November 13, 2018

Tommy and his children’s choir

Time for a long post tonight. It’s been a few days since I made one and there’s a lot rattling around inside my brain so I’m going to do my usual therapy of starting to write and see where it leads. It just feels right to let some of my, well not exactly demons, maybe more just excessive bits and pieces of emotional experience out to play and let the world make of them what it might.

What’s been going on? Last weekend was all about church. For those of you who haven’t figured it out, I’m a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham and have been for nearly twenty years. Steve and I joined when he was ill and we had no local support system and I wouldn’t have made it through the whole process of his sickness and death without the people there to fall back on. Then it became instrumental in my and Tommy’s courtship and our lives together. Over the years, I’ve had lots of different roles there. I’m on my third go round on the Board of Directors. I’ve served on more committees than I care to count. Ellise Pruitt Mayor and I got up to all sorts of hijinks with stewardship dinners. When I first started to sing, I joined the choir and am still there fifteen years later. Tommy’s involvement was even deeper than mine. He sang in the choir, acted as cantor, and founded the children’s music program, The Flames of Harmony.

When Tommy went back to school at the University of Montevallo in his 40s, he knew he wanted to work in music. He ended up with degrees in choral education and speech pathology but, at pushing 50, a gay man in Alabama, and with deep roots in Birmingham that kept him from going anywhere else easily, he wasn’t exactly catnip to the public school system. He had figured out his niche was working with younger kids and he did a lot of pick up jobs in elementary music education – long term subs in Birmingham area schools, teaching parent/infant/toddler music classes at the UAB arts extension, and eventually putting together the children’s choir at church.

The children’s choir came about starting in 2011 when he was asked by Rev. Lone Broussard to help with an intergenerational service for the holidays based on the Las Posadas traditions of the southwest. (Her previous church had been in Arizona). That was the beginning of Andy and Tommy productions presents the UU Children’s Holiday Pageant which continued up through last Christmas. At the second one we did, Tommy put together a pick up choir from some of the younger kids with an interest in music and a program was born. Early December would get wild at our house. The dining room would disappear under Tommy sewing nativity robes. Andy would be pressed into service making props. The year we had to move into a motel for a week and take all of that with us as the house was being painted was truly special. Yes, you can do theatrical production out of a second floor room at the Lakeshore Candlewood Suites and live to tell the tale…

He was eventually given a room in the church for the kids choir and music education. We spent three or so years furnishing it with instruments, various musical education books and projects, storage space, a piano. We had one whole long wall painted in blackboard paint for a combination of education and creative doodling. Tommy wanted the best for his kids. He remained active in the state music educator’s association and we went off together to a number of national conferences over the years. He was very into solfege (Do a deer…) and the Orff method of music education and we would wander the halls at the national Orff association meetings looking for good deals on xylophones and glockenspiels.

Tommy and the kids in his music classroom

The church didn’t have the money to fund the program the way he wanted it so we just bought what he needed. He had a vision of what he thought the program could become with time so he was always planning three or four steps ahead. There were times when I would say are you sure you need a $600 rosewood tenor xylophone and he would just give me that look until I got out the debit card. He called me up about a year and a half ago and told me “I found a piano for the kids”. He had been using an electric and he really wanted a small acoustic. Great I said. He told me the price. It wasn’t unreasonable. Great I said. He neglected to tell me that it was at some elderly woman’s house out at Smith Lake and that he would need to pay to have it picked up, loaded up in a truck, driven sixty miles, and tuned on its arrival. He viewed all those sorts of things as inconveniences which would just be disposed of in turn.

When he got sick last March, it was a week before the kids were scheduled to perform for service. Guess who had to get them ready for that service and conduct. I was pretty terrible but the kids rose to the occasion. I taped it on my phone and brought it to him in the hospital to listen to. His assessment was that the kids were fine but that I had no business trying to conduct anything as I had trouble keeping a steady beat. He was quite right.

His classroom is still as he left it as he fully intended to return to it. He wasn’t done with it and he was full of plans of what he wanted to do next. I really hadn’t been in it since he died. I wasn’t specifically avoiding it, but there hadn’t really been a reason for me to be down there. On Saturday, I met with Becca Rogers whom the church has hired to continue his work with the kids and I took her through the classroom and explained what and where everything was. His handwriting was still on the blackboard. His name tags from various music conventions and UU General Assembly were there. There were the piles of music of the pieces he was next planning on teaching the kids. It was a great big slap in the face about how unfinished his life had been left. I went up to our new minister’s office and Julie Conradyhelped put me back together after losing it.

Most days I’m doing OK but there are moments when I know that I’m really not and I’m far from being normal and the world is just going to have to bear with me a bit longer. I feel, at times, like I am sleepwalking through someone else’s life. I get up, I go to work, I meet my commitments, but there’s a level of detachment. I think there has to be or, especially given what I do professionally, I’m going to feel too much and it’s going to become overwhelming. The one thing that I know can always break through and get the emotions going is music.

This week is dress rehearsal week for a Brahms piece the ASO chorus is singing for the masterworks concert this weekend. My 19th century poetic German isn’t all that good (Tommy would have translated it and written the translation and the phonetics all down the margins but I’m too lazy) but there are some lovely moments that make me feel connected to the hundred or so other singers and the orchestra and make me thank God for having met Tommy who got me to do things like audition for the symphony. That is Tommy’s legacy. He made an indelible impression on the church choir kids, he got them ready for bigger and better things that I know Becca is going to be able to bring to the table, and he got a lonely man out of his own head, taught him to live again, and taught him to sing, something he’ll be able to do for many more years.

I’ll be travelling starting this weekend for a week or so, so the travelogues and stories will continue. And I’ve got to get that next column finished or Sue Millinocket is going to have my hide…

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