Look for Me Sitting on the Piano Bench

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Dear friends,

I have been AWOL here at the blog for a couple weeks. Another trip to California. Upcoming books to promote, music to play, dog to walk, bla, bla, bla. I have been working through some poems from a few years ago and would like to share this one with you today. Most of it is true. There are moments when I see myself sitting at the piano at Sacred Heart playing songs I learned in my childhood and I’m amazed. Without lessons or encouragement, I never stopped learning to play those 88 keys. I’m still learning a little more every day and grateful for the privilege.

HER CALLING

Her mother says, “Go change your clothes,”
but instead she runs to the piano.
Climbing up on the stool, feet swinging
in her Oxford shoes with lace-trimmed socks,
she picks out the notes of the hymns
the sisters sang at catechism class.
“Ave, ave, ave Maria.”
“Holy God, we praise thy name.”
Her fingers half the size of the keys,
she finds the tunes and sings along,
grinning through the gap in her teeth.
“Stop that noise,” her father says,
turning on the baseball game.

But she cannot stop. She plays anything
that makes a noise—toy xylophones
and saxophones, plastic ukuleles—
and sneaks minutes at the piano when
her dad goes out to mow the lawn
or her mother leaves for the grocery store.
From a yellowed old instruction book,
she learns to clap out time and beats,
four-four, three-four, six eight,
quarter notes, half notes, whole notes
allegretto, andante, pianissimo.
Blocked by the family photographs,
she moves them to expose the keys.

At school, she finds the practice rooms,
a bench, a piano, an unlocked door.
But still she has to sneak. She’s
never had proper lessons, isn’t
authorized to be there, but
she’s drawn to it like a lover
she meets secretly at lunch,
then runs, breathless, to her English class.
One day, outside, a young man hears.
She blushes as he claps his hands.
When they marry, he buys a Wurlitzer
spinet, all 88 keys just for her.
He never tells her to hush, not once.

She’s widowed nearly a decade now,
but her wedding band shines in the light
as her wrinkled fingers dance,
playing the notes of the “Gloria.”
Her right foot pedals, beating time.
Behind her, the congregation sings,
one man in the back especially loud
and half a beat or so behind.
Leading the choir with nods and waves,
she smiles up at Jesus on the cross,
remembers that child with tiny hands
sneaking songs so many years ago,
because The Almighty told her to.

***

Copyright Sue Fagalde Lick 2019

 

 

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Can I Get an Amen?

The priest pounded the podium as he shouted, “They did it on Sunday morning! On Sunday morning!” He pounded so hard we flinched and a few people covered their ears.

Father David, visiting while our regular priest was dealing with the death of his father, is what you might call colorful. Sitting at the piano as choir director, I had to be alert every second because the Mass would not follow the usual patterns. Oh no. But I could sympathize with his rant about Sundays because I’m constantly dealing with people who expect me to do things on Sunday mornings, not considering that I might possibly be at church. That very day I was missing an important meeting because it was Sunday. Sometimes I want to pound wood, too.

But let’s get back to Father David. He’s a missionary who lives in Warrenton, up the coast near Astoria, Oregon. He has been to Sacred Heart several times now. His Masses are always a wild ride. Father Palmer, bless his heart, has a hard act to follow.

You know it’s going to be different when you walk in and the priest kisses your hand and tells you you’re beautiful. When you tell him your name is Sue, he bursts into song: “Suzanne takes your hand to a place by the river . . .” He knows all the words. Not knowing what else to do, you sing along. When my friend Georgia arrives, he sings, “Georgia, Georgia . . .”

You know it’s going to be different when every door and cupboard in the sacristy is open, and there’s this guy who looks like one of our many homeless visitors who turns out to Father’s assistant and ends up in a white cassock serving communion. And there’s this other young guy named Travis with a tiny tuft of beard who also shows up on the altar in a white cassock and reads the announcements. You wonder what gives with these assistants, but they’re friendly and you suspect Father needs their help.

You know it’s going to be different when you walk in at five minutes before Mass time, and Father is already on the altar talking and leading a prayer. Then he goes back to the vestibule and processes in. Wait? Are we late?

You know it’s going to be different when he finishes the opening prayers and suddenly looks at you expectantly. You’re thinking: We don’t have a song here. He softly says, “The Kyrie,” which is something the priest usually leads, but he’s not going to. So you stand up at the piano, take a deep breath, and belt out “Kyrie eleison!” and hope the choir and the congregation echo you. Thank God they do. The notes vary, but it’s loud.

