A former co-worker, Anne, told me she woke up every morning to the sound of Martha and the Vandellas filling her home. Her parents would stack 45’s on their stereo and crank up the volume. Instead of an alarm clock, Anne and her sister would rise and shine to the beat of Heat Wave. They dressed, ate breakfast and scooted out the door to the Motown sounds of Nowhere to Run, Jimmy Mack, Dancing in the Street or any of the other hits from this favorite girls group of the 60s.
The Thornton household was a bit different. We woke to the sound of music, but the beat was different. We had hymns. Love Lifted Me or Crown Him with Many Crowns or Like a River Glorious or any other of the number one hits of the First Presbyterian Church Hymnal.
Despite the fact that most of our music was penned more than 100 years ago, I loved it. Never tired of it. Three decades later, I’d give anything to be able to wake up to those melodies each day.
No pre-recorded music for us. We had the real thing. My mom, Mary Scott Gash Thornton, sat at her grand piano in the front music room and played her heart out.
She didn’t look like a piano virtuoso — not the tall, thin, long-fingered personage of Arthur Rubenstein or even the sophisticated presence of Victor Borge. She certainly wasn’t a rockstar.
Rather, mom was short, plain, plump and matronly and modestly dressed. Her braided bun seldom remained in place for long and, as the day progressed, we’d see more and more wisps of hair about her face. Her cheeks stayed rosy. Her eyes sparkled bright with a deep inner joy.
Mary also loved to laugh. That’s a delicious combination – a house filled with music and laughter.
Boy could she play. When she sat at our aging grand piano, music filled the room and lifted my spirits, slowed my tears and helped me smile, caused me to break out in song and fall in love with life. Heartbreaks mended more easily when she played. Joy seeped in as her notes flowed with such expression.
Mary Scott played the piano like few others could.
She was something of a child prodigy. Smart as that whip people are often compared to, Mary could carry on a conversation with nearly anyone about anything. She skipped two grades in school. At the age of eight she performed a concert in St. Louis for the purpose of raising funds for the WWI war effort.
She went away to college in Wheaton, Illinois but quit after one year. At age 20, she married tall, handsome Samuel Watson Thornton. They sailed to Japan within the first year to serve as missionaries. She gave up her music to be his wife and, soon after, mother to 10 children.
Who knows what Mary Scott Gash could have done with her music if she hadn’t chosen to change her marital status, name and country at age 21?
Dad realized what she sacrificed and as soon as he could, though it took a few years, he bought her a piano.
She played day and night. She offered her gift to the many churches they attended throughout the years. She taught lessons to hundreds of children and accompanied musicians in myriad concerts and performances. She provided her services free of charge, introducing many to classical music for the first time.
She played with passion and her audiences loved to listen.
One of my favorite childhood memories was standing under our mulberry tree at 707 Main Street in Greenfield, Illinois one summer evening and listening to her play. This was in the 50s when air conditioning didn’t separate neighbors like it does today.
Our front door and large front window that faced Main Street were open as were the side windows next to the alley. Neighbors to the left and right of us, as well as a few across two-lane Rte. 67 sat on their lawns or gently rocked in their peeling porch swings, taking in the sounds of music from our home.
There in the shade, leaning against the rough bark of the mulberry tree and staining my hands with its fruit, I listened to mom and felt such pride in her. My life was rich and good and full.
Things would always be right.
But they weren’t of course.
Air conditioning came and the windows closed. I grew up and challenged just about everything mom and dad believed and said.
Tensions mounted, anger erupted, I went off to college and my parents moved to Japan. Four years passed without seeing one another. I graduated and eventually grew up. A career was established and I moved as needed to advance. I went my own way and tested their way of believing and living. I sought a faith and lifestyle that was my truly mine.
By the time mom died, when I was 35,she and I had moved from being family to being good friends. We were alike in many ways, although she was so much nicer at being her than I have been at being me.
In my growing up years, mom and I stayed up late to watch Ziegfield Follies extravaganzas and black & white musicals with Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. Mom would later play the songs on the piano and we would sing.
She encouraged me to get along with dad when I was in my bitter, he-doesn’t-understand-or-accept-me stage but she didn’t push it.She’d only remind me, “He’s a good man, Nancy.”
And that he was.
Good and caring -– for his family and others. Generous I thought to a fault. Principled and consistent. Hard working and at the same time he enjoyed a day off as well as anyone. Samuel Watson loved his children and found immense joy in being with his offspring and their offspring.
He was devoted to mom and showed it. A quiet man who may have preferred to be alone, he went along with mom and opened their home to countless guests over the years.
Rev. S. W. Thornton lived out his very deep and real faith and he felt called to introduce others to it. It seems his passion got twisted up in a legalism of sort though he would deny it. He definitely held himself to higher standards than I believe God held him to.
Watson lived more with law than grace. He held his sons and daughters to that as well. And that was the tough part. The part I fought against. The part that kept me scrapping until way too late into my adult life.
Dad died on my 45th birthday, one week shy of his 91st year. I wept of course, but the intense grieving that I experienced when mom died was absent.
Dad was ready to go. He longed to leave his weakening body and aching bones behind. He was eager to meet his maker. Mom had died, he had few friends around. My sister Elsie and her husband Vince provided him with a warm and laughter-filled home, overflowing with children and grandchildren, plenty of conversation, music and love. Despite that, he longed to be “released from his body.”
Parting is much easier when the one you love is ready and eager to move on.
By the time he left the constraints of this world, Dad and I were on a much better footing. I had experienced his graciousness. His loving, caring side. During one visit, not long after mom died, I broke down in tears and confessed that I was involved with a married man.
The stern pastor/father who at one time would have chastised or judged me only looked at me with tears in his eyes. “You will get hurt,” he said. He then went on to reveal to me a time in his life that he was tempted to get involved with a woman other than mom. He didn’t, he assured me. But he knew the temptation. His gentle, loving response wiped the board clean of any harsh feelings I had harbored against him.
This aging, lonely, wizened man with thinning snow white hair and clear blue eyes demonstrated tremendous tenderness to me at a time I was at my lowest.
He saw me as a daughter and a single woman in search of love, not someone who needed to be judged for bad conduct. My heart began to heal at his expression of love. I felt the grudges I had held against him since childhood melt away.
So mama’s wish that I knew dad as good came true.
They both were such gifts to me. I can’t imagine nor do I desire having any other family but them. My life was blessed beyond measure by so much that they taught me and gave me.
They demonstrated love for each other. Compassion for many. They welcomed thousands of people, from all walks of life, into our home. Bankers and medical students, homeless and derelicts, foreign students and the lonely of all ages sat side by side in the extended table and shared delicious home-cooked meals. They gave generously out of what little they had. They shared freely with what they had been given. And they gave the world music. Dad provided the piano and a lifetime of support. Mom played her heart out .
I am among the richest in the world.