Wonderful words of life for two fingers


       My Mama, Gloria Lee, was the unofficial Keyboard Queen of Coweta County during the 1950s – 1980s. Most everybody in Coweta and surrounding counties, unless you were a hermit or in a coma, probably heard her play piano during those years. She had an amazing gift. The black and whites were her playground and each key seemed to yearn for her touch. She played with precision mingled with deep feeling and a love of music. It was if those 88s were a natural extension of her heart, soul, and faith.
Mama was born to play the piano. Her gift was clearly God-given. While still in high school, she won first place on Stars of Tomorrow, a televised Atlanta talent show. She was offered a music scholarship to Agnes Scott but declined and married 10 days after graduation.
            She never received a college degree, but her talent flourished. She played all the time and her artistry entertained listeners at her own concerts, school events, revivals, and homecomings. Her music accompanied many a person down the aisle – whether they were marching (weddings) or rolling (funerals).
Once, she played for an intense funeral where mourners, beset with heartache and grief, decided that if they prayed passionately in one accord, the 92-year-old beloved deceased would miraculously arise, leap from his coffin, and skip down the aisle. Family and friends bewailed Brother Horace’s passing and begged God for a Lazarus moment. During the commotion, Mama kept playing. She was about halfway through the hymnbook when the swarm surrounded the casket, swaying and praying until it crashed to the floor, scattering carnations and daisies. Brother Horace slid off his blue taffeta cushion and onto the sanctuary floor. Mama had dang near played the entire hymnbook by the time funeral home attendants calmed the crowd and Brother Horace, uh, resumed his position. Mama kept playing and was almost through the hymnal when order was finally restored. Beloved Brother Horace remained deceased.
I love to listen to the piano but never had a deep desire to play. Just because that was my Mama’s gift, didn’t mean it would be passed to me. Even if I had yearned to play, I often heard a variety of folks utter a sentence that killed my motivation:
“Boy, I tell you one thing – you’ll never be the piano player your Mama is!”
Early on, that sentence made me cry and hide in the woods. I dreamed of taking a sledge hammer to every piano I saw. But, being her firstborn daughter, it was simply understood that I would take piano lessons. I did. For three months. Then Mama began teaching paying students and my learning ceased. I could play hymns I knew by picking out a top and bottom note and undergirding my skimpy knowledge with prayer and supplication. I didn’t sight-read, didn’t know a quarter note from a whole note, and didn’t want to learn because I knew my limitation:
“Boy, I tell you one thing – you’ll never be the piano player your Mama is!”          
She played many places, but her favorite was our home church, Jones Chapel United Methodist in Madras, Georgia. Well, Mama had a baby when I was thirteen and missed a few Sundays. Nobody thought about it until the 11:00 service was about to begin one Sunday. A prelude and pianist were noticeably absent. It was easy enough to skip the prelude but when it came time to sing, Raleigh Coggin, official song leader of longstanding, wanted some doggone music.
“Cathy, come on up here! Surely you’ve got some of your Mama in you. Play so we can sing.”
The entire congregation looked at me, a thirteen-year-old two-fingered piano greenhorn.
“NO!” I protested. I declined. I sat still. I shook my head. “I don’t know anything to play.”
“Well, we don’t expect you to be the piano player your Mama is. But surely you can play something!”
Everyone was staring.
I grabbed a hymnal and found a song I had plucked out with two fingers on our piano at home.
Sing them over again to me, Wonderful Words of Life.
Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful Words of Life.
            My heart raced. My face turned red. I played a four-note introduction and missed the last note. Then, with the Jones Chapel United Methodist Church congregation singing along, I presented a musical offering which I now laughingly call, Variations on Wonderful Words of Life for Two Fingers. We sang that song for the next three Sundays until Mama once again took her rightful spot on the piano bench.
            Eventually, I did play piano while Mama played the organ for our congregational singing. I enjoyed it and some great old hymn memories were born at that piano.      
Jones Chapel United Methodist Church is closed now (oh, don’t even get me started on that story!) and it breaks my heart. Mama died twenty-one years ago and her incredible talent was silenced.
            It’s obvious. I will never be the piano player my mother was. Some folks still remind me of that.
No problem.
“I’m not supposed to be,” I reply. “God has a different gift for me.”          
            You know what? As long as we are sharing Wonderful Words of Life, what difference does it make?

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