It all started with one little boy. Then a bunch of folks got together to help him. They were all—to be charitable about it—a bit off-center. And not one could carry a tune.
There was no musical talent in any of their bones. Not a lick. Nada. When they tried to sing, it was a disaster. It wasn’t just that they sang off-key. They sang in no recognizable key whatsoever. Each warbled off in his or her own tone-deaf way. So they sounded just awful!
But they were a choir. A different sort of choir. A choir that couldn’t—and normally didn’t—sing.
Their lack of musical talent didn’t really matter very much. But how they came to be and what they did and how they influenced a whole bunch of other people is something of a tale.
In their aggregate, they were an uncommon group of folks who were pretty much out of the mainstream of American life. Some were physically off-putting. Some had their own agendas that did not coincide with the ones favored by their fellow church members. And some were seriously weird!
Not that they were dumb—at least most of them. Or particularly inept—at least most of them. Or truly eccentric—at least most of them.
But they were a bunch of folks who were simply a bit unhinged. One repeatedly stumbled over his own feet. Another lisped and spewed saliva over people when he got excited. One lady had an unpronounceable name. Another one was so slow that she needed a recipe to make ice cubes.
They were, in all, a wondrous bunch, looked upon by their fellow church members as people who resided somewhere beyond the circle of normalcy. But their actions were enough to start small campfires of spiritual hope for a lot of other folks.
It wasn’t that the suburban church they belonged to didn’t have ANY choir. This was not one of those churches where anyone who could see their breath in a mirror was a member of the choir.
On the contrary, the music program of the Grace United Methodist Church and its Chancel Choir was the envy of all the neighboring churches. The thirty-voice aggregation boasted many public-school music teachers and was led by an assistant professor of music from a nearby college. The teachers were all fine instrumentalists and as a result, flute duets, a harp, and even string quartets were heard occasionally during worship services.
The organist was especially accomplished and could fake anything. He was particularly adept at providing background music during Communion services, a skill he had picked up while playing for the many Saturday morning Masses in a Catholic church while working his way through college. His noodling sounded sacred, but was simply chords strung together in an impromptu sort of sonata.
He always timed the music to the movement of the Communion servers and their pass-the-bread-and-grape-juice-through-the-congregation perambulations. He often had to draw out a final chord resolution for more than two minutes while waiting for one of the slower ushers to return to the pulpit area with his tray of the little glasses.
And the organist was most capable of covering up his mistakes. On the occasions when his fingers failed to hit the right notes and eyebrows were raised, he called it “alternative harmonization.”
He and the director even had an outreach program. There was the Cherub Choir made up of the younger school kids and the Wesleyan Choir that had eight teenage girls and three boys in it. They were both led by music teachers in the Chancel Choir. And they sent one of their teachers to the nearby Golden Age Siesta on a weekly basis to lead a makeshift choir there that was constantly being depleted by people passing away.
It was by such ministry that the Grace United music program and its Chancel Choir made a joyful noise unto the Lord! They followed John Wesley’s admonition to “burst into jubilant song with music” and Psalm 98:4, which directed the faithful to “rejoice, and sing praise.” And the church membership kept increasing slowly, in part because of the strong music program.
So the proposal to authorize yet another choir was met with considerable concern by members of the Board. Weren’t three choirs enough? they asked. Wouldn’t they be diluting their success? Besides, which people were going to be in it?
The proposal had been offered by the new Associate Pastor. Although he was fresh out of seminary and eager to make his mark on his first calling, he recognized that the proposed membership of the new choir posed something of a problem.
He had canvassed the congregation and compiled a list of potential members for the new choir. It was, some said, a doozy!
There was one happy lady who was known (by the kids in the church) as Fat Granny Fanny. Her Christian name was Fanny Armbrouster, and she was the widow of Clayton Armbrouster, who had been the janitor of the church for many years. She was also the grandmother of a passel of kids, one of whom was deaf.
The kids whispered that her first name was truly appropriate, for the gray-haired lady had an enormous rear end. It stuck out sideways and backways and every-which-ways, like it had a life of its own—like it wasn’t attached to her. But of course it was.
In their adolescent disdain for anyone who wasn’t cool, some of the kids in the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) poked fun at her behind her back. One of them snickered that she could probably provide all the shade they needed for their annual picnic in the park. The same smart-alecky kid whispered that she probably needed backup lights.
