I was called upon to play the piano at church recently in the absence of both our regular pianist and our organist. Actually, I volunteered after being asked to kick off the hymn. While my piano skills need a little sharpening, I prefer to inflict the occasional missed note on the congregation rather than my dubious singing voice.
There was a time when I tickled the ivories regularly, both for my own enjoyment and for an organization I was active in. But over the years my body has betrayed me and problems with my arms, hands and shoulders made that creative endeavor difficult.
When the pain and numbness from those physical ailments began to interfere with my everyday life, I had surgeries to relieve the trapped nerves. While the symptoms disappeared with each operation, I still have arthritis in my hands, with one thumb particularly affected.
It was only my deep desire to protect my church family from having to attempt to follow my singing that put me on that piano bench. But halfway through the first song, I realized it was going to be all right. I actually was playing pretty well despite a severe lack of practice.
That got me to thinking on the ride home
about my early days of plunking the keys. My grandmother lived with us and she believed that in order to be ladies, we girls need piano lessons. Not only did it add a little much-needed culture to our lives but she believed the skill would help us fit into polite society.
She often told me, as I complained about having to practice, that if one could play the piano, she was welcomed anywhere.
Okay, Grandma was from a different era. Among the skills of Baby Boomers these days, the ability to use social media and pump one’s own gas rank higher than being able to play more than “Chopsticks.” Lots of people ask me if I’m on Facebook; I am rarely asked about my musical abilities.
While some of my piano-studying peers may have gone on to play Chopin etudes, I took a different path by pretty much sticking to the hymnal. Part of that was because my grandmother had a number of favorite hymns and it made her happy when I would play for them. And since I liked to see my grandmother happy, I did.
But another part, I think, is that I’ve always been a word person. And unlike high-faluting musical compositions, hymns have words. While Grandma liked to hear the hymns, I liked to sing them.
And still do. Over the years, I’ve managed to assemble a nice little collection of hymnals, many from secondhand and thrift stores. I have them from numerous denominations, from Christian Science to Mennonite, and a few non-denominational ones as well.
Sitting at the piano that Sunday morning and launching into one of the old familiar hymns, I could almost feel my grandmother’s presence. I wondered as the congregation began the chorus what would happen if I looked over my shoulder.
Would I see her there, smiling and tapping her foot, encouraging me as I played?
Probably not. I’ve never seen a ghost in church. But I can imagine her sitting in the shade of a big maple tree outside her heavenly mansion, her head nodding as she comments to whoever’s beside her, “That’s my granddaughter.”
And adding with a tsk, “She used to be a little better than that. You see what happens when I’m not there to make her practice?”
CATHIE SHAFFER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org