Summer Sunday mornings on Horseshoe Lake were quieter than most. There were no chain saws running, no motorboats save the rare fisherman. The Senness kids were in town, at church with their parents and grandparents. The Brandt kids next door wouldn’t be coming out from town until after Sunday dinner, and if the Holm kids were around on a given weekend, they just preferred to sleep in until their grandma whipped up one of her extraordinary brunch breakfasts. Even the loons usually seemed to be taking the day. The other denizens of the west side of Horseshoe were elderly, and either sleeping in or sitting quietly on their respective porches, sipping coffee.
Summer Sunday mornings on Horseshoe Lake were quieter than most, at least until Lila started playing hymns on her old pump organ.
As devout and G-d fearing as Lila Andren was, we did not go to church. She and organized religion had had a falling-out, and for the last forty years of her life, save the stray wedding or funeral, she never set in a church.
But her faith was among the strongest I have ever known.
The brownish-gray pump organ had been found and refurbished by her husband Ivar, a large, gruff exterior/teddy bear interior of a Swedish immigrant. A retired plumber, Ivar had rescued the old organ from a long-defunct church and brought it to a guy in Brainerd who brought the musical innards back to life, while Ivar himself tackled refinishing the wood of the organ and its matching bench.
The finished product was about the same length as a standard upright piano, and just a tad longer than Ivar and Lila’s couch, and they placed it smack-dab against the back of the couch, facing due east, with a view out the large bank of picture windows.
The morning sun, rising over the jack pines on Huxtable Point and shining through those windows, turned that living room into as pure a chapel as I could have ever sat in.
Though I rarely did, able as I was to hear Lila’s playing and singing quite clearly from my bedroom in the basement just below.
I reveled in waking up on summer mornings with the sun piercing through open windows, the breeze bringing the scent of pine, the smell of the lake through screened windows I never closed. Sunday mornings brought the added soundtrack of pump-organ music, and classic Christian hymns. Mostly she played, sometimes she sung – in English, and on rare occasions German, her native tongue. Lila had left Austria for America shortly after Hitler came to power. Among her belongings from that trek were an old Bible and a couple of piano books and hymnals.
Ivar and Lila once had a small upright piano, but it didn’t get played much. Ivar tracking down and revitalizing that pump organ, with all its hand knobs and foot bellows, seemed to awake some dormant part of Lila. She dove into playing hymns on Sunday mornings with a fervor, and her voice was not the typical higher-pitched woman’s but more of a gravely baritone – though she could hit the high notes when needed.
I could lay there in bed and her every note played, every word sung drifting in through the window – with the added backbeat of her feet working the foot bellows through the floor just above. Well into her seventies, she was in great shape – had to be, to work that old organ.
Not only was I able to enjoy those Sunday morning hymn fests, but much of the west side of Horseshoe Lake did as well. That old pump organ, built to fill an old church with the music of faith, was a bit overpowering for a modest, Minnesota lake home living room.
On days when Lila was really cranking them out, I could not even come upstairs, as it was too loud even for my pre-teen ears. If I went out, I simply used the front door of the walkout basement, and would head for the dock. There I could sit, watch the new day unfurl, hear Lila playing and singing just as clearly as if I had been sitting in church.
It may have been as close to G-d as I could get here on earth, though I was too young to appreciate those moments for what they really were at the time.
Snippets of hymn lyrics come back to me from time-to-time, in moments logical and odd. To this day, I still prefer a classic set of hymns to contemporary church music. For my money, any church could flip-flop Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art every Sunday and we’d all be the better for it.
One of the hymns that always strikes a chord with me because Lila almost always played it is Great is Thy Faithfulness, which includes these lyrics:
‘Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
And all I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness
Lord unto me’
‘Morning by morning new mercies I see’ may be the perfect description of how my summers at Horseshoe Lake came to shape who I am today. When you are eight, ten, fifteen years old and the daily sunrise is your alarm clock, the lapping of lake water on a shore and the call of loons and herons your snooze alarms, you carry that with you, see life in a different way.
My faith today is strong, I believe in large part because I didn’t spend much time in church as a youth, but I lived my summers in an ecclesiastical place, and time, and way. I was fortunate.
Play on, Lila.
Great is thy faithfulness. And mine.