Seven To-Dos to Prepare for a Special Guest

d5737d0fe761a791f9bacaf1a5bbed26In one of my devotional readings this morning, the writer asked, “What would you do if you knew Jesus would be dropping in for a visit in five minutes?” There’s not a lot anyone can do in five minutes, so I decided to think about the question a little differently. “What would I do if I knew Jesus was coming to visit me tomorrow?” The idea isn’t so far-fetched. After all, Jesus dropped in on Mary and Martha when he was traveling in their area.

I asked Mim the question after breakfast. Her first response was, “I guess I’d pick up the papers laying around the house.” Then she added, “and I’d be sure we had something to serve with coffee.” I suggested to her, “Maybe you’d bake a rhubarb coffeecake with the fresh rhubarb in the refrigerator.” She replied, “Yeah, either that or almond brownies – whichever would be quicker.”

That got me started on my own list of what I’d do today if I knew Jesus was coming for a visit tomorrow. After 45 years of living together, Mim and I think a lot alike. Our first and second items were nearly identical.

  1. Clean up the house as much as I can (with Mim’s help) in a couple hours. On the house decorating continuum from casual/cluttered to formal/minimalist, our home is pretty far on the left. While Mim is picking up papers, I’d pick up the dog toys scattered throughout the living room and the music lying all around the piano. Then Mim would vacuum the carpeting and I’d dust the tops of the furniture.
  2. Be sure we had everything needed to fix a nice dinner for Jesus. I’d probably make a quick trip to Ken’s Meat Market to get some burgundy pepper steaks to grill out on the deck, and maybe stop at MetroMarket for some fresh vegetables.
  3. Spend some time at my desk making a list of the most important things I want to talk with Jesus about – from Trump’s crazy behavior, to Hawaii’s volcano, to what’s going on with the jail ministry, to my sister-in-law’s health, to everything else on my mind… Once I completed the list, I’d probably have to prioritize it because it may be much too long to cover in one day.
  4. Spend a couple hours cleaning up my latest writing project (Talking with God Through Music) so that Jesus and I could talk about my progress and how I could improve the book.
  5. Make a list of people to invite to join Jesus, Mim, and me for this special visit. I’d want to keep the list small enough so that we could really talk together, but I think I should be willing to share this wonderful moment with a few friends and family members. This will probably be the hardest item on the list for me to do.
  6. Google “Mary and Martha.” I’d want to know everything I could about Jesus’ visits with Mary and Martha to learn from their example how to offer Jesus the best hospitality possible on earth, while at the same time taking advantage of this extraordinary opportunity for personal growth and understanding from Jesus himself.
  7. Finish all my preparations in time to sit down at the piano and play some hymns to center my mind on this amazing opportunity to spend time together with Jesus. Hopefully, Mim would join me and sing praises to God. Maybe, we’d still be singing when Jesus walked in the door, and he would join us.

I guess seven to-dos is as much as I could get done in one day of prep for a visit with Jesus.

What would be on your list?

A Tree, a 100-Year-Old Friend, and Lots of Memories

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven

Remodeled Farmhouse

Twenty-six years ago Mim and I left Chicago to move back to the family farmhouse in Wisconsin – the farm where I had grown up, also where my mom had grown up and lived almost her whole life. My brother re-modeled the farmhouse for us to make it our perfect home – doubling the square footage: adding a few rooms, tripling the number of bathrooms and adding a front porch. We also increased the size of the lawn to incorporate a couple fields, giving us about three acres of lawn to mow and a gigantic vegetable garden the size of the whole lot of our Chicago two-flat (30’x120’), where we had lived the previous 20 years.

