First Organist Didn’t Play


Clara Sullivan, my maternal grandmother, at age 18
Clara Sullivan, my maternal grandmother, at age 18

I’ve been thinking a lot about my maternal grandmother for the last few days. I think maybe I will write a eulogy for her. I’ve already written a lot of what my mom told me about Clara Ida Noe Sullivan in my genealogy website. I’ve tried to be objective about things there. But I want this to be a eulogy from a loving grandson to the only grandparent he ever knew—and incidentally, a grandmother whose eulogy from her daughter (my mom) you wouldn’t want to read.

I ran away to my grandmother, Clara’s house when I was five years old. I didn’t like the way things were going up on Quarry Street, so I packed my suitcase, announced my departure and designated destination, and marched the two blocks down the steep hill and the three more down Greene Street to the rooming house she was minding for my dad, which was across the street from my elementary school. I don’t really remember the details—this is one of mom’s stories—but it must be clear that I felt really comfortable with and trusted Clara.

Clara was one of those people that was considered “stubborn,” “pig-headed,” “mean,” “crazy,” and “simple-minded,” by a variety of people at various times, including her husband, Frank, her mother, Eva, my mom, and even my siblings. I’ve heard the stories, and I think there is some merit to them. But I have to tell you, “little Jimmy” could do no wrong in his grandmother’s eyes. My mom and my dad, in their own way, provided me with everything I needed to feel safe and secure, although I always felt I didn’t live up to my dad’s expectations. But the Clara Sullivan of my mind was my psychological benefactor.

Clara displaying her prize night-blooming Cereus circa 1953
Clara displaying her prize night-blooming Cereus circa 1953

So just for the record, here are some of the things she did to show her love for me.

  • Didn’t lie to me when I asked her, at age five, if Santa really existed or not. (He exists in people’s minds, Jimmie.)
  • Bought my brother and me a hot fudge sunday with cashews and whipped cream at the Crystal Dairy every week without fail. This was after taking us to the movies.
  • Spanked me for pushing my mother in a department store when mom was pregnant with Tom.
  • Let me see my grandfather’s lucky gold gambling ring with the chipped ruby as many times as I asked to.
  • Always begged me to come home for a visit when I had been away for a while.
  • Let me come right over to her house after school so I could listen to “Sky King” on the radio.
  • Baked me two pies whenever I came home even into her eighties.
  • Got me all excited that her night-blooming Cereus was getting ready for its annual show.
  • Played canasta with mom and me and a fourth until the wee hours of the morning.
  • Just plain insisted on being an included member of our household, even though others would have had it otherwise.
  • Bragging, listening to and otherwise enjoying my piano playing, and always asking me to play “Carolina Moon” before I could quit.
  • Said she didn’t believe me when I told her I was gay.
  • Laughed when I made fun of the way she pouted when she got mad.

For these reasons and many more, I hereby announce to the world and the heavens that I had a super grandmother.

After Clara died in January of 1981 at age 90, one day my mother told me a story about her. Her older sister, Ella, had gone to school to be a teacher, but Clara didn’t want to do that. She liked music, and made it known that she would like to be the organist at the little Lutheran church out on Pleasant Ridge where she and her mother lived on the old family homestead after her father, Lou, had died when she was 15. She got a copy of the Lutheran hymnal and practiced and practiced. But she didn’t get the job. Someone else got it. Years later, in her copy of the hymnal, she had written, in her distinctive semi-scrawl—she was a southpaw, to boot—”First Organist Didn’t Play.” Mom said she was very disappointed, even despondent, about this situation.

Well, Clara, you were very much in my heart and mind when I was growing up, while I was grown up, and still. If only you could hear me now say “First (and only) grandmother DID play, and play very well, as just that: First Grandmother.

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Author: Jim Andris

Retired gay married early adopter. Cooking, cleaning, fixing. Makes good music occasionally; U name it. Churchy dude. Likes to think about things, too much, sometimes. Dump Trump. Trying not to do too much harm. Revisiting blogging. Looking for a new handle on things. Exploring genderqueer.