Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem (Brewton through Atmore, AL)

The Huber family in Atmore, AL on Tuesday night

Herbert & Dorothy Heller in Flomaton, AL on Monday night

John & Mabel Gehman and two of their grandchildren in Brewton, AL on Monday morning

Caroling with the Calvary Mennonite Church in Brewton, AL on Sunday night

"Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies."
~Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

When my grandmother's mind had been overtaken by dementia and she had lost most of her ability to speak and remember, she still responded to song. My mom or dad would sit next to her and start a familiar gospel song from her childhood. Nonnie's distant gaze would become slightly more focused. She would sometimes look around, as if searching for the song in the air. A light of recognition would form behind her eyes. She couldn't join in the song right away, but by the time the chorus came her mouth would move along with the words and she could softly sing a refrain that had been with her since she was a little child.

Standing, standing,
Standing on the promises of God my Savior;

Standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God.

There is a resilience to musical memory that isn't available to other forms of language. It touches us on a different level. In my grandmother's case, it defied the destruction of synapses in her brain and remained one of her last ties to her lived history right up to the very end of her life.

I lived with my grandmother for three years during her struggle with Parkinson's disease and dementia. I saw her steady decline, experienced her weakness and vulnerability and by being one of her caregivers ultimately came to a greater peace with the the process of dying than I had before.

I would often take the Sunday morning caregiving shifts so my parents could go to church. During the Christmas season I would play a CD of hymns and carols and that had a calming effect on Nonnie. It wasn't just for her. I liked hearing them as well. These songs were also a soundtrack to my childhood and their familiar refrains jumped as easily to my younger mind as they did to Nonnie's aged one. She and I might not have been able to go to third floor, as we did when I was a child, and play the Blue and the Gray together, but we could still share that music.

For this reason the opportunity of visiting the elderly and singing them carols at Christmas time was quite exciting when John Gehman mentioned it me on the phone. I had contacted John and his wife Mabel from the Mennonite Your Way directory about staying with them in Brewton, AL on Sunday night. That afternoon coincided with the Calvary Mennonite Church's annual caroling program. He invited me along and I enthusiastically accepted.

Our group of about 25 met at the church at 3pm and went forth in a caravan of cars around the greater Brewton area, visiting the homes of the elderly and favoring them with our Christmas melodies. We had a makeshift hymnal with the words to all the different carols, but most were as familiar to me as a cherished children's book. There was only one I hadn't heard. By the end of our caroling I had sung it about seven times and it had become my favorite. It was "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem". Its chorus goes like this:

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine upon us until the glory dawns
Give us a lamp to light the way
Unto the land of perfect day
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

Like that now familiar refrain, two memories from caroling will stick with me for a long time. One was our trip to the assisted living community. About 15 of the residents gathered in the living room to hear us sing and there was one older woman sitting just off to my left who kept looking at me with the sweetest smile. I would smile back and I could tell that she was really enjoying the moment, the room full of people, the air thick with familiar melodies. The second memory is of the house we visited immediately before that. We went to visit the grandmother of one of our carolers. As we piled into the room where she was laying on a bed I saw a familiar face. She looked so much like Nonnie. Her mouth was slightly open, her white hair lovingly combed, her eyes in a far off stare. Her granddaughter sat next to her as we filled the room with song. For my part, I felt as if I was singing to Nonnie. As I think about it now, my memory goes to an earlier time when she was younger and healthier. She is in our house in West Hebron with many of her brothers and sisters. Everyone is gathered around the piano and all are singing the hymns they so loved. Those songs that would be one the last things she could outwardly share with others.

Back at his house after the caroling John Gehman and I talked about the importance of family. Pictures of his and Mabel's children and grandchildren were everywhere. On Monday morning I awoke to two of their grandchildren with us for breakfast, enjoying a week off from school. That made me think about Nonnie even more. After her faith, nothing was more important to her than family. It was her bedrock on this earth - her parents, her brothers and sisters, her husband, her kids and her grandchildren. To steal from W.H. Auden, family was her North, her South, her East, her West, her working week and her sabbath rest.

As I went on from Brewton, down to Flomaton on Monday and into Atmore on Tuesday, I kept being reminded of the importance of family in our lives. I stayed with the Hellers on Monday night and their house was filled with beautiful antiques. Likewise, with pictures of their children, and their children's children. Their daughter, who lived down the street, joined us for dinner. At Lester & Goldie Huber's in Atmore, that refrain was repeated. When I arrived with Lester three of their daughter's children were there and joined us for dinner. After dinner their other daughter, their son-in-law and their three kids arrived as well.

Family and friendships are only as vibrant and rewarding as the time we put into cultivating those relationships. I've learned a lot of lessons on this trip, but none will serve me better to remember than this: relationships are the currency of a joyous and abundant life. Who I choose as my partner in life, the friends I choose to spend time with, the way I relate to my family, even the willingness I have to reach out to strangers in need - this is the interpersonal capital that will dictate the richness of my lives.

I am glad that at the end of her life I had a chance to be a part of Nonnie's final song. Even when she could no longer sing it, the melody and lyrics of her life were so familiar to all us who knew and loved her that we could pick up the song for her. And unlike Silent Night, which I utterly failed to sing correctly for the 36th year running, Nonnie's song was in the most beautiful and accessible key of all - love. That's a note anyone can choose to hit perfectly.


  1. what great memories...and i am sure nonnie shared them with you at this special time of the year

  2. Great commentary on the value of "family." I read your story in our local newspaper and was disappointed to learn, when I got to your blog, that you had already passed by here. It would have been an honor to have hosted you.

    I now look forward to going back and reading your blog from the beginning and sharing what you've learned.



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