Shortly after we moved into our newly remodeled home, I invited my mom’s brother, Uncle Helmer, and his wife, Aunt Edith, over to see what we had done to the house where he had grown up. We walked them from room to room. When we got to one of the upstairs bedrooms (the one that had been my room when I was a kid), he looked through the north window and pointed to a large oak tree beyond the pasture and just across the road (Highway PQ). Uncle Helmer said, “See that tree way over there. That was our target. Fletcher [his younger brother] and I used to open this window and shoot our rifles at that tree. I wonder if you can still see any of our bullets in the tree trunk…”

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What’s left of the old oak tree.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot over the past few days. Last week I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare to work on writing my second “Talking to God through Music” book. At the end of the week, as I was driving home past that old oak tree, I was startled to see that the tree was no longer standing, but instead there was a huge stump, about a foot and a half tall and five feet wide. Big chunks of the tree were lying beside the stump. The next day I noticed some men sawing the chunks into more manageable size pieces that they trucked away. Now the only thing left is the stump.

A few years ago Highway PQ was given an additional name, Water Street, as the village of Cambridge expanded westward. This summer the street will be closed to traffic as water and sewer pipes and underground utilities are replaced. Then a new road will be constructed on top of the upgraded infrastructure. I assume the old oak tree is a necessary sacrifice for progress in Cambridge. I can accept that, but I will miss the old oak tree. Fortunately, I still have the memory of that tree, and of my conversation with Uncle Helmer about target practice with that old oak tree.

fullsizeoutput_241cSpeaking of memories, our next-door neighbor in Chicago turned 100 this year. Ruth is still living in her two-flat. In 1924, Ruth’s parents and her aunt and uncle bought the two-flat, brand new. Her parents, 6-year-old Ruth, and her baby sister Elaine moved into the first floor apartment, and her aunt and uncle moved into the upstairs apartment. This two-flat has been home to Ruth and Elaine ever since. (Elaine passed away a few years ago.) The picture on the right is 6-year-old Ruth modeling her new ballerina dress (sewed by her mother) in their back yard.

Fifty-five years later, in 1979, Mim and I, along with our friend Marilyn who was renting an apartment in a Chicago suburb at the time, bought the two-flat next door to Ruth and Elaine. Marilyn had the first floor, and Mim and I had the second. We were neighbors of Ruth and Elaine for 13 years, until Mim and I moved back to Wisconsin in 1992. We’ve continued our friendship over the years, and we stop to visit Ruth whenever we can on our trips back to Chicago. We’ve been fortunate to call Ruth our friend for nearly 40 of her 100 years.

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Marian, Mim, and Marilyn in our backyard in Chicago, about 1980.

One of Ruth’s relatives suggested a plan to celebrate Ruth’s 100th birthday this spring. Instead of holding a huge party, she suggested a hundred days of celebration. She set up an online calendar for Ruth’s friends to schedule a private party for just Ruth and themselves, any time beginning with Ruth’s actual birthday (March 22) and continuing for the next 100 days.

Yesterday (May 22) was our day. Marilyn, Mim and I brought lunch and celebrated with Ruth in her home. We reminisced, talked about the neighborhood, laughed, looked at pictures, took new pictures, and had a wonderful lunch together.

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Marilyn, Ruth, and Mim. (My arm isn’t long enough to take a good selfie, so I didn’t get in the picture.)

Among the best things in life are opportunities for making memories, and friends to share them with. As we approach Memorial Day weekend, we will be reminded many times to express appreciation for the protection our military has provided us throughout our country’s history. That’s important. But what’s just as important, is to thank God for all the happy memories we have – from conversations with uncles about trees, to lunch with 100-year-old friends. 

I’ve decided to start thinking of “Memorial Day” as “Memories Day.” For people who are suffering with traumatic memories, may it be a day of healing. For people with memories of service to country, may it be a day of patriotic pride and thankfulness for the blessings our country provides. And may we all remember the happy moments we have experienced throughout our lifetimes. Thanks be to God!

Happy “Memories Day” Weekend!

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Ruth’s 2-Flat is on the left. Ours is on the right. When it was ours we had a tiny lawn in front with some hostas next to the brick, no trees.


