Monday, February 15, 2010

The Music of Memories

by Debra E. Marvin
I can still hear my grandmother’s voice singing the old hymns. My grandparents lived with us when I was growing up and we attended the local Presbyterian church. I don’t have to tell you that grandparents are special to children and I’m not just saying that because I’m a grandmother now, either. They’re like parents, only better. They have time.

Being an only child, grandpa was my playmate. We read together, played games and my ‘record player’ together, often while mom and grandma went out shopping. Things changed a lot when I was seven. He died of heart disease. But I still had my Mimi.

Jump forward to the mid 80s. My children knew her as the old woman whose mind had become confused and who spent so much time in front of a television, but took great joy in tickling them. She seemed to subsist on tea and cookies more than any other food group. And yet once in awhile, thankfully, her sassy, fun-loving nature showed through.

I believe music is heard in the soul and rises out of the spirit. We can recall silent notes and reproduce them in pitch. Our father God created music for His pleasure and being made in His image, our souls respond. While I love the new contemporary worship and praise songs (I couldn’t decide which Casting Crowns songs to pick), I chose an old favorite.

When we sing the old hymns, we are sharing history with ancestors--across country borders, across denominational lines, through every joy and grief found in the human condition. A small country parish in Nebraska, or magnificent cathedral in Europe. It doesn’t matter. We may not sound like angels, but we share their chorus. In God's dimension beyond time, music endures, a never-ending melody that is a language of its own.

We raise our voices and join all those who’ve preceded us on this spiritual walk. Joy rises on the wind, and tears fall.

Sunday afternoons, I’d take my children to visit Grandma Mimi in the nursing home. A couple times a month, a middle-aged couple did church service. They really invested in getting to know the residents, gave a little message and led them in hymns. The mind remembers notes and lyrics. When my grandmother eventually forgot who I really was to her, she still knew the words.

One of the residents was a tiny woman; her voice as stereotypical ‘little old lady’ as they came. Above all those reedy voices, you could hear her high pitched notes. Funny as it might be, and often was, there was something about hearing those elderly residents singing a hymn. To this day, I have a hard time with "The Old Rugged Cross". It’s hard to sing when you’re choked up, isn’t it? But there’s a joy in knowing that a song has linked us all together over decades and across the planet. And it brings my grandmother back to me.

One last thing. A few months ago, I went through my mother’s personal things after she, too, moved into a nursing home. This included several old jewelry boxes. I almost put the last one aside, but opened it, took out a few pieces—vaguely familiar—and then the most amazing thing happened. I realized it was my grandmother’s jewelry box. Because it smelled like her. Our minds are amazing, aren’t they? It seems that notes and lyrics and fragrances are really just memories waiting to transport us. So I leave you with this song.

Listen carefully and you’ll hear my grandmother’s voice. Or do you hear your grandmother’s?

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,

The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best...For a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,

Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it on dark Calvary.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

Do you have a ‘memory’ story to share? How has a song or a fragrance brought back a loved one to you? What's your favorite 'old hymn'?

Thank you for visiting today
The Old Rugged Cross was written by George Bennard in 1912 or 1913. Seems no one can agree. It is in the public domain.

Here's a version by country singer Alan Jackson:


  1. Hi, Debra! What a lovely post! I do understand how special grandparents are to an only child. My Mom and I always lived with her parents, so I was very blessed to also "be raised" by my Gran and Paw Paw. I love old hymns. Mom played the piano by ear. I used to ask her where those "extra notes" came from, and she said that was just her style! For many years she provided the only music in the little Baptist church which she and my grandparents attended while she was growing up. Her favorite hymn was "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", and mine is "Peace in the Valley". Both were written by Thomas A. Dorsey. Mom and I loved to watch Bill Gaither and his "Homecoming" specials.

  2. My mom and I were talking just yesterday about how the music today just doesn't even compare with gospel hymns. I liked this post.

  3. What a sweet and sad story! I was just thinking yesterday in church how music was the souls language. I love to praise through song.

  4. As I read the song I could hear the pastor of my childhood hippy church belting it out over my shoulder. I heard the warbling voice of my great-aunt Dolores.

    I'm more of a contemporary girl by taste, but there's something very special about the old hymns. I read a book recently talking about liturgical prayers, and how as we say them, we can feel ourselves surrounded by the "cloud of witnesses" who have said them before us. I think hymns work the same way. I've noticed that our youngest worship leaders are the ones reintroducing hymns at our church.

    And Deb, this passage: I believe music is heard in the soul and rises out of the spirit. We can recall silent notes and reproduce them in pitch. Our father God created music for His pleasure and being made in His image, our souls respond. -- Pure Poetry

  5. Hey, by the way, if you're enjoying this music topic as much as I am, you may want to take note that Suzie, Susanne, and I have all continued the theme on our personal blogs.

  6. What a bittersweet, beautiful post, Deb. Music is really such a personal thing isn't it. There is no right or wrong. Just what moves us and helps us to connect.

  7. Thanks, Ladies. My mother had the privilege of knowing her English grandmother when she was growing up. She always talked about how she said "Make dishes your friend, because they will always be with you". Her way to do this was to sing hymns while washing and drying, so it was part of my growing up too.

    Thanks Virginia for your sweet words and understanding the unique relationship of a child surrounded by loving adults. I've said it before, I may not have got 'everything I wanted' but I certainly knew I was loved. I'm going to have to check out your hymns. I always look forward to your comments!

