Today I got to be the substitute pianist in Primary. From the time I was eighteen, I served as a Primary pianist for about fifteen years, in several different wards. I’ve always thought Primary pianist is the best calling in the church. You get to experience all the energy and sweetness of working with children without actually really having to work with them. Minimal responsibility, maximum joy. (Of course, this is only true if you are a confident piano player. Piano players who lack confidence will find the Primary pianist calling torturous, as it involves quite a lot of piano playing.) However, I have not served as a Primary pianist (even as a substitute) in the almost-five years that I have been in my current ward. It was a tad embarrassing today when these songs I used to be able to play in my sleep proved rather…elusive to the old fingertips. Well, it was sort of like riding a bicycle in the end, and at least I didn’t hurt myself. I did enjoy the reminder of why I love Primary (at least from behind a piano).
I’ve often thought that being ghettoized in the Primary–specifically on the Primary piano bench–was God’s gift to me during a relatively long period of spiritual malaise. When prayer became an iffy proposition and cynicism and bitterness seemed to pervade most of my waking hours, music was always a reliable form of worship for me, the only way the Holy Ghost could seem to touch me. People who can’t play the piano are always extraordinarily grateful for those of us who can, but particularly after having children, the opportunity to sit down and play the piano–without little people screaming at me to stop and pour them some juice already–has always felt pretty indulgent to me. It was the one part of Sunday that was truly a day of rest.
Today we were practicing for the Primary program, which I guess is next week. (Funny how I have four children and a husband in Primary and I still don’t know what the heck goes on there. That’s how out I am.) This year’s theme is “I Am a Child of God,” and our Primary gets a lot of mileage out of this song over the course of the program–they sing three verses, reprise the chorus, and re-reprise the chorus in four different languages.
As it happens, I’m not a big fan of “I Am a Child of God,” which feels like a reasonably blasphemous thing to say, especially since I can’t point to anything particular about the song that I dislike, except that I’ve played/sung/heard it so many stinking times, and the millionth time is not a charm. However, by coincidence my husband had been reading the book I Am a Child of God (with artwork by Greg Olsen) to our daughter the night before. The book, while not something we would have purchased for ourselves (’twas a gift from my mother-in-law), is perfectly fine, except for one page that says, “I know I am a child of God because He surrounds me with people who love and care for me.” This hearkens back to the line in the song about “parents kind and dear.” Last night I made some snarky comment about all the kids God doesn’t feel Fatherly-enough toward to surround with people who love and care for them. (Fortunately our daughter is too young to pick up on sarcasm just yet.)
It occurred to me again today as I was playing these Primary songs, that many songs about the family assume loving relationships that not all kids necessarily enjoy, though I wouldn’t call it a horrible injustice that they’re all forced to sing them in Primary. My husband always had trouble with “We’ll Bring the World His Truth” because it starts out saying, “We have been born, as Nephi of old, to goodly parents who love the Lord,” when certainly not all children are born to parents who love the Lord. I pointed out that this was no more insensitive than suggesting that God sends us all to earthly homes “with parents kind and dear” and that he was probably only inclined to criticize the line because he didn’t like the song in the first place and it wasn’t the sacred cow that “I Am a Child of God” is.
My mother-in-law, who was widowed at a young age and raised her three sons alone, has a problem with “Love Is Spoken Here” because she is so painfully aware that not everyone’s home is one “where every hour is blessed by the strength of priesthood power.” While I appreciate her feelings, there are few things I find more touching than Primary children singing “Love Is Spoken Here”–despite the fact that my children don’t see me kneeling with the family each day, and if they ever stop screaming for juice long enough to hear me whisper a plea to the Father, I don’t imagine it “quiets all [their] fears.” (Certainly not if the thing they fear is not getting their juice in a timely manner.)
I learned at a relatively young age that my mother didn’t like the hymn “Love At Home.” I thought it might be because she felt guilty that our home was not that idyllic haven of joy with the gentle brooklet and brightly-beaming azure sky, but the real reason was that it was the hymn that was being sung as she sat in church one Sunday and decided she had to divorce her first husband. When my mother joined the church, she was pregnant with my older sister and separated from the alcoholic man who’d used her as a punching bag and threatened her with a gun. She had moved out of the home she’d shared with him, but did not initially consider divorce because, well, when you were married, you were married. I think she thought she was eventually going to work it all out somehow. It was while listening to “Love at Home,” that sentimental ode to idealized family life, that she realized that if she wanted to raise her child in a loving home, she had to leave, really leave, her abusive marriage.
So she got a divorce, and eventually she married my father. They had a good marriage, and a good family. It wasn’t perfect–joy wasn’t exactly in every sound, if you know what I mean–but there was love. Years after my initial discovery, I realized that my mother didn’t really dislike “Love at Home.” For a long time it conjured up some painful memories, but at some point those were overshadowed by feelings of gratitude. The reason it was hard for her to listen to “Love at Home” had nothing to do with guilt or resentment; it was just a song with powerful emotional associations, and sometimes it overwhelmed her.
I have similar associations with the song “Families Can Be Together Forever.” Growing up, this was never one of my favorites. I wouldn’t say that it is now. My mother loved it; it nearly always brought tears to her eyes. I thought that was endearingly cheesy of her. A few weeks after she passed away, I was sitting in my Relief Society, and the closing hymn was “Families Can Be Together Forever.” I don’t think I got past the first line before bursting into tears. Uncontrollable sobs, really. As I type this I recall it so vividly. The morning I got the phone call from my father–4:20 a.m.–telling me that my mother was dead, my roommate who had heard the phone ring came into my room and asked if she could pray with me. She herself was a convert, like my mother. She said she felt totally inadequate to the task, but she felt like praying was the thing to do. The first thing she did was express gratitude for the doctrine of eternal families. I don’t remember the rest. I was just so grateful she had thought to pray. It hadn’t occurred to me.
That was almost twelve years ago. To this day I can’t hear “Families Can Be Together Forever” without thinking of my mother and her sentimental tears, my roommate’s prayer and the loving sisters in that Relief Society room, who put their arms around me while I wept. I have to say, it is a challenge to accompany Primary children, when your fingers are out of practice and your eyesight is going anyway, and their innocent, untrained voices singing that song have to go and make you cry.
I’d walked out of Sacrament Meeting earlier because my kids were whining and fighting amongst themselves because we’d accidentally left the Goldfish crackers at home, and my oldest daughter was ruing (again) the day she got baptized, and I sat out in the hall wondering what lesson I was supposed to be learning, as I was cursed with the task of raising these creatures who seemed to suffer from congenital evilness. You might say we were all suffering from a lack of Love At Home (and abroad, for that matter). A day in Primary was what I needed. I remembered that we’re all just fumbling through this life. Our homes are messy and we get frustrated and cantankerous. (Seriously, kids, where’s my juice? Where’s my Goldfish cracker?) Nothing’s like a Primary song. But thank God for Primary songs.