Sister Esther Flannery had a voice that reminded my dad of a lovesick bull moose in a Montana winter. Many a guest at the church at the corner of Willow and Birch had their constitutions readjusted by the not-so-subtle dissonant chords of Sister Flannery.
Her hymnal was always opened and she rarely had to hear the hymn number twice. Her voice had no volume control and the complexities of harmony held little interest for Sister Flannery.
I remember the first time our little family arrived late and found the only available pew was right in front of Sister Flannery. “Please turn to hymn number seventy-five,” the song leader instructed.
Bertha Jensen played a beautiful introduction as Guy Spencer tossed his hands around in hopes that we could all stay on track. Suddenly, my senses had been assaulted and small hands reacted involuntarily to cover sensitive ears. My mother, bless her heart, was mortified by my outward display of such uncivilized behavior.
Sister Flannery, apparently oblivious to my social ineptitude, continued to sing in her unusual exuberant manner. It may be noteworthy to report that Mr. Flannery was never in a service with his ‘April Flower’. I always attributed it to the embarrassment he may have felt when he too, heard his bride sing for the first time.
After all these years, I have thought often about Sister Flannery. Her voice was a bit like a raging bull pawing a chalkboard with a rogue banshee riding side saddle which was the nicest description that had ever passed through my cerebral cortex until recently.
Last June, Sister Flannery glimpsed that gossamer fabric between the life she had always lived and the world that waited - she chose to walk on.
It was a lovely funeral - such beautiful flowers. Young Carley Kniss sang “I’ll Fly Away” in a way that made us all want to take flight and leave this earthly woe behind. I heard the delicate harmonies of those around me as they blended in a fashion I couldn’t recall hearing in my years at our small town church.
Ivan Flannery sat near the front as the preacher spoke words of comfort and hope. Then he said, “Sister Flannery always had a voice that demanded that God pay attention.”
To this day, I am not sure if the preacher was poking fun or if he had some Divine leading, but his words broke an iceberg. The audience chuckled in ready acceptance of his valid description of the recently departed.
Ivan’s shoulders began to shake. In that moment, none of us were certain if we had offended him to the point of a breakdown. We didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Ivan Flannery walked up on the stage and smiled knowingly at our little congregation, “Thank you for coming today,” he began. “I’ve a bit of a confession to make. I know that Esther’s singing caused some of you no small bit of pain, I’m afraid I may be to blame for that.”
The audience look at each other in confusion.
“You see, back in World War II my ears were permanently damaged at Omaha Beach. Being young and in love, I tried not to let on to Esther when we tied the knot, but I just couldn’t hear her very well. Going to church was difficult because I couldn’t hear the preacher and I sure couldn’t hear the music. Well, Esther figured things out without my needing to explain things, so she began talking more loudly and when she would sing, she tried to make sure I could hear. When folks turned to look, I somehow thought they were looking at me, so I decided to stay at home.
“Esther loved me enough to come home to share the sermon then sing a hymn or two that had touched her. A few years ago, I had surgery that gave me back some of my hearing. I began to realize why folks stared at me all those years ago. It seems my bride did not sing very well - and she did so at the top of her lungs. So, there you have it, the blame lies squarely with me.
“However, I’m certain that at this very moment her joyful noise is sounding better than ever.”
In that moment I’d walked a mile in the shoes of a loving wife and came away with new ears - one better suited to appreciating all manner of noise, both joyful and sublime.
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