The Little Books Are Here!

9b9cc55960ea3611d835b85b118f3ac4When I was a freshman in high school I went to a national convention in Washington D.C. sponsored by Youth For Christ (YFC). If I remember correctly, there were 10,000 high school kids from all over the country at this convention. The main speaker was Billy Graham. I had heard him speak before in Chicago, and I heard him speak again several times later. He was even our commencement speaker when I graduated from Wheaton College. But the one thing I remember most vividly from all the times I’ve heard Graham speak was at that YFC convention in Washington. He said that one of the most important things in his Christian life was spending time reading the Bible. Specifically, he said he read five Psalms and one Proverb every day, month after month, year after year. The Psalms helped him learn how to communicate with God, and the Proverbs helped him learn how to get along with people.

I remember I tried reading the Psalms and Proverbs every day for a few weeks after I heard him say that, but no magic lights went on. I didn’t quite understand what the Psalms and Proverbs really meant for me in my life as a high school student back in the 1960s. There are a few Psalms that I like reading, like Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. And there are a few verses that stand out, like:

Psalm 19:1 – The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.

Psalm 46:10 – Be still and know that I am God.

Psalm 51:10 – Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

But in general, I haven’t bothered reading either the Psalms or Proverbs very much in the 55 years since the day I heard Graham commend them so highly. That is, until I started working on my current writing project –  TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC, a book of reflections on some of my favorite hymns.

As I started to organize my thoughts for this project, I made a list of over 300 of my favorite hymns, and then I started to do research into the historical background of each hymn and the Biblical references within each hymn. I was quite surprised to discover how prominent the Psalms were in what I was learning. I decided to make the first section of my writing project include only hymns that are based on scriptural references from the Psalms. I selected 31 of my favorite Psalm-based hymns for this section.

My original concept for this writing project was to write a 365-day devotional, with a 2-page spread for each hymn, with the first page being factual information and my reflections on the hymn and the second page being the melody line and lyrics. The 31 Psalm-based hymns would be the hymns for January. It has since dawned on me that a 730-page book is a bigger project than I want to undertake. My current vision for this project is to include 101 of my favorite hymns, with reflections on about 10 hymns for each of about 10 different themes – like peace, joy, comfort, etc. A book that’s a little over 200 pages will be much more manageable to write, and even to hold as you read it.

fullsizeoutput_22baAs I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve decided to publish my 31 Psalm-based hymns as a separate book, a 68-page prototype of what my 101 favorite hymns book will look like. That spin-off project is now completed. If you would like a FREE copy of this little book, please send me your mailing address, and I’ll be happy to send you one. After you have had a chance to look at the prototype, I would appreciate your sending me any suggestions you may have for how to make the next book better. The last page of the book provides details on how to send feedback.

Meanwhile, an unexpected personal benefit to me of this writing project is that I think I understand a little more of what Billy Graham meant 55 years ago when he talked about the importance of reading the Psalms for learning how to communicate more deeply with God. I’ve gone back to looking at the Psalms again – both in the Bible and in hymnals. Maybe, you will find that reading TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns will provide you with a similar unexpected benefit.

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Dementia, Music, and Talking with God

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Last Thursday Mim and I took a day-trip to Lake Geneva for Rainbow Hospice Care’s 14th annual “End-of Life Conference.” The theme this year was “A Focus on Dementia.” The whole conference was excellent! This is what continuing education is like for people in our business – assisted living.

The morning keynote speaker was Teepa Snow who helped us understand the functional limitations of individuals in each of the seven stages of dementia. She taught us how we can be most helpful when we try to provide care for residents in these stages, as well as how to care for their family members. As Teepa’s speaking and actions evolved into the typical behavior of a person in each stage of dementia, a lightbulb went on in our minds. So that’s why… Now I understand… Behaviors of many past residents came to mind.

