Listen To Article
by David Pettit
On these summer Sundays, I invite you to think about lives and what they have meant. To think not with a pietistic paintbrush, but to read carefully, in between the lines, and to discern how God’s gracious purposes might be present in the midst of life’s mixed realities, remembering that our attempt to speak for others’ stories is in some way an attempt to understand our own.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. Psalm 139:11-12
Evelyn was a strong woman for a small frame. She was born in Brooklyn, New York; born prematurely. She was a talented and gifted child who came early into a world full of stress and uncertainty. Her early years were marked by the depression, by war, by a father deployed, and by having to move repeatedly. She not only survived the flu epidemic of 1919, but the death of her beloved big sister.
She was deeply impacted by those early years. She had experienced sorrow and anxiety. It was all around her, wrapped in the darkness of a moonless night with worry, accident, and illness. “Cheerfulness is our savior,” went a saying she loved, “it chases away bad weather.” She learned her habits and outlooks through those early years, and carried them through to her dying day.
Evelyn learned the piano young. She was accepted by audition into the Brooklyn Music Academy. She eventually had to withdraw due to her failing eyesight. The decline in her eyesight began in her late teens and early twenties. So she adapted, learning to play by ear, knowing the feel of the keys in the dark, knowing her way around by touch and instinct. She played the piano every day, even her last few.
She learned to swim young as well, in Jamaica Bay, where she swam three times a week as a child. And like all good habits she learned young, she persisted despite her blindness. She was swimming twelve to fourteen Olympic laps still into her 97th year. She walked. She hiked. She worked when her husband was off at war. She gardened. Her house in New York was surrounded by and covered in flowers. She could make out color, and she nurtured nature with those sensitive hands and that heightened sense of smell, and took great pleasure from it.
Like all other things that shaped her youth and in which she persisted her whole life was faith and the church. She started attending Sunday School at age three. She served as a Deacon in the Presbyterian church. And even in the last months of her earthly life, she would attend worship, impeccably arrayed in her Sunday best. It was a rhythm she had always known—an orienting rhythm, a centering practice of persistence. It was who she was, and she stubbornly would not surrender that part of herself, even when she could no longer hear, or stay awake. She came, slouching in the pew.
As a part of her upbringing in the church, the value of tolerance and of helping others was instilled in her. “Teach tolerance young,” another of her sayings went, “and practice it one’s whole life.” And practice it her whole life, she did. She helped others whenever possible, even taking in a neighbor during her time here in Denver; a single mother who found herself evicted.
She did not live with excuses. She pressed into her potential, and expected that of her children. In an era when boys and girls had firmly set roles and spheres, she made her son help wash the dishes along with her daughters. She expected her daughters’ best.
Evelyn was strong, even stubborn. She knew her body, walked proud. Most of us here at Calvary Church never knew she lived most of her life without sight. She navigated the world with confidence, accepting little for limitations. She enacted her convictions in her body, her potential and her faith in her figure coursing through the pool, knowing how many strokes to the wall, in her fingers that made music on the ivories, that navigated through feel and memory; in her sense of smell through which she gardened and took in the beauty of this natural world, through her Sunday rhythms of dress and sitting in the pew, of song and praise and hope.
I recount one last story that Evelyn the younger, her daughter, shared with me recently. It was after Evelyn moved out here to Denver, after the passing of her husband of 63 years. She did not have a piano. But a friend had made Evelyn the younger aware that a local estate sale had one for sale. So Evelyn the younger took Evelyn down. And there in the back was a Baldwin piano. Evelyn sat down. She started playing her favorite hymns, and tunes. Clearly satisfied, Evelyn the younger approached the man in charge of the sale and offered $250 for the piano. The man scoffed, seemingly offended and completely uncompelled by her offer. Meanwhile, Evelyn continued to play, until the others at the sale abandoned their scouring of price tags to come listen. A crowd gathered. Favorites were being called out, and Evelyn’s fingers did their instinctual work, by memory, by heart, by ear, till the estate salesman himself offered a request—“Does she know When Irish Eyes Are Smiling?” “Ma, play Pop’s favorite,” and off those fingers went. After which the man grunted to Evelyn the younger, “Fine, take the damn piano!”
Evelyn was born into stress, but learned her way in the world within that small body. She put into life and motion music, a love of nature, kindness, and faith—all with stubborn sense of dignity and grace. We give thanks for her life.
David Pettit is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, currently serving as pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, and pursuing doctoral studies in Hebrew Bible at the University of Denver.