Hymns for Mrs. Johnson

“BUT MOM,” EXCLAIMED Kim in a voice pitched higher than usual because of her frustration, “I asked Jenny to come over right after she got home from school so we can have plenty of time to build our ‘Frosty the Snowman!’ Can’t I take the cake over to Mrs. Johnson after we finish him? After all, Christmas is only ten days away, and…and…Frosty should be right out there with the bright lights in the yard and…”

“Now, Honey, you know that ordinarily you could,” answered Mrs. Cavendar patiently, noting her twelve-year-old’s keen disappointment, “but I’m afraid the schedule for this afternoon is just a bit too tight for snowman-building. Remember…this is Wednesday, and besides, according to the weather forecast the snow will be here for the rest of the week.” Laughing, Kim’s mother continued, “You and Jenny can create old Frosty’s marvelous sculpture tomorrow, and he’ll be none the wiser or more disappointed, since he doesn’t know about today because he isn’t here yet.”

Her mother’s chuckle didn’t help, but Kim pressed on. “Oh, Mom…you know what’ll happen if I go over to Mrs. Johnson’s…she’ll make me sit down like she always does and play all those old hymns or gospel songs or whatever they are…and I’ll never get away.”

“Well, I’m allowing you a few minutes extra just in case she does ask – not make you,” corrected Kim’s mother. “Besides, she’ll expect to hear Christmas carols today, not those old hymns, as you say, and it won’t hurt you a bit to brighten up her day. After all, she’s very old, you know, and not in the best of health…and she’s all alone….and you know how she enjoys…”

“Okay, Mom…okay.” Kim knew there was no use in arguing any further. In her excitement about the snowman, she had forgotten that it was Wednesday. Her Junior Choir rehearsed at five at the church…then there was supper at the church…then Midweek Bible Study and, finally, Prayer Meeting. This meant that she would have to practice her piano assignment, including those awful scales, in the short time between now and the time to head for church…after the trip to Mrs. Johnson’s.

A quick call to Jenny was in order. “I’m afraid we’ll have to cancel out Frosty today,” she said into the phone, explaining her dilemma to her friend, “do you suppose we can put him together tomorrow?” After a long moment, she shouted, “We can! Good! We’ll start the old boy right after school.” Her mother’s nod of approval of this plan gave Kim a forgiving, if not exactly a warm, feeling.

A few minutes later, Kim was on her way to take the cake to Mrs. Johnson, who lived just around the corner in a neat, little white-brick house that sat close to the street. Her mother not only often sent food over to Mrs. Johnson’s but also visited the elderly lady once or twice a week. On Sundays, the Cavendars picked her up for church when she felt well enough to go, and Kim often ran errands for her – sometimes to the grocery one street over and occasionally to the drugstore. Mrs. Johnson’s husband had died nine years ago, so Kim didn’t remember him, but she had always been fascinated by seventy-nine-year-old Mrs. Johnson, who was born in Germany and had moved to this country in 1948 with her American-soldier husband, who had been a member of the occupying force that stayed in Germany after the war. She was in her early twenties then. They were never able to have children. Still speaking with a slight but noticeable accent – one of the things that fascinated the young girl – she sometimes told the sixth-grader interesting stories of her childhood in the 1930s, once even mentioning the military parades…but just that once, when Kim noticed what she later told her mother seemed like a sort of sad, faraway look.

Almost always when Kim came to her house for any reason, Mrs. Johnson would ask her to play some hymns on the old, upright piano, which her husband had played rather well, and which took up a good part of the small dining room. Indeed, Kim sometimes wondered if Mrs. Johnson didn’t just make up errands for her to run so that she could have some hymns played on the old Wellington piano, a fine instrument. There were times, however, when Kim would rather be doing other things than playing for Mrs. Johnson, and today was one of those times.

Just look at the beautiful snowman-making snow, Kim murmured to herself as she turned the corner, “It looks like whipped cream…hey…I’ll have some snow cream!” she blurted aloud, being reminded of the times she and her mother skimmed the crusty top from the snow, scooped out the clean snow beneath, mixed it with sugar and vanilla…and feasted on snow-cream. Gee, I hope Mrs. Johnson doesn’t want hymns played today…maybe I could talk Mom into some snow-cream before practicing those old scales. That wouldn’t take long.

Slipping and sliding along in the new-fallen snow – more on purpose than by accident, never mind her precious cargo – she soon arrived at Mrs. Johnson’s and rang the doorbell. By now, she had decided she simply would not go in but would explain to the old lady why she must hurry home. She heard footsteps in the hallway, and then there was Mrs. Johnson saying, “What a surprise, Kim, come in…come in…take off your coat…I’ll have you a cup of hot chocolate in a jiffy!”

“Oh no, Mrs. Johnson, you see…I have to…”

“Oh now, Kim, come on, you can surely take time for a cup of hot choc…oh, Kim, what have you there…don’t tell me your sweet mother has sent me something again.”

“Well yes, she just finished this cake and thought you might like some.” By now, Kim had practically been pulled into the house by Mrs. Johnson.

