Tag Archive | Aunt Edith

My Musical Destiny

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Seventeen years ago, Mim and I created a new business called Korth-Jacobson, LLC. Within that business structure we have done lots of different things – from being a bed and breakfast to selling real estate; from doing strategic planning and project management for small businesses to providing music in churches and a pub and other venues; from hosting spiritual retreats to caring for the elderly in our home. All of these businesses have been based out of our home. For the past 12 years, one of our businesses has been Country Comforts Assisted Living. We currently care for two 94-year-olds in our home, and we also coordinate the care of a third almost 94-year-old who lives with a neighbor.

By the very nature of this caregiving business, we are working 24/7. Whenever we are at home, we are responsible for being sure the needs of our residents are met. Whenever we are not at home, we need to be sure another caregiver is present to meet these needs. We have finally realized that to meet our own need for a break, we must take some time off, and that means we need to be away from our work environment – away from home. Lately we’ve established the schedule of taking Tuesdays and Thursdays off from about 1:00 or 1:30 pm till about 8:00 pm. Our most usual destinations on these days are Woodmans, Costco, and occasionally Trader Joe’s for groceries; Menards for hardware items; Farm & Fleet for dog treats and toys and for clothes when they go on sale (really!); and resale shops for books, clothes, gifts, and other bargains we “need.” Occasionally we’ll go to a movie if we don’t have any shopping that needs to be done.

A couple weeks ago we redeemed a gift certificate from a good friend and went to see the matinee performance at the Fireside Theater of “All Shook Up.”  We had a wonderful time listening to all those Elvis songs from the 50s and 60s, and laughing about the inter-racial mix-ups and mistaken sexual identity antics. Hearing those Elvis songs from our grade school and high school years brought back one of my childhood memories.

Lowery Organ 2

Lowery electronic organ, state of the art using vacuum tube technology in 1957.

My sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started giving me piano lessons before I started school. I’ve  enjoyed playing the piano ever since. When I was nine, my mom bought a Lowery electronic organ. She had grown up playing a reed pump organ, and she missed playing an organ. A piano wasn’t as much fun for her, although she played it some. When the new electronic organ was delivered to our house I was as excited as I could be. I got to take the ten free lessons that came with the organ from Ward Brodt in Madison, and then I continued taking lessons from our church organist – both piano and organ. But from my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt I learned that any kind of music can be played on an organ – not just hymns. I had to walk through the print music department at the store to get to the lesson rooms, and I always browsed the music on my way out of the store. Most of my allowance was spent on music books with titles like “The Best Hits of 1962 for Easy Organ.” I acquired quite a collection and learned to play songs as varied as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

One Thursday morning when I was about 10 or 11, (I know it was Thursday because that was my mom’s day off) Eleanor Jarlsberg, one of my mom’s friends from church, came over for morning coffee. Mom and Eleanor were sitting at the dining room table drinking their coffee, and I was in the living room playing the organ just for fun, not practicing. I was going through my latest “Greatest Hits…” book. I was playing mostly the slower and quieter songs so that I wouldn’t disturb their conversation in the next room. When I finished playing the Elvis’ hit “Love Me Tender,” Eleanor asked me what hymn that was – she really liked it. When I told her it was an Elvis Presley song – not a hymn, she laughed and laughed, and I felt kind of embarrassed.

That’s when I began to put two and two together to understand that my destiny was to be a gospel pianist/organist, regardless of the type of music I tried to play. I’m not the gospel pianist that my Aunt Edith was who added all kinds of embellishments all over the keyboard. I’m not very good at that. I’m the kind of gospel music player that can play very expressively by varying volume and where on the keyboard I’m playing – high or low – and by sometimes holding a note a little too long to build the tension. I do simple stuff to draw the listener into the emotional message of the song.

Over the years as I learned more classical music on the piano and more traditional hymns and hymn arrangements on the organ, I tried to become more classical in my style of playing. But that was never as much fun for me. But then I noticed that Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” can easily morph into “Jesus Loves Me.” And that “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” can weave itself into Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”

Beer Barrel Polka sheet musicOne morning last week I had a musical breakthrough. A few years ago, a friend of mine was planning her funeral, and she asked me if I would be willing to play for it. Of course, I said sure. Then she said she wanted the funeral to be a joyous time of celebration. One of the songs she wanted me to play was “The Beer Barrel Polka.” I happen to know the song because that’s one of the songs my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt taught me. But, I’ve felt uncomfortable with that song for a funeral ever since she made the request. My friend died last week. As I was mulling over whether nor not I should play the song, it suddenly dawned on me – if I can morph “Clair de Lune” into “Jesus Loves Me” I certainly can morph “The Beer Barrel Polka” into “Jesus Loves Me.” So I did.

