April 12th, 2009
I’ve written a lot lately about my Grandma Klassen, who passed away this week. But I’m going to start this post about my Grandma Goerzen.
She died when I was just an infant. I never knew her, but as the years pass, it seems that I remember her better and better.
After we moved out to the farm where she and Grandpa Goerzen lived for decades, we noticed some flowers she had planted 30 years ago were still coming up, having withstood hail, hot summers, frost, construction equipment, and neglect all that time. Terah said, “It’s like your grandma left us a housewarming gift.”
Some of these flowers had never bloomed. Until this week.
One bloomed for the first time the day Grandma Klassen died.
A second bloom appeared the day of her funeral.
My jr. high and high school band teacher loves music (and old engines, but that’s another story). You couldn’t sign up for “band” at my high school; you’d sign up for the class called LIFE. To him, music and life are indistinguishable. He says that anybody can speak to somebody, but music is the best way to speak to the heart.
My Grandpa Klassen died when I was 11. Grandma Klassen, before her health declined, loved to tell me the story of the music at his funeral. At his funeral, my mom and I played a piano duet of Nearer, My God to Thee which we had already learned for a different event. When we were done, Rev. Epp went to the pulpit and said something along the lines of, “If the music in heaven is as good as that, it’ll be a great place indeed.”
I was just 11, and though music did speak to me at that age already, I don’t think I understood how it moved people, such as my grandma, until many years later.
Grandma Klassen loved music, too, and that’s reflected in each of her children — all of them play trumpet, for instance. So it’s no surprise that there was a lot of music this week.
She died as two of her children were singing hymns to her at her room in the nursing home.
Two of her grandchildren played trumpet for her at her burial.
And my brother and his wife played trumpet and piano at her funeral.
It was all beautiful, and like my band teacher said, it spoke to my heart.
I knew about gradma’s love of music for quite awhile. When she was in better health, I took her to concerts sometimes. One of her favorite hymns was Joyful, Joyful, but she hadn’t known it was based on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I learned that the Wichita Symphony Orchestra was performing the 9th, and took her to the performance. She loved it, and I seem to recall that she kept talking about it for a few years afterwards. It certainly didn’t hurt that the singing on the 4th movement was in German. I burned her a “new-fangled” CD of it, which I frequently saw in or near her CD player.
The Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus is an all-volunteer choir with about 300 members. They give a couple of concerts a year, and occasionally tour throughout North America and Europe. Their motto is “we sing that others may live” because 100% of money collected at their concerts goes directly to charity.
Attending one of their concerts is a powerful experience not easily forgotten. I think the only time I’ve heard a choir come close to being as amazing as that was when I had the opportunity to attend a Robert Shaw concert a few years ago.
I went with grandma to one of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus performances a few years ago. As you might expect, she loved it — I think she called it “powerfully good.”
This year, I finally joined the choir. I still remember that first practice. We “warmed up” by singing Holy God, We Praise Thy Name — a song that has opened every KMMC concert for years. These people hadn’t sung together for almost a year, and there were plenty of new people like me there too. But it only took a few bars of singing before I realized just what it was I had joined. The choir started out with the quietest, but most powerful singing you can imagine: “Holy God, we praise thy name.” By the time we got to the end of the page, the building was ringing from 300 men singing “Infinite thy vast domain, everlasting is thy reign!” at the top of their voices, in perfect harmony. We got to the end. The director said. . . “Wow.”
I don’t think a first practice ever spoke to my heart before that day.
Nearly 20 years ago, Grandma Klassen bought me a new bible. After she gave it to me, I asked her what some of her favorite passages were. She took me straight to the blessing in Numbers 6, and made sure I underlined it and bookmarked it. It goes like this:
“The Lord bless you,
The Lord keep you,
Make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you,
The Lord life up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
My uncle had read this blessing to her the last time he talked to her. And the KMMC for years has ended their concerts with a beautiful benediction based on this passage. Grandma heard it at the concert I attended with her. It has been a favorite of my mom for years, too.
So I had the thought: we really ought to sing it as a benediction at her funeral. It was hard to find the right mix of people on short notice, but we wound up with me singing baritone, my brother singing 2nd tenor (we both normally sing bass), and his wife both playing piano and singing 1st tenor, and relying on the piano to fill in the bass part.
We had a little chance to practice before the funeral, but not a lot. The two of them have done a lot musically, but I haven’t nearly as much, so I got in some extra practice at home, too.
When it came time to sing, it was an emotional moment for sure — more than a bit hard to focus, knowing the history and meaning of these words. When we got to “and give you peace”, and moved into the chorus of “amen” that finishes the song, I almost broke down right there, but didn’t quite.
We didn’t give a perfect performance, for sure, on such short notice. (And they had me singing with them, so we wouldn’t have been perfect even with plenty of notice!)
But it didn’t have to be perfect. After we ended the last, quiet “amen”, I think I heard about a half-dozen noses blowing all at once. My band teacher was right about music speaking to the heart.
Later, during lunch, my aunt said to me, “Wow, John, I’ve never heard you sing before!” “That’s right, and this may be the last time you hear me sing, too! I don’t normally sing in a small group like this.”
A few minutes later, my uncle that gave the message came over and talked to the three of us. “John, today you three brainwashed me.” “Oh?” “Yes. For years, I thought that there was no music as beautiful as the trumpet. After hearing you three sing, I have to reconsider.”
And so my band teacher was also right: music is life. My grandma was a person that could hardly speak without touching the heart. That beautiful melody of her life didn’t stop when she died Tuesday afternoon. I’ve been hearing it all week.