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Though I’m a grandmother now, I can slide without warning through Alice’s looking glass, where I catch glimpses of the girl I used to be. When the near forgotten scents of a spring night in May sneak up behind me, when – well, it happened again on Sunday morning, about the time my large congregation of city Methodists hit the chorus of that old gospel hymn, “In the Garden.”
From about the eighth grade through the 12th, I was the pianist at the New Columbus Methodist Church. Don’t be impressed. I landed the unpaid job by default. The prior pianists had died or moved away, and although my skill at the keyboard was shaky, no one else in our tiny rural church could tickle the ivories at all.
But thanks to Mother’s persistence, I could play, sort of. When I was in the third grade, she signed me up for piano lessons with Mrs. Settle over in Owenton.
Though I demonstrated no talent whatsoever, Mrs. Settle was a teacher with stoic resolve, and Mother continued to ferry me 30 miles round trip to piano lessons for the next nine years.
When the piano bench went vacant, Mother felt vindicated. “See,” she said. “Now you can play hymns for church.” It was never clear to me why I would want to do this, but the church was desperate, and pleasing both God and Mother seemed like the right thing to do.
On some level I did not completely understand, I knew that I was pinch-hitting for Mother. She was so tone-deaf that Cousin May once asked her to stop singing in the church pew because she was getting everyone around her off key.
Like a good Christian should, Mother turned the other cheek, never doing more than humming under her breath in the song service again. It is written, however, that the meek shall inherit the earth. My ascension to the Methodist’s piano bench was an advance on Mother’s inheritance.
We had no choir, and in my memory, the experienced song leaders kept politely resigning after going a Sunday or two with me at the keyboard.
First Mr. Bell bowed out, then Cousin May, then someone whose name I’ve forgotten. Finally, X was drafted into service. Married to a godly woman, he had recently found religion and been saved from a life of drink. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea for X to have a leadership position in the church to help keep him from backsliding?” someone asked, and then everyone wondered why they hadn’t thought of him before.
Thus, an unlikely worship team was anointed, both of us novices, he an aging, bald-headed tobacco farmer, I a stick of a girl. X could not read music – my only advantage – and he strained when he reached for the high notes. But he sang on key with a pleasing voice within his range, and he brought the fervor of the newly converted to his job. What X and I lacked in musical finesse, we made up for in volume. With only 40 people in attendance on a good day, we felt compelled to compensate for the empty pews, and fill the big, old church with joyful noise. X sang as loud as he could, and I banged the keys with gusto sort of like I’d heard Jerry Lee Lewis do on the radio in a style I thought cleverly merged “Great Balls of Fire” with the Methodist Hymnal.
The problem was I often hit the wrong notes. Dissonant clinkers. When I did, X would keep right on going, singing louder to cover me, never letting on that he noticed I’d blundered. Only when I played “In the Garden” did I relinquish my rock’n’roll act. I could play that hymn tenderly – perfectly – and the lower range of the melody was ideal for X’s voice. Oh, I wish you could have heard us.
By the time we got hold of “In the Garden” it was already famous, of course. Billy Sunday’s tent revivals had made it popular in the early 1900s. By mid-century it had become a secular favorite, recorded by artists as diverse as Roy Rogers, Perry Como and Elvis Presley. It even made it into several movie scores. But I’d put our rendition up there with the best of them.
We fell into a pattern. If I were having an especially difficult morning at the keyboard, he’d announce, without missing a beat, that our next number would be “In the Garden.”
“I come to the garden alone/While the dew is still on the roses…”
I’d breathe a little easier, and we’d move right along as though I had not recently murdered all the onward Christian soldiers.
“And the voice I hear falling on my ear …”
He’d sing in his melodious tone, and my hands would stop shaking.
“… the joy we share as we tarry there …”
By the end of the first refrain, I would suddenly realize I was enjoying making music. I’d glance at X, and he’d be smiling at me with that wide grin of his.
The refrain came round again.
“And He walks with me, and He talks with me/And He tells me I am His own…”
Remarkably, when the morning service was over, X never failed to compliment my less than stellar performance and thank me for helping him.
In time, I went off to college, and with a sigh of relief, I stopped playing the piano. When his wife passed away, X left his farm for a town somewhere, and I never saw him again. I heard a rumor he returned to drinking before he died, but if so, that’s not for me to question. I am left to remember those long ago Sundays I shared with him when I first began to grasp the meaning of grace.