Yup. That’s my destiny. Regardless of what type of music I try to play, gospel is what’s going to come out. God made me that way, and I’ve finally come to whole-heartedly accept it.

Thanks, Nancy, for helping me learn that lesson.

Nancy Koplin cropped

Nancy Koplin, a good friend who helped me find “Jesus Loves Me” in “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

Funerals and the Misfit Organist

That’s me. The misfit funeral organist. I’m not sure which order the words should be in. They’re all nouns linked together to convey one image – me as an organist who likes to play for funerals, even though I shouldn’t. I’m a misfit. I should avoid funerals, at all cost, just like my mom did.

Mom-Dad on stump

Mom & Dad never agreed on funerals.

In all my growing up years, I attended only two funerals – my Grandma’s when I was in high school, and my Uncle Art’s when I was in college. For all the other family friends and relatives that died during those years, my dad went to the funerals, my mom didn’t. She hated funerals. I think the main reason for this was that she always cried – even if the deceased wasn’t someone close to her, and that embarrassed her.

I can remember overhearing a conversation between my mom and dad about going to someone’s funeral. My dad thought they both should go to it. My mom was adamant that she was not going to go. My dad said, “When you die, probably no one will show up for your funeral.” My mom replied, “I don’t care. I won’t be there either.” So, my dad went to all the funerals by himself. Hence, I didn’t grow up going to many funerals.

Gary Kenseth grave stoneThe first funeral I was asked to be the organist for was my cousin Gary’s. That was in 1996, almost 20 years ago. I was pretty nervous. I had very little experience as an observer of what organists played for funerals. Furthermore, I was afraid that I would cry so hard I wouldn’t be able to see the music. I even asked my doctor for some pills to keep me calm. I took one of the pills the day before the funeral to test its effect on me, and I decided the pill relaxed me too much. I concluded that if I took a pill before the funeral I’d probably play lots of wrong notes and I’d play them very slowly.

Instead, my Aunt Edith (Gary’s mother and the gospel pianist and organist I’ve written about before on this blog) helped me by giving me a long list of music to play as pre-service music. That got my attention focused on the music. She had listed lots of old hymns and gospel songs. For the recessional, she wanted me to play a spiritual that Gary had really enjoyed singing when he was still in school, “Do Lord.”

I learned a lot about the role of music in funerals from this first experience as a funeral organist. Pre-service music does more than just cover up the silence (or the conversation) while people wait for the service to begin. The music can bring back memories. It can draw attention to how much God loves us. It can comfort us. The hymns we sing together as a congregation remind us that we are a family, sharing the loss of someone we love, but sharing our memories and our hopes, as well. The special music often sung or played by family members or close friends is a gift for everyone present, a glimpse into the music the loved one liked best. The recessional moves us on with life, knowing that God is still with us and will never leave us.

Marian at Messiah organ 4Over the next several years, I put that lesson to good use. I became the organist of a small, aging congregation in Cambridge, and played for many funerals every year – once even three funerals in one week. My mom would have never understood how I could play for all those funerals. I’ll admit that sometimes I get a little teary, but a quick wipe with a Kleenex clears up my eyes enough to see the music.

I’ve learned to really enjoy playing for funerals. Music can be an incredible comfort to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. I feel privileged to help provide that sense of peacefulness.

So why am I a “misfit funeral organist”? And why am I writing about it now?

This week I’m having second thoughts about everything I’ve learned about playing for funerals. I’ve been asked to play for a funeral for someone I don’t know, in a nursing home chapel where I’ve never even seen the organ. I’ll have to accompany both a concert violinist and a vocalist who teaches music at a college in Minnesota. I guess I feel a bit intimidated.

I wish Aunt Edith were here right now to make up the list of what to play for pre-service music.  I spent all afternoon on Sunday thinking about that, paging through books and books of classical music as well as hymnals. I even asked the pastor if I was a misfit for this funeral. He said I wasn’t, but I think he might have said that because he didn’t want to find another organist.

Well, I’ve finally come around to my last resort – where I should have started. I’m praying for God’s help in selecting and preparing the music. And I’m beginning to remember what I’ve learned about the role of music in funerals – comfort. Now I’m focused again on the gift of music God has given us.