The closing keynote speaker was Jolene Brackey, the author of Creating Moments of Joy. Throughout the past 15 years that Mim and I have been doing assisted living in our home, we have given away many copies of her book. The majority of people we have cared for have had some degree of dementia, and this book provides practical examples of how to provide “moments of joy” for these individuals. We’ve made the book required reading for anyone who works with us, and we routinely give the book to the families of our residents with dementia.

fullsizeoutput_22a6Jolene Brackey didn’t disappoint us as a speaker. At the end of a long day of learning for all of us at the conference, she provided us moments of joy as she told us stories and gave us practical examples for sharing joy freely with our residents.

One of the afternoon Breakout Sessions that I found particularly interesting was “Music and Memory.” From my own experience, I’ve known that music still communicates with many people who have very advanced dementia. I used to play the piano monthly for a senior respite organization in a nearby town. One of their clients was a man in his 50s who had early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He would sit in the group all day long without saying a word. But when it came time for the sing-along, he would join in and sing enthusiastically, remembering all the words of the golden oldies and hymns I played for them.

fullsizeoutput_22a8The “Music and Memory” Breakout Session was an update on the progress of a non-profit organization called “Music & Memory.” The vision of “Music & Memory” is to provide the means for caregiving organizations to give an iPod with a personalized playlist for each person in their care. The playlist includes the favorite songs of each individual, often the popular hits of their high school years. Research has shown that people, even in the advanced stages of dementia, exhibit signs of happiness when they are listening to their favorite music.

In this session, we were asked to pair up with another session participant to learn about their favorite music – something we would need to do with a resident or their family if we were to try to create a personalized playlist. My partner was a college student, whose favorite music type is heavy metal, and whose favorite band is Metallica. In contrast, I’m nearly 70 and my favorite music type is sacred piano, and one of my favorite performers is Steve Hall. Our music vocabularies had almost no overlap. If I had to prepare a playlist of her favorites, I would really struggle. But I enjoyed talking with her and learning a little about heavy metal music. I now have a little better understanding of the incredible breadth of music that can speak to our souls.

Thinking about the power of music is something I’ve been doing for several months. As you may know from previous blog posts, I’m writing a book with the current working title of Talking with God through Music. I’ve actually been working on this book for over a year. Originally I intended it to be a daily devotional with personal reflections on 365 of my favorite hymns. I started writing the book in late 2016, and I started the project by writing reflections on hymns of thanksgiving. Then I worked on Christmas Carols. The more I wrote, and the more I organized my favorite hymns into different categories to figure out where in the year they should be placed in the book, I decided it made sense to start the book with a month’s worth of hymns based on Psalms – the hymn book of the Bible. I finished writing the Psalm section of my book the last time I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare, a few weeks ago.

Now that I’ve written 31 reflections on Psalm-based hymns, I’ve decided to publish this collection of hymns and reflections as a separate book, Talking with God through Music: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns. My plan is to use this 68-page book as a prototype for the larger book. I experimented with a lot of new things in writing this book, and I want to find out if all my extra homework is worth the effort. I did quite a bit of research into each hymn to be able to provide information about the author, the composer, and the historical context, along with my personal reasons for choosing the hymn as one of my favorites. I also learned to use music-writing software to create a melody line for each hymn so that readers can actually see the music and lyrics next to my paragraphs to help them remember what the hymn sounds like – to be able to sing it in their mind or even out loud.

I hope that readers will give me feedback on the prototype that will help me tweak the style and format for the larger book. My goal for the final book is to help readers discover how music, hymns in particular, can enrich their ability to talk with God. Music is the language of the soul. As St. Augustine said more than 1500 years ago, “Whoever sings prays twice.” And, as we were reminded last Thursday, music is an amazing means of communication for everyone, regardless of their cognitive state.

fullsizeoutput_22a7If you would like a copy of Talking with God through Music: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns, let me know. I’ll be happy to send you one. I’d really appreciate your feedback on the concept and structure of the book before I put together my next book. My goal is to submit the text of the prototype to the publisher this week, and to receive the printed copies within a week or two. I’ll write another blog post when I have the books in hand.