  8. Adge, I think both Contemporary and the old songs have the power to touch and teach us, but there is certainly something 'big' about hymns and I think it's that they've been doing their thing for so many years. That was my thought as I wrote this; they connect us somehow to a larger corporate worship.

    I like hearing how some of the younger worship leaders are plugging in to the power of the old hymns. thanks Dina for your thoughtful words. Coming from you, that is rich praise!

  9. T.Anne - thanks for commenting. If you haven't had a chance, check out last weeks and the rest of this week's Inky posts on this theme. When we brainstorm up ideas, we never know how our readers will respond. Certainly, a song theme was a good idea!

    I have to confess - I wrote a different post a couple weeks ago and then saw that Jen wrote on the same topic -my favorite hymn, It is Well With My Soul. But I have learned to go with the flow and when I went with my second choice, I knew it was really God's first choice because ... well, as a writer we just know when the inspiration is stronger! So I'm very pleased it has touched people. Thanks to Donna and Susan who commented via facebook! Your encouragement is the reason we continue to post.

  10. Awww fair making me cry just before I have to leave for work. This was just beautiful. And as Dina said, pure poetry. I can't sing I Come to the Garden Alone, without getting all choked up because they sang it at my Grandpa's service (which I was unable to attend) and then we sang it again at my Grandma's service. So I'm always thinking of them whenever I hear it.

  11. Beautiful post, Deb! Second day in a row, I see! While 'Old Rugged Cross' is a favorite of mine, my very favorite is 'Onward Christian Soldier.' When alone and sure no one is within earshot, I can still belt that one out!


  12. Sorry Susie Jo. But thanks for sharing about your grandparents. That song has a special place in my heart, just because it's so true. People ask me how I can find enjoyment in weeding a garden for hours. Well, it's because I know how God is about Gardens! A perfect place to talk to Him.

    Connie. This made my day. I remember playing that one on my old electric organ when I was --well a long time ago. One of the easier hymns to play with one finger.
    Just for sharing this with us, I promise to think of it and sing for you this week.
    Take care my friend!

  13. Deb, I was raised by my mom and grandmother, and my great-grandmother lived with us until she died. As you can see, I was surrounded by elder-ladies. I can so relate to how a smell will take you back to a certain time and place.

    One of my grandma's favorite hymns was Count Your Blessings. But instead of singing "count your blessings, count them one by one" she would sing, "count them ton by ton." She said it was because God is so good He showers us with tons of blessings. At her funeral, I asked that we sing that hymn grandma's way. Now I can't hear the song without thinking of her.

  14. Thanks for sharing this. It brings a lot of memories of my Mom and Grandmother. Grandma is gone now, and Mom is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's. She doesn't really know anyone anymore, but she can still sing songs. I can see Mom in our kitchen and hear her singing "Victory in Jesus". Still can't sing that one without choking up.


  15. Deb, this post reminds me of my Finnish grandmother whom we called, Mum-ma which means 'old woman' in Finn. I don't want to talk about her too much here because I'm doing that next week when it's my turn to post on this theme. Let me just say that I can see her sitting on a kitchen chair in her farmhouse, ankles crossed and swinging forward and then beneath the chair, her braided hair wrapped around her head, and singing the Old Rugged Cross in her accented english. Thank you for reminding me.

  16. Jennifer - what a blessing to have those 'elder ladies around'. I think our children's generation is not as 'blessed'. Grandparents are an amazing addition to a family circle. Larger extended families were the norm and knowledge and experience were a bit more respected too.

    Karen, my mother just went in to a dementia unit last November. It was a blessing to not have to worry about her safety, and I'm happy to say she's happy there too. So I choose to remember the better days and her little ditties, and the hymns.

    It's really hitting home to me this week how much less common it is to have grandmas in the home. Maybe we are the last generation to have grandmas and hymns are part of our childhood memories.

    Thanks for sharing about your Mum-ma, Anita and I look forward to your turn. Your example blessed me, and with your beautiful description, I can hear her and see her sharing in that old hymn across time!

  17. What a touching post, Deb. All the comments got to me too. I'm overcome with memories of my grandparents, none of whom were active in my life, but I loved them and I always knew that they loved me. My Pa's favorite hymn was Mansion On The Hill; my other grandfather liked In the Garden. I am so thankful I'll be seeing them in Heaven someday.

  18. Susie - A little birdy told me to expect a post about "A Mansion on the Hill"

    I guess we'll have to get our tissues out for that one too.

  19. HI Deb,
    Awesome post! I think one of my favorite hymns is, "Come, thou Fount of every blessing."

    Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
    tune my heart to sing thy grace;
    streams of mercy, never ceasing,
    call for songs of loudest praise.
    Teach me some melodious sonnet,
    sung by flaming tongues above.
    Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it,
    mount of thy redeeming love.

    It doesn't remind me of anything from my youth, but I do love it. And I remember my grandmother cooking meat and potatoes and onions in a big old skillet on the farm. :)

  20. the words are so beautiful, aren't they?
    thanks Jilly!

  21. Deb, insightful post! I adored my grandparents and treasure the time I spent with them :-)

  22. Thanks Narelle -
    we are all so thankful you've joined us and look forward to our new Inky sister's posts!


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