Music is the language of the spirit.
It opens the secret of life
bringing peace, abolishing strife.
     [Khalil Gibran]

 

 

 

Remembering the Saints – the most significant people in my life who are now dead

Lots of my relatives - the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture - in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

Lots of my relatives – the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture – in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

 

Thursday of this week is Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day. On Sunday, some churches will read a list of members of the congregation who have died over the past year. This is a time of year to remember the people who are no longer with us who have been significant to us in our own lives, and to thank God for these people.

As I was curled up under the covers in bed this morning thinking about what to blog about today, making a list of these people came to mind – not just the people who died this year, but all the people who have died who have been significant to me. I started making a mental list of them, and I realized I’d better get up and write them down – the names were coming to me too fast to remember and organize in my mind. So I got up and quickly jotted down the names as they came to me, and I realized I’d better limit the number of people to include in the blog. So I crossed off a few names and settled on 13 people for this blog (a good number for Halloween), plus one bonus. I’m still going to thank God for all the rest, too, even if I don’t tell you about them today.

Here’s the list – 13 people who have been very significant to me in my life, and who have moved on to their next life:

  1. Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom. I think the most significant thing I learned from my mom is about love. I always knew she loved me, as well as my siblings, her grandchildren, her Sunday School kids, the UW students who stopped in to see her at the Presbyterian Student Center in Madison where she worked, the starving kids in Africa that she read about in her mail and sent checks to every month, and everyone else who touched her life – she loved us all.

  2. Dad. My dad taught me about work. As a farmer, he knew that he was responsible for getting all the work done. If the hay baler broke, that didn’t mean he didn’t have to bale hay that day. It meant he had to figure out how to fix the baler as quickly as possible so that he could still bale the hay and get everything else done he had planned for that day. His attitude taught me to be a problem solver as well as a hard worker.
  3. Nancy. My big sister (11 years older than me) taught me to set aside some time every day to read the Bible and pray. When she went away to college, she ordered me a subscription to a children’s daily devotional booklet to help me keep on track.
  4. Helen Knoblauch. My first grade teacher was a very kind and loving person. Everyone in her class knew that she loved them. One way she showed that love was by being the kindest of all to the kid that was hurting the most that day. I remember one day when I was that kid. A leaf had blown into my eye and scratched it when I was playing on the playground after lunch. My eye really hurt and I was crying. Mrs. Knoblauch had me sit on her lap while she read a storybook to the class. That made me feel a whole lot better – so much better that I still remember it almost 60 years later.
  5. Marion Gilberts. She was our church organist and my piano and organ teacher. In addition to using the typical lesson books, she had me learn every hymn in both of the hymnals we used in church. She also gave me the experience of playing in church by having me play an offertory at least once a year. She didn’t just teach me the piano and organ, she taught me to be a church organist.
  6. Aunt Edith at the piano. (In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

    Aunt Edith at the piano.

    Aunt Edith. She was the most creative pianist I ever watched tickle the ivories. She was a self-taught gospel pianist who could play any hymn she had ever heard, in any key you wanted to hear it. The only printed music I saw her use was a hymnal or songbook, yet she improvised all over the keyboard. She is still my inspiration to learn to play more by ear and to improvise.