Fanny had another distinguishing characteristic—enormous feet—feet so huge that they rivaled the fake ones seen on the clowns at the circus. Her humongous pedals and rear end made her amble along in a rolling gait that resembled a sailor navigating the deck of a ship in a storm. Blessedly she never heard any of the cruel remarks, and because she was so kind and gentle, the adults of the church loved her.
The congregation’s sole ethnic member had also signed up for the new choir. Her name was Natasha Slesyuahnskia, a Serbian lady whose English was somewhat shaky. She came from a Yugoslavian family whose members were very proud of their brilliantly colored clothes and potato dumplings.
The people in the little enclave that she came from in the nearby city all had difficult-to-pronounce names, and their first language was one that no one had ever heard of. Its alphabet was backwards. Only the church secretary could spell Natasha’s last name correctly, and few members could really pronounce it.
What had motivated the lady to join Grace United was unclear. She had merely shown up one Sunday morning and kept coming back; eventually she became a member. It was probably her attempt to become more American—to be assimilated. By joining a church in the suburbs, she could get out from under the cloud of ethnicity that marked her as an immigrant. Maybe she hoped it would cure her differentness and sense of isolation from the American way of life.
Like many folk who seek membership in a church, however, Natasha’s reasons were a wonderful tangle of complexity with no tidy explanation. Faith, a need to belong, and certainly hope played a part. And the people of Grace United welcomed her warmly, even though they often didn’t understand her.
For she occasionally got her “mix talked up.” At the reception for new members, she thanked the minister “from the heart of my bottom.”
Natasha’s battle with the English language was in contrast to Harry the Hummer’s love of it. He was one of the two guys who had signed up for the new choir, and he was—by common agreement—a character.
Harry was on the Library Committee and had the disturbing habit of tapping his pencil on the table whenever he talked at meetings. And when he put away the books that had been returned each week, he accompanied the task with a constant humming. World War II songs mostly. It was a bit unnerving.
Harry was a little bowlegged fellow who liked to joke that he was so old he had some body parts they didn’t even make anymore. His hair was white, as his wife’s would have been, had she allowed nature to take its course. He was known for his perpetually bad haircuts and she for her perpetually bad hair days.
The dotty old guy had three major passions in life—nature, toy soldiers, and the English language. He loved to spend time in the nearby woods engaging in what he called “power bird-watching.” And he was fond of going on walks with the local chapter of the Audubon Society. He tried to combine two of his hobbies by taking along a crossword puzzle and a pencil on nature hikes. But he was forced to abandon the idea when he kept ricocheting off trees because he was so absorbed in his puzzle.
Thank the good Lord he had an understanding spouse. She tolerated—even encouraged—his infatuation with his toy soldiers. He could spend hours with his collection. “At least I know where he’s at,” she said with a smile, as she sat knitting in the corner.
Most of Harry’s time, however, was spent at his typewriter. He had occupied nearly three hours every day for the last five years in a little room in the back of his house writing an epic novel about universal sin. He told those who inquired that he was against sin because he was against anything he was too old to enjoy.
The manuscript, however, was now more than 1,439 pages long, and he had been struggling for nearly 400 pages to find a finish for it. But it just kept going, world without end. He was, he admitted, in a fog of words.
Harry’s buddy Murray had also signed up for the new choir. The two got along well because Murray was also short and had an equally childlike hobby. He had a passion for model airplanes—building them, that is. It had been a part of him since his boyhood days. Some people thought maybe it was the glue.
For the fortyish little guy was a secret abuser of stimulants. At least he thought his indulgence was secret. But he had been a member of the church for more than ten years, and a lot of the folks loved him and thought they had him figured out.
Murray was a Vietnam vet whose face had a perpetual look of sadness about it. It was like everything in life was pretty much—too much.
He lisped a bit and was usually shy, but on occasions he became animated, and his remarks were so over the top that some members finally assumed it was the drugs he must be using because of his war experiences.
In truth, his indulgences and his demeanor were a part of—and the result of—his occupation. For Murray made and sold pet caskets. It was his profession.
He had just sort of drifted into it. After his discharge, he spent two years in a bathrobe watching television. Eventually he hung around the streets in the nearby city and did odd jobs and acquired a mongrel dog that became his best friend. When the animal died, Murray put him in a cardboard box and buried him in an empty lot.