 

Memoir of a 70-Year-Old Super Hero


Do you ever fantasize about being a super hero like Superman, Wonder Woman, or even an old fashioned hero like Roy Rogers or Robin Hood and Maid Marian?

I just finished reading a book about a woman that I can somewhat identify with. She’s about my age. She quit her job as a counselor and social worker to begin a new adventure. She plays the piano to relax. Several years ago she moved to Honduras and began an amazing adventure. She became a super hero in my mind, although she would never make that claim herself. Here’s a blurb from the back cover of the book, EMOTIONAL WITNESS: My Seven-Year Journey as an Aid Worker into the Heart of Honduras.

51smFhUIbL._SX322_BO1204203200_In her 60s, and living in Seattle, Ellen Lippman Finn on a whim signed up for a homestay visit to learn Spanish in Honduras. What began as a two-week vacation became a journey that would transform her life.

It would be love at first sight for the former social worker and jazz musician. She fell hard  for the people living in Copan Ruinas and the surrounding mountains of western Honduras. She divested herself of her possessions in the U.S., and moved permanently to the area, where she felt at home for the first time in 50 years.

When Ellen first moved to Honduras, she focused her energy on raising funds to provide school supplies for children living in the rural villages nearby. One school she visited had no blackboard, no desks, not even any books. The teacher taught arithmetic by drawing numbers with a stick in the sand.

But the lack of school supplies was just one problem. The extreme poverty of the area meant little food and serious malnutrition. Ellen turned to her North American friends to raise funds for food and clothing as well as school supplies.

I first heard about Ellen several years ago from the daughter of one of our assisted living residents. At that time Ellen was raising money to give Christmas baskets to rural families. For $25 you could provide a family a gift basket that included toys, clothes, and food for the whole family. We still donate money for four baskets every Christmas to Buenos Vecinos (Good Neighbors), the organization Ellen created.

Each short chapter in Ellen’s book is the story of some kind of adventure she experienced while living as an aid worker in Honduras. Some of the stories are funny, like her description of learning to ride a horse – the only way to get to a particular rural mountain village. Others are sad, like the story of a father carrying his small son wrapped in a blanket to get some medical care, but by the time he arrived, the son had died. Some are scary, and many are heart-warming. All together these stories provide a complex picture of what life is like in that area of the world.

As word spread about how Ellen was able to raise funds and work with the local people on projects that would improve the living situations in many of the poor mountain villages, more and more people came to her for help. Unfortunately, the drug traffickers learned of her reputation, too, and put her name on their hit list. They didn’t want her working in their territory. Ellen escaped Honduras just in time, recuperated with a friend in the States for a few months, and then moved to Guatemala, where she is continuing her work as Buenos Vecinos in that country. Meanwhile, the particular drug traffickers who were out to kill her have been arrested and are currently in prison. That means she can make occasional trips back to Copan Ruinas to visit her friends there.

This is my 70-year-old super hero. Some of her success stories are listed as an appendix at the end of the book – with thanks to her donors.

  • Communities served: 80 in Honduras, 10 in Guatemala
  • Ongoing nutrition and health programs for many schools
  • School supplies for students in 80 communities
  • Teaching materials for more than 100 classrooms
  • Christmas baskets for more than 250 families yearly
  • Shoes for more than 2,000 kids
  • Construction projects completed: 
    • 20 schools and classrooms
    • 2 school playgrounds
    • 2 bridges so children could access the schools from their homes
    • 1 community medical clinic
    • 1 cooperative bakery
    • 11 water projects
    • 1 library serving 7 villages
    • 16 school bathrooms and wash sinks
    • 30 villages received school repairs and renovations
    • 60 schools received shelves, desks, and blackboards
    • 11 clinics received furniture

That’s just some of the items listed in the book. See why she’s my super hero!

