by Wendy A. Horwitz
On Saturday afternoon, Dec. 15, I sat with my 14-year-old son, his father and his grandmother in a second row pew in Grace Lutheran Church in Wyndmoor. We were not there to pray but to attend my daughter’s guitar recital. (My daughter, Anne Shipley, 11, is a student at the Greene Street Friends School.) One by one, girls in velvet, crinoline-poufed dresses and boys in starchy shirts walked with shy smiles to the altar. A tiny girl with glossy black hair plinked “Jingle Bells” on the piano. A tall teenager belted out a popular song, microphone held to her mouth, like an “American Idol” star. There was the usual mix of charming off-key violin, tentative notes punctuated by reassuring glances with a teacher, and once, the bell-like soprano of a little boy in a plaid shirt.
But this was no ordinary recital. After Mickey Leone, co-director of SoundStage School of Music in Oreland, introduced the concert, Pastor Carol Ficken spoke to us. Around her neck she wore a festive jingle bell on a slender red ribbon. She welcomed us and without being explicit, she alluded to the killings in Newtown, Connecticut, the previous day. Pastor Ficken invited us to think about the “blessing of our children and of their teachers who support them in fulfilling their hopes and dreams.”
I felt a wave of gratitude. We could not merely sit there, watching our children play, knowing that other families had eagerly anticipated recitals and Christmas pageants and Hanukkah parties and gatherings around fragrant dinner tables, but instead were in mourning.
A boy with a sweet round face sang “Here Comes the Sun.” A brother-sister duet did John Lennon’s “Imagine.” When they’d rehearsed during the previous weeks, they hadn’t known how appropriate those Beatles songs would become.
My son looked at me, part chagrin, part curiosity. “Are you crying, mom?” he whispered. He thought I was being my corny self, reacting to the adorable children and too prone to tears anyway. “Trying not to,” I answered. “I’m thinking about the shootings.” He nodded; he’d understood. But I had to get the crease out of my brow and prevent the tears from spilling before my daughter’s turn.
A girl of about 7 or 8 began singing “Little Drummer Boy.” She gazed at the space above our heads, and though she’d obviously lost a front baby tooth, she smiled confidently. In a simple velvet dress, her light brown hair surrounding a face that I can only describe as beatific, she sang in a clear voice, steady as a drumbeat, each note, each word, enunciated. Not too loud, not too soft; not too fast, not too slow. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, she sang, rum-pum-pum-pum, rum-pum-pum-pum.
That familiar melody: Muzak versions in malls and in CVS have numbed us to its power. Perhaps we were numb as well to shootings: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Lindhurst, Nickel Mines. Ever heard of Chardon High? February 27, 2012: three students killed. No U.S. state is immune, no year untouched.
At Grace Lutheran, I listened, and the girl’s Christmas song felt like a dirge, but also, like the bum-ba-dum firmly tapped by a child who forges ahead with his drum in the night. She repeated her chorus, and I noticed above her the bright stained glass showing Jesus with lambs at his feet. I’m Jewish, so my creed runs different from that depiction. But if I ever believed in a personified deity, I would pray to Jesus or Lord Vishnu or Allah, or even to my own nameless G-d. Protect these children; damn it. That would be my prayer.
By the time my daughter got up, beautiful in her baggy jeans and pixie haircut, I’d pulled myself together and relished every perfect thrum on her big new guitar, every lyric to “Baby’s in Black.” Anne’s rockabilly twang was as defiant as the candle in the wind.
Since I don’t believe in a miracle-making god, I sought religion in another way. That afternoon, I sent donations to charity and email to Congress and the President. I pleaded for gun-control legislation. We cannot always prevent human beings from acting on rage, extremism or psychotic confusion, but we can ban the weapons that render violence worse and more frequent.
That night, I lit my eight Hanukah candles said the benedictions. Little oval flames were steady above my brass menorah. Then I lit an extra candle, a votive, for Sandy Hook Elementary School, the families, friends, the mother and her troubled son and for all of us in this dark night of our souls.