that godly praise cannot help but burst forth from my mouth. I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t hearing my mama play those hymns in our small two-bedroom home in the late 50’s and early 60’s that first planted seeds of appreciation in my tender heart.
Fast forward forty-five years later. It is 2004 and mom and dad have moved into our home. They lived in a downstairs apartment which I designed to be the perfect in-law suite. But after dad passed away in 2005, mom struggled with her grief. Hoping to rekindle her love of music, my brothers and I gave her an electronic keyboard for Christmas. For months, this electronic version of a piano stayed in its box. Until one night, sitting in my home office, I began to hear some familiar tunes echoing from below.
Over the next few years, until she passed away in 2009, mom would often walk into the room below my office and let her fingers dance across the keyboard. No doubt remembering the days as her church’s piano player, she played hymns like The Old Rugged Cross, Love Lifted Me, Shall We Gather at the River, or Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Many of those evenings I would be working in my office. What she didn’t know at the time, was how I would stop whatever I was doing, lean back in my chair, and soak in the impromptu concert. As the music rose from beneath my feet, I felt each note touching my heart, surrounding me with a sacred cloud of music, and taking me back to the time, when as a nine-year-old, I marveled at seeing my mama play the piano.
After she passed in 2009, my office seemed to be strangely quiet. Not two years later I lost my wife to cancer, and the only sounds I heard were those of silence echoing through the now empty home. So it may come as no surprise to learn that hearing hymns at church brought me comfort as the lyrics and melody fed my hurting soul.
Now it is 2018, and I am blessed yet again with these “private” concerts from a woman I love. Reflecting on these times, past and present, I can appreciate the legacy of great church hymns and say, in more ways than one, “When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”
“Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul.”