You'd never know it now, but in my youth (and well past it, in bits) I was really a rather churchy little thing.
And one thing that I liked better than almost anything - really better than Christmas, which can be something of a surfeit, the season lasts so long and has so much ecclesiastical as well as other sorts of richness - was Palm Sunday.
Our Denomination (the correct one, in case you wondering, at least in the firm estimation of all my older relatives, with the exception - a signal one - of Grandmother Muscato, who was raised Methodist, rather to her surprise) was not all that big on Lent (which had suspicious, to the old folks, overtones of Papism), and so Palm Sunday didn't have the big build-up that Advent brings to December. Suddenly - rather like spring, really - here it is.
These days, when I'm really not churchy at all, that's only all the more so. One minute it's March and bitter cold, and you're thinking it really is time to get that last box of decorations taken downstairs to storage from its only half-effective hiding place there behind the sofa, and the next there are tulips everywhere, the sun actually feels warm on your face, and it's Palm Sunday. So here we are.
Of all the things about Palm Sunday - which after all lacks most of the trappings of the modern or even traditional holiday; not much in the way of foods or costumed characters here - the thing I liked best was the music. The hymns are both darkly mysterious, full of hints and foreboding (very intriguing to a small child) and unashamedly anthemic, ringing out commands to Crown Him with Many Crowns and Ride On, Ride On in Majesty. Children, too, make an appearance in several, with their unabashedly late Victorian Happy Voices Ringing and Glad Hosannas Crying, and that's always nice when one is oneself a child.
But to me, the very best of all - the heart of my musical year, at least until the next week, Easter and all its Hallelujahs - was the song played out above, "The Palms." In my mind, our small Presbyterian church in its small city by a cold lake was the grandest place imaginable, and its stout old oak organ, tucked off to one side, with the cottony head of little Miss Reed the organist just visible through the Gothic window on one side of the pulpit, was the most majestic instrument this side of the Mighty Wurlitzer that in those days still graced the big old movie palace downtown. I don't suppose the combined forces of Miss Reed, our ragtag choir, and the supplementary voices that joined in on big holidays, were all that much more effective, en masse, than the music box above, but oh to me "The Palms" was just Mormon Tabernacle glorious.
Miss Reed took it at a good clip, and, having had years of practice playing it, she was rather surer of hand and foot than was necessarily always the case. By the time we reached the chorus, with the whole congregation joining in, well, the noise was something. "Join all and sing," and we did, "Let every voice res-ow-how-nd with ah-ha-ha-cla-ma-hay-tion!" Our lead soprano, a tall, thin spinster who rejoiced in the name Myrtle Spute, would get up a really good head of steam and hit preternatural heights on the "Hosannas," and for the big finish, Miss Reed would let loose all the stops for one last chorus and unleash the organ's thrilling (if at times uncertain) chimes feature, as the choir waved palms. One year, I remember, something just came over the congregation and at the end people applauded. Mother, of course, did not approve, but even she had to admit she couldn't blame them.
Year later, still churchy, I became a regular at one of Manhattan's tonier Presbyterian establishments (but not, by far, the toniest - Fifth Avenue Presbyterian was far too high - shades of Papism! - for the likes of me). I was surprised, my first year there, that this Sunday passed by, as it were, Palms-less. New congregant that I was, I didn't hesitate for a moment at the Coffee Hour to inquire just why this old staple was so sadly missing.
You would have thought I had asked our very proper organist - a Yale man, thank you very much - when he last beat his significant other (a wife being as unlikely prospect for Mr. Belderman as husband would have been, all those years ago, for Miss Spute). He was appalled. Those old chestnuts, he declared, were not the sort of thing that featured at Very Proper Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. How was I to know he was one of those tiresome early music buffs, for whom all church music stopped being of interest at some point just before the Napoleonic Wars (with the exception of some excruciating twentieth-century postludes, the sort of thing that sent the old dears scurrying even faster than usual out of the sanctuary toward Fellowship Hall for coffee)? But he was, and he was adamant. He felt badly enough that Our Pastor insisted on The Hallelujah Chorus for Easter, and that, Philistines that we all were, we insisted on standing (but that's a fight for another day).
Well, at length Mr. Belderman and I got to be, if not friends, at least cautiously collegial, but I will tell you this: that was not the sort of response up with which I was inclined to put. I won't say that restoring "The Palms" to its proper place in a proper Palm Sunday service was my sole reason for wriggling my way, Mapp-like, onto the Worship Committee, but I will say that within a very little while - not the next year, say, for these things take time, but quite certainly the year after that - there it was, right there at the apex of the service where it belongs. I chose my battle and my allies carefully, and it turned out that was many and many an old lady at VPPCCNY who, liked me, missed those old chestnuts, and with their Happy Voices Ringing in Mr. Belderman's ears, at length he had no choice. A year or two after that, I even had the choir waving palms, and I believe they enjoyed it a great deal, however mortified their leader looked as, to his everlasting shame, he unleashed the chimes for the final chorus (I insisted).
So, no longer churchy, today I'm happy once more to hear "The Palms." It's especially nice to find it on a disc music-box, for one of the prides of Grandmother Muscato's foursquare old house was the shining mahogany version of one that sat in the window of her garden room. Not a console model like the one above, it was more like a vast and magisterial jewel box, on a table built for no other purpose than holding it that had a rack below for the stack of large discs that power the machine. these ranged from lovely parlor songs like "After the Ball" and "Wait 'Til the Sun Shines, Nelly" to - of course - "The Palms." We'd go home from church on Palm Sunday to find the usual lavish and heavy meal, and once we'd done that justice, Grandfather would go (in a somewhat less solemn version of his Christmas ritual) and wind the music box - an Olympus, I believe; it now sits, treasured if in rather less state, on a landing at My Dear Sister's house - and we'd hear it again. You get to know what's coming on those old discs, and if you look closely, you can see making its way 'round as the disk plays the cluster of indentations toward the rim that indicate a lengthy trill as thrilling as any that Mr. Reed (or Mr. Belderman, for that matter) ever managed with those chimes.
Palm Sunday and its joyful music; then the week that follows, and what you remember isn't so much the Happy Voices and the Glad Hosannas, but the shadows that gather and the little forebodings (Ride on in majesty, the hymn goes, but then veers: in lowly pomp ride on to die - a short, sharp pulling up that always gave me chills) that you might have overlooked in those old songs. It is a powerful thing, that old story, beautiful and terrible, and even for nonbelievers full of things to ponder. I don't pretend to be any great thinker, but in this darkling world I do believe we can use both these days, Palm Sunday and the Easter that comes, this whole Passion Week in fact, to trace some mysteries and wonders, some fallacies and horrors, of moving through the human world. The boundless love we sing about never seems, somehow, to be quite enough, and the wonders and the splendors fade in the din and petty annoyances of the everyday. I used to half-believe that perhaps this year the story would be different, that the palms and the parade, the crown of many crowns and the singing - might change the outcome, the darkness. It never does. What makes it through, though, is what helps us put it all together, even so, in memory and hope: the uncertain chimes of a tetchy old organ, the memories of an old church (closed, now, these dozen years, and derelict, like most of the town in which it sits), and the sounds of Monsieur Fauré's fine anthem, played on a music box.