I still have the key.. . . . .
I was the church organist in my Smalltownville church for many years: from seventh grade, through high school, and then all through my college years. Somehow the key to the organ has moved with me from Smalltownville, to Hell** and back, and resides with me now in Seven Hills. I’m sure the key would still unlock the roll-top cover to the organ’s keyboards. Though things change in Smalltownville, things don’t change that quickly. They change slower still in the religious corporation that owns the church where the organ is the only piece of permanent furniture in the balcony.
I spent much of my youth in that balcony, practicing or playing for services. When one or two of the pipes would whistle in the summer humidity, I climbed the narrow staircase of the belfry, listened for the offending pipe(s), then pulled them out. That was the simplest solution to end the incessant noise! It also ended my ability to play that particular note, too, but there are creative ways to get around that.
I spent so much time in that church that it seriously impeded my free time for things . . . like Christmas shopping. As a general rule, I didn’t shop much. I either made my gifts or somehow managed to figure something out. One year, though, I wanted to buy my mother (Gr8) a sweater and I didn’t want her to have a single clue about it. Shopping wasn’t really a pastime in Smalltownville back then, so my free time was spent on math and chemistry homework, helping with household chores, babysitting and of course, playing the organ. When I thought I had a moment to buy the sweater, Mother was either with me or waiting for me at home and would have spotted my bag. That wouldn’t do. It’s not a surprise if it’s not a surprise.
What to do? With two services on Saturday evening each week, and three services on Sunday, it seemed as if I was always in church and would never have a chance to sneak to the store to buy my mother’s Christmas sweater.
I decided to be a little bold. (Brash, bossy and sassy, if I’m honest) but to this day, I take secret delight in my solution. Prior to the service, I told the presiding minister that I was going shopping during his sermon and he needed to keep talking until he saw me return to the balcony. I explained that I was going to play the song before the sermon, then r-u-n the two blocks to the main street, and bolt the last half block to the store where the clerk was holding my mother’s Christmas gift for me. I told him I would have the cash ready, pay for the gift and r-u-n back to the church in time for the song after his sermon. He understood and agreed.
So that’s how it went down, sort of. My family members were all seated in a pew in the church below my perch. The service progressed through opening hymn, prayers, etc and the time had come for the sermon. I tiptoed down the balcony stairs. I gently opened and closed the side front door to the church. I made my two-block sprint to the main street. I took a right turn and dashed past the five and dime to the clothing store and paid for my mother’s sweater. I had some change to spare.
The mistake in my plan was having that change to spare. I walked out of the clothing store and into the five and dime next door. I bought a soda – which we didn’t have very often – and after all, weren’t we were getting close enough to Christmas for a special treat? I opened the bottle and took a long slow swallow. What a treat – freedom from what was, by that time, my 1040th service in a row in that church! That’s a lot to ask from a high school kid.
I couldn’t actually r-u-n back to church with an opened, glass soda bottle, so I strolled a bit. I had a chance to look at the snow in the trees and take it all in breath by breath, step by step. In fact, I strolled a bit longer than I had realized. When I arrived back to my organ bench in the balcony, I turned to see the associate pastor pacing back and forth in front of the altar as he ad-libbed the part of the sermon that was NOT on his carefully prepared and typed paper.
First of all, Catholic priests at that time did not pace when they preached. And secondly, they did not ad lib either. I had been gone a half hour and it was long past time for the sermon to have ended. Bless his heart, he didn’t give me away (other than the pacing and the ad-libbing.)
I hid my mother’s sweater under the roll-top cover to the organ, for which I had the key. And since I was the only organist for that church, there wasn’t much danger of my gift disappearing until I had a chance to wrap it and bring it home after I played the last note of the final Christmas hymn for the Midnight Mass that year.
The associate pastor is no longer a priest and I am no longer a church organist. The one thing that remains is my mother’s Christmas sweater. She still has it and wears it from time to time. It’s a part of me and my Smalltownville memories.
** Hell is my pseudonym for all the times and spaces and places between Smalltownville and Seven Hills, which are generally not addressed in this blog.