I can’t remember the last time I heard my mother sing.
I’m sure it was during a visit to my parents’ church before my dad retired, but that was four or five years ago now. I didn’t realize I missed hearing her sing until a clear childhood memory of Mom practicing a solo for our church’s presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” recently came back to me.
Mom always sang in the church choir. She played the piano in church on a fill-in basis when we moved to Florida in 1982, and for a time she was the full-time accompanist. But her strong soprano voice was needed most in the choir, and she often sang what our church called “Special Music” before the sermon. There were even occasions when Dad would spontaneously call on her to sing a particular solo he had in mind before he delivered his message. No rehearsal. No lead time. No preparation. No heads up. Just, “Sharon, would you come and sing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’” or some other hymn. She always sang beautifully from the heart.
From my birth in 1970 until 1982, my family attended the First Baptist Church of Richland Hills, Texas, located in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. In my memory, it was a large church, but in actuality, membership probably ran 200-300. Music was an important part of the church’s worship, and the choir director, Paul McPeek, was a stickler for well-rehearsed, traditional choral music. The choir rehearsed on Wednesday nights after prayer meeting, and when I outgrew the nursery, I sat in the auditorium while my parents participated in choir practice. At the time, sitting still through an hour-plus of rehearsal seemed arduous to me, but I managed to learn all of the great hymns of the faith, including Handel’s “Messiah” by osmosis.
Each Christmas season our church offered two special services, usually both on a Sunday night. One was the Christmas program featuring some re-enactment of the Christmas story that included us kids. The other was a cantata presented by the church choir. In my memory it was the “Messiah” every year, but they may have performed other works as well. I know they performed “Messiah” multiple times during my formative years between six and 12. “Messiah” is such a lengthy and challenging work for amateur choirs that rehearsal usually began during the summer. I remember how odd it felt to be in the sanctuary listening to Christmas music with the Texas heat soaring above 100 degrees outside.
My mother often sang one of the soprano arias “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” or the recitative, “Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened.” This required extra practice on her part, both at church with an accompanist or at home with a tape. The sound of her practicing at home gave me great comfort and became part of the soundtrack of my childhood leading up to Christmas.
Mom grew up singing, taking voice lessons even into adulthood. She has a structured, classical style with vibrato that has always sounded sophisticated and operatic to me. Despite my father’s Spirit-led, impromptu requests for solos, Mom preferred rehearsal and a good warm up before singing in church. She confessed nerves on occasion, but those bouts of stage fright were rooted in a lack of preparation. If she was nervous, you could never tell it in her performance.
Like most small kids, I believed my mom to be amazing and infallible. She was the most beautiful, the best cook and clearly the best singer. To my ear, there was no better sound than her voice. Mom’s singing is an indelible part of my childhood. Listening to her at home and at church strengthened our bond in a profound way neither of us understood or appreciated fully at the time.
The last time I saw “Messiah” performed in its entirety was in the mid-1990s in Macon at The Grand Opera House by the Mercer University choir. They did a marvelous job, and the performance moved me. In the opening notes of “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” I was surprised by tears welling in my eyes. The work, the performance, the atmosphere touched a memory that only now do I understand as maternal love.
Whether I ever have the opportunity to hear Mom sing formally again, I will count myself lucky to have had hours of sitting through rehearsals. Those experiences built a bank of memories of her voice which will sustain me for a lifetime.