You know it’s going to be different when out of nowhere Fr. David shouts, “Amen!” and invites you to say Amen back. And he does it again and again until you’re all laughing and shouting and thinking: Is this really a Catholic church?

You know it’s going to be different when he gives a 10-minute sermon before the readings, when he has his assistants stand on either side of him holding candles while he reads the gospel, when he strolls down the aisle during the homily and challenges people with questions and comments, and when he points a finger at you and asks if you have been redeemed. Startled, you nod yes because what else can you do.

You know it’s going to be different when he starts speaking during the offertory song, when he tosses out a new prayer in the middle of the Preparation of Gifts and adds little asides during the Eucharistic Prayer, when during Communion he bends down to hug and talk to the little kids, and when he sips throughout the mass from a little black wine goblet. He says it’s water.

You know it’s going to be different when he scoops handfuls of water from the baptismal font and flings it with his hands at the people on the altar, the choir and you, so that drops of water are running down your face and beading up on the piano keys as he tells you to “tickle those ivories” for the closing song. He sings along. Afterward, he tells you the choir is “awesome.”

You also know that he did it differently last week and if he comes back in the future, it will be different again. All you know is that you don’t know what will happen next and that the Holy Spirit is dancing a jig because the Catholics are finally livening up.

You know you hope Father David comes back soon.

We pause between holiday church music marathons

Whoever decided to put Christmas on a Friday was not thinking about church musicians who would be thrust into a marathon that would leave them with shredded voices, weary fingers, and monotonous Christmas carols playing endlessly in their heads. Four days in a row of church music! This week we get to repeat the exercise with Masses for New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Saturday vigil and then Sunday. If this doesn’t get us into heaven, nothing will.

Unfortunately, we have a memorial service this Wednesday right in the middle of it all. Tom Taylor, a longtime choir member and wonderful human being, died suddenly last Monday of a stroke. He and his wife Sally were getting ready to head to Washington to spend Christmas with their children. She went out for a little while, came back and found him on the floor. We will miss Tom terribly, and we hurt for Sally. It’s definitely a lesson that we never know when God will call “Time!” and all the earthly stuff we put ourselves into a dither about won’t matter.

I won’t be at the service. I’m having an endoscopy, a procedure in which the doctor sends a little camera down my throat into my guts to see what’s going on in there. I’m thinking he’ll find a pile of musical notes, with the edges of all those sharp notes poking my stomach.

Meanwhile, back in California, my family saw the advantage of having a judge living in the house. On Christmas Day, my brother the judge performed a marriage ceremony for his son and his fiancée right there in the living room. Total surprise to most of the family. Congratulations, William and Courtney.

Christmas wasn’t so happy for some families living at the north end of our little town of Newport. With the ground saturated by record-setting rainfall (25 inches so far just in December), portions of two houses slid into the ravine behind them, and several others may slide off, too. The residents of the damaged and endangered homes were evacuated with no chance to grab anything or make any plans. Luckily, no one was hurt. These houses are across the street from a friend’s house. I saw them on Christmas Day. Wow. Again, you never know when everything will change in an instant.

All those Masses were exhausting. So many songs, with a varying cast of singers who may or may not have known the songs when they arrived. Sitting, standing, kneeling, singing, chanting, praying, communions, collections. Red and green clothing everywhere. Between Masses, gifts, wrapping paper, ribbons, cookies, chocolate truffles, bourbon balls, singing the same songs again and again, hearing them on the radio, on the TV, in the stores. Christmas trees, Christmas lights, elves on shelves, lines at the gift exchange counter.

Then bam, it’s over and we’re back to walking the dog in the rain and hoping the money lasts until the end of the year—which is this week! For some, the events of the last two weeks have changed their lives forever. For most of us, we’ll be trying to shake “Jingle Bells” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” until Valentine’s Day and trying to get back on our diets to lose the extra pounds we’ve gained.

One more good thing happened recently. A new book called Biting the Bullet: Essays on the Courage of Women came out on Dec. 19. It includes an essay of mine titled “Tubes.” You might want to buy a copy.

I hope your holidays have been happy and full of blessings, and that 2016 is a fantastic year for all of us. Feel free to share your holiday experiences in the comments.