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Mother’s music

Although I sang in the choir during my last year of high school, the experience was not a highlight of my time within those hallowed halls, in part because the young and pretty teacher – first year – had trouble controlling the masses. My only memories are of a class out of control.

But I knew my mother would enjoy my being in choir, and I probably had a credit to waste. Singing wasn’t that big of a deal to me. It certainly wasn’t my life. It was my parents’ life. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t mine.

Her greatest joy
My parents sang once a day at least, often more, my mother at the piano, her long fingers ranging over those keys as if every key had to be recognized and allotted its own good time. 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 difficult for me to understand that. The spiritual intensity with which my parents sang together – when Dad came home from work, when supper was over, almost anytime on Sunday, and always hymns, always the old favourites – made me wonder, at times, whether I was an afterthought. They sang in church too, not just in the pew but up front as well. Sometimes – and I was probably too much a dour adolescent – their exuberance 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 a kid, still don’t; and Lord knows, when I was a kid, I never sang in front of them. I’m not trying to play armchair psychologist, and the last thing I’d ever do is indict them for loving music the way they did, for loving singing, for loving each other so obviously. They were model parents. One of my novels concerns a kid who is growing up with parents who make life difficult because they seem, to him, almost too good. Living with righteousness can get trying. After all, people say the perfect is sometimes the enemy of the good.

Joining in
But it was my short stint in choir that got me into a quartet. Three other guys wanted to enter some talent night at First Reformed. “Why don’t you sing along with us?”– it was that kind of thing. They needed a foursome to play.

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, later on, that I sing in a community chorus who was presenting Handel’s Messiah that year, or parts of it. I knew very well that my parents would be shocked and thrilled in equal proportions with my participation, and, like I said, I liked the guys who asked. “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 ushers in 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.

Heart and soul truth
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, I think, 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, through the music, telling the world what I knew she believed – to wit, that her saviour and 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.

The last time I visited my mother I wheeled her down to a beach on an October afternoon whose perfection rises, in great part, from the simple fact none of us want to admit – that there won’t be many more days like this. There we sat, looking over Lake Michigan. She put down a Quarter-Pounder as if she’d eaten nothing but institutional food for too blame long.

Still singing
And when I took her back to the home, the two of us – for the first time in my life – sat there together and sang hymns. You may think I’m making this up, but I’m not. I had no idea it would be the last time I spoke to her, but it was. And as I drove off, I told myself that if it were, Mom would be pleased.

Just a few years have passed since she left, but she isn’t really gone. She comes back now and then, perches over my shoulder when I’m sitting here at the keys and arches a disapproving eyebrow.

But to this day, whenever I’m privileged to hear the triumph of “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” I hear that solo in her voice, brought back as I am to a downtown church that’s long gone and a Mom who is without a doubt still singing that gorgeous piece, from the heart, from the soul. 


  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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