One of the themes of the book is Ellen’s evolving perception of her role as an aid worker and her relationship with the people she is working with. There’s one long chapter near the end of the book that explores that theme in depth. Good intentions don’t necessarily result in good outcomes. Establishing boundaries can be extremely hard, especially in life and death situations. Trying to be helpful can get very complicated. Even for super heroes.

I highly recommend reading the book. Here’s a link to it on amazon.com.  I guarantee the book will make you laugh, cry, and think.

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A New Year… A New Word!

2018 is the fifth year that I’ve chosen a special word to be my focus for the new year. Unlike making up new year’s resolutions, choosing a special word can be an inspiration for the whole year, not something to measure yourself against until you fail, and then forget about. At least that’s how it’s been for me.

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Last year my special word was HOPE. I chose that word because I was worried about the future. The 2016 elections were so negative. How would our politicians ever be able to work together again for the good of the country? National and even local politics are not usually such a strong influence in my personal, everyday life, but last year was different. I was really scared about many things happening in our country. I needed to have HOPE that things could get better.

One of the first things I did to try to better understand what was going on nationally, was to read Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened. It was a fascinating book, and much to my surprise, it was the first thing to begin to restore HOPE for me. To view her perspective on what some of the opportunities are for making the world a better place for everyone to live in – all countries, all races, all religions, all socio-economic groups – was inspiring. Even though she lost the election, she didn’t give up HOPE. She realized that she needed to refocus, to figure out how else she could bring about some of the improvements our world needs. And she kept her HOPE that improvements could happen, even with the political situation as it was. Definitely an inspiring book!

2017 ended for me with another great book on HOPE, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, by Joan Chittister. This book is actually more about struggle than HOPE, because struggle is where HOPE is born. There’s a lot to think about in this book, and I’m sure I’ll read the book more than once.

I actually considered holding onto the word HOPE as my special word for another year so that I could study in greater depth the relationship between struggle and HOPE in my own life personally, as well as in the political, economic, and moral struggles our society is engaged in these days. But, then I remembered that every word I’ve had as my special word for a year stays in my mind with heightened awareness – I think forever! I still look for JOY in every day (my 2014 word). My 2015 word of GRATITUDE comes to mind every night when I go to bed and think of what things I’m especially grateful for that day. My 2016 word of KINDNESS has me thinking every morning about what opportunities I may have that day to be especially kind to someone. There’s every reason to believe that I’ll continue to think about the relationships between the struggles I’m facing and how they will strengthen the HOPE I want to see grow. I’ve decided to choose a new word for 2018. I may come back to HOPE, or any of my other special words some year, but not yet.

A special word that’s been creeping into my thoughts that last few weeks is PEACE. Not so much “peace” in the Middle East, or with North Korea, or Russia, (although that would be great), but “PEACE” – the word that I used as a closing on my Christmas Cards. The PEACE that is the calmness that I feel when I sense that God really is in control of everything. The PEACE that St. Paul wrote about to the Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV]

I guess these verses really encompass all the special words I’ve been focusing on over these 5 years. Maybe I need to spend some time thinking about my “special word vocabulary” as it continues to grow.

May God’s PEACE be with you. Happy New Year!

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Winter sunset at Christmas Mountain

Playing with My Circle of Pianos

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Big Red – my first piano

I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had a piano as one of my best friends. I was born into a household that had a big old upright piano living in it. Big Red. I remember trying to read its name scrolled in Old English typeface – Bush & Gerts, Chicago – but Big Red is a better name. My mom taught me a couple little melodies to play on some of the white keys near the middle of the keyboard – “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and something about “Birdies in Treetops” so that I could do more than just pound on the keys. When my big sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started to give actual piano lessons to my brother Danny (2 years older than me), I demanded my rights to the same advantage. He was 6, I was 4 when we started. Danny gave up on developing a friendship with Big Red within a year or two. Once he learned “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” all on the black keys, he thought he knew enough to quit lessons. I kept on until I graduated from high school, although I had to move on to different teachers when Nancy moved away to college.

