This is a little spin on my “Characters I Have Known” series. Settings can be inspiration for a story, a character—or simply mined for atmospheric or physical detail.
I grew up next door to a college chapel. This beautiful gothic-style building had a soaring roof, antique stained-glass windows, angels carved into wooden beams, and long wooden pews. Assemblies, concerts, graduations, and other special events were held there.
It was also the ultimate spot on campus to play hide-and-go-seek with other “campus kids.” I remember resting once in a small back stairway that led down to the basement--my heart pounding painfully from the exertion of running. What fun! The basement was a damp-smelling jumble of classrooms and offices, and I remember the sound of my bare feet smacking the concrete as I darted from place to place.
My family would occasionally attend concerts there. One of the most notable being the popular singing group that would cause pessimists to run for the hills: Up With People. (Sing it with me now: "Up, up with people/You meet ‘em wherever you go...")
Let it be known that I’ve been an unrepentant optimist ever since.
Not all of my experiences were as sunshiny. I’d taken piano lessons at the college all through grade school and junior high, and guess where they had the end-of-the year recitals? Trust me, there is nothing more humiliating than slaughtering “Hungarian Rhapsody” (Liszt) on a grand piano in a big, echoey space…with witnesses. That one did it for me: after I slunk back to the second pew, I decided I was Done. With. Piano. (I took up guitar soon thereafter.)
There are poignant memories, as well…
On the side closest to our house, there was a set of steps leading to a heavy wooden side-door. I helped my father up those steps to attend the 1979 Commencement Ceremonies. His health had been failing for a couple years (long-term effects of childhood polio,) and I carried his portable oxygen tank. Years later, someone reminded me that then-governor Bill Clinton had been the commencement speaker. Really? I only remember sitting next to my 54-year-old father, listening to his labored breath and worrying about him. I was nineteen.
Less than two weeks later, I sat at his Memorial Service in that chapel—listening to the college jazz band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” (requested by my father prior to his death—he had a spectacular sense of humor), and the “Hallelujah Chorus” played on the amazing pipe organ. Those loud, fantastic notes vibrated the chapel in celebration of a great man.
In 2009, I stood in the chapel with my mother and sisters for another kind of ceremony. We looked out over faces of our families, as well as guests we hadn’t seen in many years—friends, relatives, former and current college staff—all there to honor the memory of my father, The Rev. Dr. Charles E. Angell. We presented the college with a bronze plaque to hang outside “Angell Hall” —a multipurpose room in the newly renovated basement.
The late-June sunlight illuminated the deep blue of the stain glass windows over the balcony. I was nervous, but in a different way from my junior-high self. This was nervousness born of excitement and love.
As part of the ceremony, my sisters and I sang a song I wrote in my father’s memory entitled “Then I Could Count the Stars.” The last line of the chorus: If I could count my every blessing, then I could count the stars.
What a beautiful experience in a place that has touched my life at so many points. It is a setting rich with details that are locked into my memory--waiting to cast inspiration on my page. Like my father, this chapel has left me with a legacy of stories, of emotion; of love.