“Oh…you are all so good to me. But now I know you’re in a hurry so I will go right out and make that hot chocolate.” Mrs. Johnson paused. “And, Kim…while I get it started, do you suppose you could play a few hymns for an old woman who loves to hear you…more, even, than the church organist?”

I knew it…I knew it, Kim thought to herself, but even as she sighed inwardly, she had to admit that Mrs. Johnson’s words gave her one of those warm feelings.

“And, Kim, would you do me a special favor this time and play some hymns that I’ll just jot down on this slip of paper?” As Kim nodded, Mrs. Johnson wrote quickly on a small pad, gave it to Kim, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Kim looked at the titles – “When They Ring the Golden Bells,” “In the Sweet By and By,” “No Night There,” and “Beyond the Sunset.” She had played one or two of them before, she vaguely remembered, but never all four – or even any two of them – in the same session. These aren’t Christmas carols, she thought, remembering what her mother had said she would be playing and puckering her brow as she looked up the numbers of the hymns in one of the old, worn hymnals that were always on the top of the piano.

She began to play, taking note of the words as well as she could, something her teacher, also the music director at the church, told her she must do in order to get the right sound. He said the text was the main thing in a hymn and would be remembered by the listeners or participants best if the music was just right, made that way by the feeling the words gave to the player who let it flow through the fingers to the keyboard. Unlike many, if not most, piano teachers, at least with the better students, he had combined the hymn-style of playing involving striking chords, as well as disconnected notes, as part of his teaching, and Kim was an excellent student. She had become good enough to substitute at times in her Sunday School department when the regular pianist was absent. Gee, she thought as she played the feelings pensively, these hymns are not about Christmas…they’re all about heaven…and life after death.

Almost immediately she sensed, rather than observed, the presence of Mrs. Johnson in the doorway to the kitchen. Stealing a quick glance as she shuffled the pages and continued through the list, she noticed little rivulets of tears streaming down the wrinkled, kindly face. She had noticed this occasionally before when playing for Mrs. Johnson, but she felt something different this time. As she read the words along with the music, she felt a warmness and an impulse to make it just right, and her hands seemed to find a mysterious mood of tenderness. She felt more like a listener than the producer of the music…almost as if she were outside herself, standing in the doorway with her old friend.

When she finished the fourth hymn, the last verse of which was comprised of these words: Beyond the sunset/O glad reunion/With our dear loved ones/who've gone before/In that fair homeland/ we'll know no parting/Beyond the sunset/forever more, she sat quietly for a moment, not caring to turn around. She was embarrassed because of Mrs. Johnson’s tears.

Usually, the old lady quickly wiped away her tears, put on a big smile, and even managed a witty quip or offered her a delicious cookie. But today was different. After a moment of hesitation, Mrs. Johnson sat down beside Kim on the piano bench. Pressing a handkerchief gently to her eyes and face, she said, “Kim, your sweet playing is very special today. You see, I received word this morning that my brother Hans – you know, the one I’ve told you about who is just a year younger than I and who writes me every month – died last night in Dresden. I haven’t seen him for 15 years and only that once – in 1990, after the wall came down – since 1948. Remember, I told you about the trip we took…that’s the last time I saw Hans.”

Kim looked away momentarily as Mrs. Johnson, biting her lip and fighting back the tears, continued, “I’m an old woman now, and I’m not able to go to the few family members I have left in Germany…and I won’t ever see Hans again…but your playing has helped me so much to remember…and to believe…that I will see him and my husband and all those others…all of them…someday…some beautiful day.”

For a long moment, they just sat – the young girl and the old lady – very quietly. Then Mrs. Johnson pressed a small, worn, leather-backed book into Kim’s hands. “This is a little German Bible that Hans gave me when I was about your age. He was the first to tell me about Jesus, after he had started attending a Sunday School class on Sunday afternoons when he was just a boy…there in Dresden. We didn’t come from a religious family. I’ve kept it and read it all these years. Now, I want you to have it.”

The hot chocolate was forgotten in the interval of silence that followed. Quietly, without saying anything, Kim got up, put on her coat, and clasped the little Bible in her mittened hands. As she turned to leave, she said in a voice barely above a whisper, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Johnson…I’ll go right now and tell my mom.”

Back at home after her mother had left to be with Mrs. Johnson, Kim sat alone in the Cavendar living-room and stared through the window at the glistening snow, feeling like neither practicing piano, doing homework, making snow-cream, nor anything else. She thought again of Mrs. Johnson’s wrinkled tear-moistened face and what it must be like to be old and frail, far from home…and alone. She felt a shivery, goose-bumpy warmth, though, as she remembered her playing that afternoon. Oh how glad I am that I went over, she thought. She gazed again at the little Bible. She couldn’t read a word of it, but she imagined a young German boy and his sister…reading…and talking…about Jesus.

Based on story by author, Jim Clark, published in Young Musicians, April 1973, The Sunday School Board, Southern Baptist Convention, Nashville, Tennessee. Permission granted.