In one of my other lives, I was a church organist. This wasn’t something I aspired to, or was trained for, but one was needed in our country church and, because we could play the piano, I and two other women were enlisted to take our turns at the organ. This was in the 1950s in the rural Iowa church founded by my grandparents and other German immigrants in 1882. My father was a lifetime member, and my husband, children and I made the 25-mile round trip to attend Sunday services, meetings and other events.

Pastors’ wives often assumed the role of organist and played the old pump-type organ until one convinced a wealthy family to donate an electric Wurlitzer — the one I self-taught myself to play. When it needed replacing, a Hammond electric was purchased and the three of us shared the included six free lessons.

Angled to view the pastor and the congregation, the organ bench provided a ringside seat to many poignant moments in the life of our small congregation. Happiest of these were the baptisms of babies, always reacting unpredictably to this sacred rite as their parents beamed proudly at this new life they’d created. The saddest were the funerals.

Most interesting were the weddings, each unique and special. I remember one young woman. She had made all the plans herself as her parents disapproved of this marriage and did not attend. During the ceremony I was admiring her simple but lovely ballerina length dress when I noticed a price tag dangling from her crinoline petticoat in full view of the guests, and my heart wept for her.

Then there was the marriage of Harold and Essel. In his 60s, Harold was a bachelor farmer, shy, quiet and dour. But a noticeable change had taken place — his wardrobe was updated, he was more talkative ... and smiling. The reason was revealed when he brought Essel to church. Pleased he had finally found someone, all were anxious to know Essel, also in her 60s. However, there was much head-shaking and hand-wringing when found she had been married three times and was possibly more interested in Harold’s farm and money than himself.

But the date was set and at the rehearsal I was hastily improvising repeats as an endless procession of daughters and granddaughters of varying ages and sizes marched down the aisle. Finding room for the entire wedding party in the front of our small church became a challenge. It was a gala event and when I saw the look on Harold’s face watching Essel come up to meet him in her white frilly gown and veil, it was affirmed that happiness has its price and he was ready to pay it.

I loved Christmas Eves. The church overflowed with families home for the holidays, and former members returning for a nostalgic night of watching the children performing recitations and songs and their version of the Nativity. The service always closed with “Silent Night,” and I can still hear my father’s voice singing it in German as was the tradition in his younger days.

For several years we shared pastors with a church in a nearby town. One of these was a charismatic young man whose sermons could have been a TV late-show monologue. Even the disapproving stifled their laughter. Once, following the collection, he requested I play the offertory again as it was a song he’d performed in school music contests. He sang as I played, literally shaking the rafters of the church and leaving everyone in stunned silence. Then one Sunday he was a no-show. He and the undertaker’s wife had left town, leaving their families behind, and we never saw him again.

Our move to Oregon in 1992 ended my 40 years of sharing the organ bench. That’s a lot of music and memories.

Jo Ann Parsons is a member of the Jottings Group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.

Contract Publishing

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