Throughout my school years, as soon as I got home from school, I’d check the mail lying on the dining room table where my dad had left it (my mom was at work in Madison), run upstairs to change my clothes, and then go straight to the piano to practice. I’d play each song of my lesson 5 times, and then I’d play with Big Red just for fun. Sometimes we’d try to figure out new tunes that I mostly remembered in my head from when I’d heard them on the radio. Sometimes we learned new songs from “Singspiration Gospel Songbooks” that my mom picked up from religious bookstores whenever a new songbook was published.

That’s when Big Red and I really became close friends, spending time playing together after school. Big Red was able to figure out immediately whether I was having a good day or a bad day as soon as I sat down on the old piano stool. If I was feeling sad, Big Red knew just what songs to remind me to play to feel better.

Big Red and I drifted apart a little when I was about 10 and an electronic organ moved into our household and tried to distract me from my piano friend. I developed a close friendship with the organ, too, but never as close as my relationship with Big Red.

The next piano in my close circle of piano friends was Lonnie Lyon & Healy. I’d been living in Chicago with my new best friend Mim for about a year, but I knew that something was missing in my life. I needed a piano friend. The big music store in Chicago at the time was Lyon & Healy, and I heard from another friend that they didn’t just manufacture and sell pianos, they leased them for a mere $15 a month. One phone call and a week later, Lonnie Lyon & Healy moved into our apartment. She was a little spinet with a squeaky sustain pedal, but she quickly became a good friend. We settled into a routine of me getting ready for work about half an hour early, so we could spend some time playing together before I took the “L” downtown to my job.

After a couple years of playing together with Lonnie, she confided in me that she was getting tired and wanted to move back to the store for awhile. I said OK, and went looking for a new piano friend.

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Sally Sohmer – the first piano I bought

That’s when I met Sally Sohmer in the Lyon & Healy store at Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago. She was a little bigger than Lonnie, but not as big as Big Red. The store called her a console. I thought of her as a short studio piano. I really liked the touch of her keys when I tried her out. I also tried out several of her cousins in the store, but it was an easy decision. I liked her the best, and she was going to come home with me. I knew we were destined to become really good friends. As Sally and I got to know each other better, we experimented with different kinds of music, especially the easier works of classical composers. We had so much fun with Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” We also began to explore more creative arrangements of hymns, like I had begun to find with Big Red when I was in high school. We also built up a bigger than necessary library of Christmas music.

il_570xN.717033260_mgycSally Sohmer moved to Wisconsin with Mim and me in 1992 when me moved back to the farmhouse where I had grown up, and that’s where we had some of the most fun of our lives. We discovered golden oldies. My mom used to buy popular sheet music before she was married (in the late 1920s and early 1930s), and her collection was still in the store room upstairs at the farmhouse. Mim joined our playtimes for this. She sang some of the most hilarious lyrics we’ve ever heard. “Pink Elephants” became one of our favorites.

A couple years after we moved to Wisconsin, Mim invited Jim Forrest to join our circle of people and piano friends. Mim had met Jim as a patient at the clinic where she worked, and she learned that he was a piano tuner and technician. Jim became our piano tuner – both for Big Red who still lived in the farmhouse and for Sally Sohmer.

After a few years of seeing Jim at least twice a year, sometimes more often, when he happened to be in Cambridge to tune someone else’s piano and we met for lunch, we learned that Jim’s real passion was being a matchmaker between people and pianos. That came up one day just after he had tuned Sally Sohmer. He said, “Marian, I have just the piano for you. It would fit perfectly in this end of your living room. It’s a Baldwin baby grand. It’s a beautiful 5’ grand that I’m rebuilding in my workshop right now. I’m almost finished with it, and I’ll sell it to you for a really good price. You and this piano need to be together.”

