It was Monday and I had spent some quality time in the garden. This resulted in extra shower time to get ready for the funeral. I needed to scrub my fingernails and toenails so that I looked like the funeral singer, not the grave digger. Kyle was a grave digger before I knew him, which lends his back story a certain fun freak quality, but he says it was just mostly really hard and not that spooky.
It's still a great party starter. What was your first job after high school?
Then he married a funeral singer. We must have been destined.
I had put my hymnal and music in my color appropriate black bag the night before, so really all that was left after the nail scrubbing shower was to scrunch myself into one of my black funeral singing dresses. I have a cold weather one, a cool/spring weather one and a hot weather one, but I can only wear that one if I lose some weight. Some church ladies once called a parish I was working for to complain about how things were overflowing when I leaned over.
No men called to complain.
I haven't lost all the COVID weight yet. Good thing the heat wave was over on Sunday, because I couldn't wear the hot weather black dress.
I started practicing for this funeral three days earlier to get my voice back in shape. I don't sing as much during the summer, and I have this little non-Covid cough. It seems to have started with some vocal strain I developed during a music ed class I took in July. It was two weeks of singing-all-day-with-mask-on-hell that seems to be hanging on. I have to admit, the cough is worse on days after I have been drinking.
Maybe the drinking is part of the reason I haven't lost enough weight to wear the hot weather black dress?
Most of the time when we arrive to play a funeral, we get there about forty-five minutes early. This gives us enough time to set up the mic and music stand, set out our music, run a couple of songs to warm-up, and then Charlie plays some prelude music. I usually sit in the pew and run back and forth to the bathroom to reapply lipstick—it runs into my wrinkles more and more now—and pee. I try to drink a lot of water to hydrate the vocal cords from all the alcohol the previous night. It gives us about fifteen minutes between set-up and prelude to dink around, chat up the hearse drivers, that sort of thing.
But this funeral was different. When we arrived, there was no piano.
No piano. The church had been closed for good by the Archdiocese at the end of June. Our Lady of Mount Virgin. Charlie and I didn't even know it had been officially closed. The diocese opened it back up for the day just so that the family could have their mother's funeral in the church that she had been married in, where all her kids had been baptized and where she had lived her life. We never thought to check and see if there was a piano there. I don't think I have ever arrived at a Catholic church to sing and there was no piano.
If we had known, Charlie could have brought one of his pianos. He has five. His apartment is like the anteroom for American Music. He has two acoustic pianos—the kind that you can't move, very large pieces, which is one more than he needs, don't get me started on that story—and three electric pianos which are portable. I mean he could have brought one of his electric pianos and left it forever in the church that day. After a bit, he wouldn't have even noticed it was missing. I know this because I have seen him leave all manner of things about over the 30+ years I have known him.
While we are pondering this new and troubling situation and trying not to look like we are freaking out, the daughter-in-law calls up another church and runs out the door to go and fetch a piano. Because we usually set up first and then chat up later, it threw me off a bit to do the chatting up before the setting up. I got to meet the large family, mostly Croatians and Italians. One of them, Johnny, the nephew (I think) was straight out of central casting for The Sopranos—olive complexion, slick black hair and a large persona complete with a black and white striped bowling shirt. Who could have imagined the dude sang like an angel in Croatian and played, wait for it, the accordion?
Charlie positions himself out by the hearse to wait for the piano delivery where he uses paper towels to mop his brow in the heat. Remember the hot weather black dress that I couldn't wear? I am feeling a bit sad about that at this point while I am stork walking around the church, attempting to look cool in my two-inch heels in search for a piano bench. About the time that I found it—actually an organ bench, not a piano bench, and in the woman's restroom playing the role of a flower table—the piano shaped object arrives. And it is a beauty, all five pounds of it, minus the pedal, a very important part actually. Without it there is no sustain and basically everything is staccato, or in non-musical terminology, choppy and clipped sounding.
At five minutes to ten, Charlie slings the piano over his shoulder, and I see his bobbing bald pate portaging it across the sanctuary. Meanwhile, I am, with exceptional grace, trying not to run up the aisle with the eager teenager who is lugging the organ bench from its humble placement in the restroom to its new, more exalted place, in the sanctuary. Accompanied by the accordion music soundtrack from the loft, it was sort of Benny Hill meets Cinema Paradiso. Charlie's posterior was well positioned, and I was in my place at 10:05 am—we were just fashionably late—culturally appropriate for Southern Europe, right?
The rest of the funeral proceeded as if nothing was amiss, as nothing really ever is at funeral when every character belongs, and every line is scripted in improvisation. This sweet woman was 94 when she died and the church was full, unusual for someone so aged, a testament to her love of family and their consequent devotion to her. After a beautiful eulogy delivered by the granddaughters, Johnny slings out his Croatian folk song, making everyone cry, even though most of us didn't know a word of Croatian.
The fact that the piano didn't have a pedal could have been just one more stylistic choice in the ambiance of an old, recently closed, recently re-opened Catholic church. With all of the signs in the church rendered in English and Vietnamese, our seven hundred and eightieth version of the Ave Maria, a la harpsichord style was not actually that weird—just an additional part of the scenery. Another day in the life of a musician.
Kyle always says when I leave to sing at a funeral, “Knock 'em dead.” And so we did.