But it bugged him. With all the love animals give and get, he thought they deserved to be disposed of in style. So he began to investigate and learned that regular caskets were too big for most pets—unless you were talking about horses or elephants. Those had to be made up special.
So he cleaned up and took himself off to the annual trade show of the National Association of Pet Cemeteries, which was being held in Cincinnati, Ohio. He looked at the various displays and talked to a lot of the people in the booths who were selling pets-who-died accouterments. And when he returned home, he set about learning how to make coffins for dogs and cats and birdies.
He decided to go for the high end of the market. Instead of caskets lined with paper, he opted to line the small boxes with satin and provide silk pillows and even little cashmere blankets. And he was successful—so much so that he expanded into wooden urns for those who wanted cremation instead of burial for their dead companions.
He chose wood because it was, he said, “pretty much God’s material.” He used it instead of pottery for his urns, because he could paste a picture of the deceased on it or sometimes carve a cross or a Star of David if the mourner wanted it. It did beg the question, though, of how one could tell if one’s parrot was Jewish.
There was some satisfaction in the work. He took occasional comfort in the fact that one of his urns with a Rover in it was probably right up there with old Uncle Henry on somebody’s mantel.
But overall, his job was depressing, for he had to deal with the wailings and breast-beatings of the bereaved. So he was prone to retreat on many nights to his lonely apartment and indulge in his model-airplane building and the consolation of a “substance” or two.
But his fellow church members loved him and ignored his “problem,” even though they didn’t know what substance he was abusing. He drew a lot of smiles at the coffee hour after church services as folks kept trying to cheer him up.
Nadine Bodene also signed up for the new choir. She was a “caution,” for she was a bit slow. The members of Grace United, however, had welcomed her into the fold even though —some said—she was a few chips shy of a full bag of Fritos.
She once lost her glasses and cried buckets because she said she couldn’t look for them until she found them. And she had been in counseling for many years with a variety of psychologists. But it seemed to her they were asking her to forget what she could not remember. Lately she had begun to think that if one day she found herself, she’d be disappointed.
So Nadine went about with that vacant Did-I-Leave-the-Oven-On look on her face. And although some of the church ladies rolled their eyes about her, they warmly accepted her with Christian love.
The last one to put her name on the Associate Pastor’s sign-up sheet for the new choir was loquacious Chloë Burke. Her hobby was gardening, and she often provided the flowers on the altar for the Sunday services.
She was particularly taken with a variety she called pardalianthes, which, she said, was Latin for “has the power to strangle a leopard.” No one on the Flower Committee had ever challenged that.
Chloë talked a lot—mostly to herself. Her constant murmurings were as disconcerting as Harry’s humming and often taxed the patience of her fellow committee members. Her mutterings made it harder for those around her to concentrate on the important church business at hand.
Chloë’s life had been largely influenced by accidents. She had met her husband, Paul, by mistake. He had meant to call another girl but got the numbers mixed up. And on one occasion after they were married, he had lost her in a big K-Mart and had spent an hour wandering the aisles whispering “Chloë?” She had been in the ladies’ room for most of that time.
Chloë had initially been a bit reluctant to join the new choir. “How much time would it take?” she asked. “Would I have to come to every rehearsal and performance?”
For she was wont to go to foreign lands—sometimes to winter wonderlands, particularly in the summer. And she loved to recall her trips in some detail—to herself. But there was something unusual about her travels—they all took place in her mind. Would becoming a member of the new choir hamper her travel-without-leaving-home hobby? she asked.
But her decision to sign up was really made for her. Over the years, Chloë had developed a bit of a hearing problem. And her husband, Paul, didn’t speak very clearly.
The result was that lately they had been having some problems communicating. The double handicap had resulted in some odd dialogue:
He: “Did you hear we are going to have more snow tonight?”
She: “No, he won’t win.”
And one day she told the Associate Pastor that she liked his reference in the sermon to the parable about the multitude that loafs and fishes. Her husband was like that, she said.
And for some time now, she had been singing “where the deer and the cantaloupe play” in the refrain of “Home on the Range.” A kindly member had recently pointed out her error at the monthly meeting of one of the church circles.
So her difficulty in hearing made her very sympathetic to the new choir project. She thought perhaps she might eventually go deaf. Learning sign language might help in the future. It was a hedge against the possible.
For signing was to be the mission of the new choir. They were going to be the Silent Choir—communicating mostly through the use of American Sign Language (ASL).