Maxine-Marian at piano

Playing with Betty Baldwin while an assisted living resident watches

I responded with, “I already have a really nice piano. Two of them, actually. Why would I want another piano?”

Jim replied, “Ah, but neither of them is a grand. Have you ever played a grand piano?”

“No, I haven’t. But I’m very happy with the pianos I have right now.”

“Why don’t you just come to my workshop in Madison and play the Baldwin, so you can hear and feel the difference between a grand and an upright.”

Mim joined the conversation at that point, and said, “Let’s just go and try it. It will be fun to try it out, and then we’ll know if there’s a big difference, or not.” A few days later we did. I couldn’t believe the difference in touch and sound, especially hearing the high notes just ring out. I may be fickle, but I fell in love with Betty Baldwin on the spot. I sold Sally Sohmer to my brother Danny (not for him to play, but for his daughter Emily to learn on), and Jim found a new home for Big Red at a Victorian style bed and breakfast in Stoughton, where she would fit right in. (At least we could still visit my two old friends.)

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Stella Steinway

A few years later, matchmaker Jim told me that he had just the right piano for me. He was rebuilding a Steinway, the next size up from Betty Baldwin, about 5-1/2 feet. We repeated nearly the same conversation we’d had before, and I went to his workshop to try out the Steinway, just so I could hear and feel the difference between a Steinway and a Baldwin. I fell in love again, and sold my Baldwin to Danny who ended up with two pianos, with his greatest personal musical accomplishment still being “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” on the black keys.

Stella Steinway has been my best friend (except for Mim, and maybe a handful of other people) for ten years now, and I’m pretty sure our relationship will last for the rest of my lifetime. Then Stella will need to find another friend. I’m helping Jim match up pianos with other friends of mine – hopefully, no more for me. Stanley Steinway, Stella’s bigger brother, went to the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge. I still play with him about once a month, or so.

The only other piano I play with any regularity is Stephanie Steinert, the piano at my church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. Stephanie Steinert is a cousin of Stella Steinway, and they’re almost identical. Stephanie’s designer had worked closely with the Steinway Company over the years, and the style and quality of Steinert pianos rivals that of Steinways.

So, why am I reminiscing about all my piano friends today? Last week Stella and I had so much fun playing together that I just laughed and laughed and laughed. Last weekend our church celebrated All Saints Day, and I wanted to pick out some fun but appropriate music for the Saturday evening service I was scheduled to play. Saturday night services are a little more casual than Sunday morning services, and I usually play the prelude, the opening hymn, and communion hymn on the organ, and I play the offertory, closing hymn, and postlude on the piano.

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Messiah’s Steinert piano and tracker organ

I worked with my digital piano, Claire Clavinova (pretending to be an organ), first to find an appropriate prelude to play on the organ.  We came up with an energetic arrangement of For All the Saints and a fun variation of Shall We Gather at the River. The two pieces fit together nicely and timed out at 5 minutes 30 seconds, just about the right length.

So I was ready to move on to my friend Stella Steinway to play around with all the music we could think up related to All Saints Day for the offertory and postlude. I thought about old gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder” and “When We All Get to Heaven” but I didn’t have any fancy arrangements of either song. Then I turned to my James Koerts 3-ring binder of spirituals I’ve down-loaded from the Internet. Stella and I just played and played and laughed. We finally narrowed down our offertory and postlude choices to just a few, and played them for Mim and Carolyn (one of our 96-year-old residents) so that they could help us decide. Carolyn chose a very jazzy “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for the offertory, and Mim chose an equally jazzy “When the Saints Go Marching In” for the postlude. By the time we finished making our selections, all the spirits in our household were having a great time. It’s amazing what music can do for the soul. And my friend Stella Steinway never lets me forget that.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

[Psalm 150 – New King James Version]