  7. Rev. Royal Bailie. He was the pastor that confirmed me in the Methodist Church. As a confirmation gift he gave me a different kind of Bible, the J. B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament. That’s the only Bible that I completely wore out the binding by opening it too much.
  8. Auntie Emma. Also known as Emma Prescott. She was my grandma’s sister. I always thought of her as the most generous Christian I knew. She and her husband, Uncle Don, supported many children through World Vision and other missions. She once made a comment that I’ll never forget. She said she was glad she didn’t have as much money as one of her daughters had. Stewardship of that amount of money was more than she could imagine handling wisely. That comment has always made me think seriously about my stewardship of all the resources God has given me.
  9. Rev. Bill Leslie. He was the pastor of one of the churches I attended in Chicago for several years. I didn’t know him very well personally, but I learned a lot from his preaching. He prompted me to think for the first time about what my responsibility as a Christian is for dealing with the problems in the city, particularly the problems that resulted from the injustices that are inherent in our culture.
  10. Mark Hjermstad. Mark was a loving pragmatist, and that’s not an oxymoron. He taught me to relate to the world the best way you can. He was a closeted gay pre-kindergarten teacher for special needs children in the Chicago Public School System. We met Mark in church, shortly before his partner died of AIDS. He became one of our best friends. He always encouraged his gay friends to be as open as they could about who they were – although he couldn’t be out as a gay teacher and still keep his own job.
  11. Mary Borgerud. Mrs. Borgerud was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. She taught me history, geography, kindness, and generosity. She also taught me to have fun with writing. I still remember one of the essays I wrote in her class – “I’m a Little Mouse with Great Big Eyes.” We also laughed a lot together, especially when she came to live with Mim and me at Country Comforts Assisted Living for the last year or so of her life.
  12. Eileen Scott. Thanks to Eileen I’m a church organist again. Between 1975 and 1999 I didn’t play the piano or organ for anyone except myself at home. In 1999, Eileen learned that the Methodist pastor in town discouraged me from playing for a Christmas program in his church because of my sexual orientation. As a very strong take-charge person, Eileen approached me about becoming an organist in her church, the Presbyterian Church in town. Being a church organist has been a significant part of my life ever since.
  13. Selma Jacobson. I guess now I can say Selma is my mother-in-law. Shortly after Mim and I moved to Wisconsin, Mim’s mom had a stroke which left her paralyzed on her left side. After several months of rehab, she came to live with Mim and me. Despite all her physical losses, she always maintained a positive attitude and a very pleasant disposition. She lived with us for the last five years of her life, and was a daily inspiration to me to accept life for what it is, and to always trust in God’s love and kindness.

And now, for one bonus saint – Megabyte. She was the first dog that Mim and I got together, and she enriched our lives for 15 years. The one thing that dogs know better than anything, and better than anyone else knows, is how to love.

Many names are missing from this list – Grandma, Uncle Helmer, Gary, Clark, Steve, Nicki, Hiram, Joe, Donnie, and more. If I kept naming them I wouldn’t get this blog posted today. There’s also an equally long list of people who are still alive that I’m thankful for. God has truly blessed me with loads of wonderful people – and dogs – in my life. I am so thankful. I guess it’s appropriate that Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day, starts off the holiday season. Then comes Thanksgiving, and then Christmas. All three holidays are times to be especially thankful for all the good gifts God has given us.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Make My Day!

Gladys on right, with her sister Alice

Gladys on right, with her sister Alice

A few weeks ago I received a phone call from Gladys, one of my ninety-plus-year-old friends in Chicago. I had sent her a letter to tell her about the two books I’ve written, and she was calling to talk about them, as well as to bring Mim and me up to date with some changes in her life.

About 25 years ago, when Mim and I became members of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Chicago, Gladys was one of the first friends we made in the church. Gladys and her sister Alice, along with their husbands, were all very active members of the “Friendship Club” at Resurrection. Although the Friendship Club was essentially a seniors club at the church, the members of the Friendship Club were very friendly and welcoming to anyone who came to church.

Over the years, our friendship with Gladys has remained close through phone calls, letters, and occasional face-to-face visits in Chicago. The Friendship Club even took several trips to Wisconsin to visit with Mim and me.

A few years ago Gladys’ sister passed away. Their husbands had passed away several years before that. Now, Gladys is the only one left of the foursome. She still lives in her own home, but is unsure how much longer she can do that, primarily because she is nearly blind with macular degeneration. Despite the changes in her life over the past several years, Gladys maintains a very pleasant disposition. I’m inspired whenever I talk with her.

The Friendship Club visiting with us on our front porch during one of their annual day trips to Wisconsin for "Lunch with Mim and Marian."

The Friendship Club visiting with us on our front porch during one of their annual day trips to Wisconsin for “Lunch with Mim and Marian.” Alice and Gladys are 3rd and 4th from left.

As Gladys and I were talking on the phone a few weeks ago, she asked if I had given any consideration to having my books produced as “books on tape” for the blind. I was sorry to admit that I hadn’t even thought of that. But now I’ve been thinking about alternative ways of making books accessible to people with impaired vision. I started by checking out the “Text-to-Speech” option on my Kindle. I was surprised how well it worked. However, at least on my Kindle, it’s necessary to see the device well enough to control the starting and stopping of the reading. I’m not sure that giving a Kindle to Gladys is the best solution.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered a boss I had in the 1980s when I worked for Northwest Industries in Chicago. Allan volunteered as a reader at the Lighthouse for the Blind. Sometimes he recorded what he read. Other times he read face-to-face to someone who was eager to listen. I wish I could go and read my books to Gladys. But I know that’s not practical. A 270-mile round trip is a lot of time on the road, and a lot of gas, for an hour or two of reading.

