Mason & Hamlin and Me

A little church. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere. I haven’t ventured far from my house for almost four months of quarantine.

I used to attend a church like this a lifetime ago. I played the piano on Sunday mornings. I played music for all sorts of church occasions.

One time, for instance, there was a guy in our choir who wanted to sing a Randy Travis tune for service. The song was “Forever and Ever Amen.” It’s not a church song, it’s more of a romantic song, but my buddy was in love with a soprano, so the lyrics made spiritual sense to him.

My friend and I worked on it for weeks. He sang, I played keys. Finally, we auditioned the song for the pastor. The old clergyman almost had a cardiac event. He was furious.

The preacher said that if we played another Randy Travis song on church grounds again we would be asked to leave. We made a solemn vow to never play another Randy Travis tune in our lives. Not even “Honky Tonk Moon.”

Right now it feels good being here. I’ve been indoors, stuck on an endless repeat cycle, like an LP record that keeps skipping.

My wife and I have tried visiting friends once or twice while maintaining social-distancing regulations, but it’s weird. We end up sitting 50 yards from each other so that transit trucks and commercial airliners can pass between us. I have to squint just to see my friends from so far away.

The sanctuary is empty. I hear the air conditioner humming. I wander around, running my fingers along the window panes, flipping through hymnal pages.

I look out the window. There is one car in the parking lot, which belongs to the secretary. She said I could hang out here today if I wanted.

I sit behind the piano keys. The piano is out of tune. Southern humidity wreaks havoc on pianos.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but for much of my life, there were only two things I could actually do well: (a) make mistakes, and (b) play piano. I was a lost boy in many other areas. I was a high-school drop out, a blue-collar worker, and I talked funny.

But piano came easy to me. I learned to play by ear when I was nine. On my birthday my father bought me a little upright and put it in the basement. He told me that if I wanted to learn to play, I would learn. And that was that.

That’s just how his people thought, you understand. People like us didn’t do lessons. Neither did we hire anyone to work on our car, fix our roof, cut our hair, drink our beer, etc.

I play a few bars of an old hymn. I’m so rusty that my fingers creak, but the memories come back like pollen.

When I was younger, I used to buy my Sunday clothes at a local thrift store because I loved a good deal. I remember one Sunday when a pretty girl smirked at me and asked, “Did you buy that shirt at the THRIFT STORE?”

She said “thrift store” like some people say “communism.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was fifty-cent day.”

I was a big fan of fifty-cent day.

Then she told me that my dress shirt had previously belonged to her father. She looked at me like I was homeless and I wanted to bury myself.

But I have some happy memories from buildings like this, too. Not all my memories involve wearing a secondhand button-downs. In this room I learned to play “I Need Thee Every Hour” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” and a few honky-tonk tunes I promised an old preacher I’d never play again.

I also remember hearing 42 small-town voices sing hymns with a little Mason & Hamlin. And I remember feeling like somebody special when I played piano. You don’t forget moments when you mattered.

After I finish playing, I leave the sanctuary to do more exploring. I wander to the fellowship hall. It’s dilapidated. I can see the evenly-spaced rust marks on the linoleum floor where the folding potluck table legs used to sit. The same tables where people still gather to increase their cholesterol with pimento cheese, deviled eggs, fried poultry, and, God willing, Sister Linda Shumaker’s taco lasagna.

The secretary finds me in here. She is elderly and hobbled. I’m standing in the middle of the room, remembering everything. She tells me she’s about to lock up and go home.

We both have a good chuckle about a few old memories and mutual friends. Then, she tells me that she likes my writing.

I am dumbfounded and a little misty. We embrace. It’s the first actual hug from an outsider since the quarantine began.

The shirt I am wearing is one I bought brand new from Old Navy.

I help her lock the doors. I walk her to her car. There is a sadness in her. She says she lives alone, and her closest friend during the pandemic has been her cat. We both admit that we can’t wait for the world to go back to normal again, if it ever does.

Once her car is out of sight, I look around to make sure the coast is clear. I smile because I’m feeling better. I begin to sing a particular song in a quiet voice. For old time’s sake.

Because Randy Travis sure had some good ones.

23 comments

  1. Leigh Amiot - June 15, 2020 7:49 am

    This pandemic has driven many of us back/closer to the Lord. I went to church last week for the first time since the shelter in place orders, at one point I cried happy tears—it was so good to be back in the house of the Lord! An 80-something friend hugged me. The media has done a good job of frightening us of death. My friend, evidently, refused to succumb to the fear, and I am ever so thankful for that hug. Have we not learned just how much we all need one another’s friendship, companionship, time and love? Virtual communication is not enough.

    Reply
  2. Sue Rhodus - June 15, 2020 11:24 am

    Sweet Hour of Prayer..we that know the closeness of our old family churches never forget them. A beautiful memory. BE BLESSED THIS DAY.

    Reply
  3. Peg - June 15, 2020 11:29 am

    Thank you so much for all your writings.

    Reply
  4. Jan - June 15, 2020 11:34 am

    What a great synopsis of this crazy time we are living in. Your description of your thoughts and emotions helps me to realize I am not the only one who thinks and feels the way I do. Thank you, Sean!

    Reply
  5. Beth Baswell - June 15, 2020 12:21 pm

    Sean, you cause me to weep every single day, but in such a good way. I have recently discovered you and just bought all of your books. You are such a great writer that every thing you ever lived through comes through in your writing. Talk about turning some ashes into beauty —WOW!!! I love from way up here in Spring Hill, TN. I grew up in Pensacola so I can relate to so much you talk about. I am trying my best to really LOVE church again. My wonderful son came out to us about 8 yrs ago, so as you can imagine, I have been so wounded by the Southern Baptist church. They even asked us to leave for embracing our son and the way God made him. It’s a place we spent our entire lives. Please understand my problem has never been with God. I just cry a lot for the LGBT community in general, and now when I sing these old sacred hymns that meant so much to me, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in, but you know what? That has also given me insight into how this community has always felt. I now spend my time meeting with “Christian” ( sometimes I wonder because it is these children that I have become a Mama Bear for because so many are kicked out and disowned) ,parents who are just receiving the news of their child’s orientation and I try my best to be a bridge. They might not be able to find a church that will love them for who they are, but I can assure them God is waiting with open arms. I can not wait to open your email first thing every morning. It truly brightens my day. You have a wonderful day, my far away friend.

    Reply
  6. Mark Pollish - June 15, 2020 1:09 pm

    Love your writing Sean. Last week I went back to our church and everyone was social distancing. The only person who gave me a hug was a newer guy that I had met just before all this crap went down. It was spontaneous and felt genuine. My new friend and I talked about family and made plans to get together for lunch this week. He and I were excited. I’m an old white guy, he’s a young black man. Hope reigns eternal. God bless the USA.

    Reply
  7. Anne Godwin - June 15, 2020 1:58 pm

    “You don’t forget moments when you mattered.” Your writing matters. You have a gift to see things most don’t see. You then connect the things you see with your memories and connections to others. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  8. Margaret - June 15, 2020 2:02 pm

    Lord have mercy, Sean, you hit it out of the park today! “You don’t forget the moments you mattered.” Doesn’t get any better than that!

    Reply
  9. Christina - June 15, 2020 2:58 pm

    You writing feels like hugs from an old childhood friend. And praise the Lord for THRIFT STORES with fifty cent days 🙌

    Reply
  10. Maxine - June 15, 2020 4:41 pm

    Love Randy Travis, thrift stores and YOU, Sean. The timbre of your writing has changed these past few months.
    I like that in the fact your past writings have only become better with the change. Keep up the encouragement you give those of us who are down memory lane a ways. You really are the best medicine these days.

    Reply
  11. Linda Moon - June 15, 2020 4:51 pm

    Randy Travis actually sang live and in person at my church some years ago and made sense on several levels. My baby girl (almost “June”) played piano by ear at age 5 (not to outdo you by mentioning it here..proud Mama’s just sayin’). Speaking of “saying”, some people might say you still talk funny, depending on the region they’re from or a lack of appreciation for diversity of dialect. This Linda (me) likes your writing and likes the way you talk. You matter to me in this moment and after the dusty moments have gone, too. I’d love to hear you play a Mason and Hamlin grand piano somewhere soon, live and in person!

    Reply
  12. Gwen Monroe - June 15, 2020 5:29 pm

    O my goodness. No one lifts my spirits like you do (that should be a song don’t you think?). Seriously tho , no one. I’m going to read this again just to bring those feelings back. Don’t you ever quit writing for us.

    Reply
  13. Cathi Russell - June 15, 2020 10:22 pm

    Big smiles here!

    Reply
  14. Linda Moon - June 16, 2020 4:45 pm

    P. S. Today, June 16, I’ve tried to leave a comment on the “Cheerful Heart” several times, but it doesn’t show up. Has anybody else had that problem? Today?

    Reply
  15. Martha - June 16, 2020 4:57 pm

    Love this one.

    Reply
  16. Martha - June 16, 2020 4:58 pm

    Love this one !

    Reply
  17. Linda Moon - June 16, 2020 5:54 pm

    I’ve tried several times to enter my comment for “Cheerful Heart” today, June 16th. But they are not appearing…is there an internet problem?

    Reply
  18. Linda Moon - June 16, 2020 6:45 pm

    My comment for today’s post won’t send (Cheerful Heart). I’m just checking to see if this one does again.

    Reply
  19. Linda Moon - June 16, 2020 8:37 pm

    I’ve been having trouble leaving comments today, June 16. My comment from June 15 appeared, but not today’s. Do any of you commenters know why this might be a problem today?

    Reply
  20. Linda Moon - June 16, 2020 8:51 pm

    trying again

    Reply
  21. Linda Moon - June 16, 2020 8:53 pm

    My comments from today will not appear. Can someone tell me what the problem might be?

    Reply
  22. Linda Moon - June 16, 2020 8:56 pm

    I tried to contact gravatar about the problem I’m having with my comments not being posted.

    Reply
  23. Linda Moon - June 16, 2020 9:05 pm

    Does anyone have a problem getting your comments to appear here today, June 16th? Yesterday was fine, but today my comments will not appear on the page.

    Reply

Leave a Comment