But maybe I can be a little more sensitive to the needs of people closer to home. If I know of someone whose vision is no longer good enough to read, maybe I can find the time to go visit with them and read a little – either a story or two in one of my books, or better yet, another book that I haven’t read already so that we both will enjoy hearing a new story. Last year I went to see my Aunt Edith and I read to her a few times. We both really enjoyed those times together. Way back in 1986 when my mom lived with us in Chicago for several weeks before she passed away, I often read to her. Her favorite book (besides the Bible) at that time was The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. We laughed together a lot as I read the story. I wonder who else might enjoy some reading time…

On the subject of reading a new story, I just received some “book stubs” for Come, Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest from my publisher. A “book stub” is a plastic card, the size of a credit card, that contains a code that allows you to download one copy of the book in whatever e-book format you prefer (Kindle, Nook, iPad.). If you’d like a free copy of my book in e-book format, send me an email with your mailing address and I’ll send a book stub to you. (My supply is limited, so email me as soon as you can.)

You’ll make my day if you tell me that you’ll try to read at least some of the stories in my book to someone who cannot see well enough to read for themself. (But that’s not a requirement for getting a book stub – just ask me for it!)

Gladys Johnson

Gladys, one of the best kinds of friends –
a friend who inspires

Your Gift to the World

Grandma's Flower Garden Quilt

Grandma’s Flower Garden Quilt

Grandma and Grandpa. The little girl scowling on the right is my mom. The happy little boy is Uncle Helmer.

Grandma and Grandpa. The little girl scowling on the right is my mom. The happy little boy is Uncle Helmer.

My grandma (Mom’s mother) used to make quilts. At some point she started making a green “Flower Garden” quilt, but she never finished it. When Grandma died, Mom took the quilt pieces with the intention of finishing the quilt sometime.

Mom was not fond of sewing. She used to tell the story of one time she tried to cut out a dress pattern. She kept getting two of the same sleeves instead of a left and a right sleeve, over and over again, regardless of how she positioned the sleeve pattern piece on the fabric. She was getting more and more frustrated. Finally, her young daughter Nancy, who was intently watching her, suggested turning the pattern piece upside down. It worked!

Mom liked to embroider and crochet, but sewing was not her gift. I grew up sleeping on beautifully embroidered pillowcases. When I was in my 20s and 30s, Mom crocheted afghans in the right colors for every room in our house and for every car we ever owned. But she never did sew my grandma’s quilt pieces together.

Mom crocheting a baby afghan.

Mom crocheting a baby afghan.

I share my mom’s lack of skill in sewing. In high school I took “Home Ec” one year and had to make a dress. One of my classmates, Connie, put in the zipper for me. The zipper was the best looking part of the dress. I never wore the dress. In college, my friend, Claudia, tried to teach me how to knit. My first and only project was a pair of slippers. I tried to wear them around the dorm, but one slipper was too tight and the other was so big it kept falling off my foot. Claudia knitted me a pair of slippers that fit to inspire me to keep trying, but I gave up. Knitting wasn’t my gift.

When my mom died, my sister, Nancy, took our grandma’s quilt blocks and hired Aunt Edith (the gospel pianist I wrote about last summer) to finish making the quilt. When my sister died, none of her kids claimed the quilt, so I took it. I have it on display on a wall-mounted quilt rack in our home.

Last week my cousin, Gloria, brought me a snapshot of that quilt (at top of this blog post) along with her mother’s notes about finishing the quilt for Nancy. Gloria was in Cambridge for a few days to help her brothers and sisters get everything ready for their parents’ estate sale this past weekend.

Aunt Edith's notes.

Aunt Edith’s notes.

According to Aunt Edith’s notes, she started to put together my grandma’s quilt pieces into the “Flower Garden” pattern on October 27, 1989 and she finished the project on May 19, 1990. It took her 303-3/4 hours and cost her $15.90 for thread and other materials. She charged Nancy 71¢ per hour for 303-1/2 hours (she gave her ¼ hour free!) for a total price for labor and materials of $231.39. Nancy gave her $500.

In The Monastic Way daily readings for this month, Joan Chittister’s focus is “Doing What You Like.” For March 3 she wrote, “Doing what I like doing is not a waste of time. It is my gift to the rest of the world.”

I am so thankful that Aunt Edith knew that. She faithfully used her God-given gifts – both at the piano and at the quilting frame – to create beauty. Those were her gifts to us.

Aunt Edith at the piano. (In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

Aunt Edith at the piano. Sometime In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.