A Hymn for Guaymas


The piano was a disaster. The pianist was terrible. Why was the music so beautiful?

A Hymn for Guaymas

Listening to the rapid, incomprehensible buzz of Spanish that permeated the hot, stuffy confines of the Tres Estrellas bus, Elder Terry Richards gulped and stared straight ahead, straining to visualize his first city. All he knew of Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico, was that the bus depot was across the street from the city jail; therefore, when the bus entered a strange city and made a routine stop in front of a large baleful structure resembling a medieval stone fortress, he knew he had arrived.

He shuddered as he stepped from the bus into the sweltering Guaymas heat. All he had as security was the address of the elders’ quarters scribbled on a scrap of paper clutched in the sweating palm of his hand. His bags were piled at his feet, his scriptures tucked under his arm, and his face pinched with indecision and trepidation.

Suddenly a man approached and accosted him with a barrage of Spanish. The words were so unlike anything Elder Richards had ever heard that all he was capable of doing was to stare mutely and nod his head.

The man snatched his bags and began carrying them off. Panic stricken, Elder Richards tried to call out, but nothing in the Mission Training Center had prepared him to halt a robbery. “Hey, wait!” he finally managed to gasp. The man didn’t stop. “They’re mine!” He shook his head in frustration. “I mean,” he called hoarsely, “Estos … son … míos.”

The man grinned, nodded his head, and began cramming the bags into the trunk of a dent-covered car. Only then did it occur to Elder Richards that this was a Mexican taxi. He fumbled with the scrap of paper in his hand and thrust it toward the man. He wanted to say something—anything—but his mind was a perplexing blank.

The driver rambled while he drove. Elder Richards struggled to snatch a familiar word here and there, but most of the driver’s monologue was a verbal blur. Finally out of utter exhaustion he stopped listening altogether, dazed by this language, this seeming babble of tongues. Plagued by a terrible uncertainty, he asked himself, “What will I ever be able to do? What good will I be?”

The taxi left him on a narrow side street in front of an old two-story building, cracked, pocked, and sandwiched between a bakery and a small drugstore. He had hoped the elders would be there waiting, but it was Saturday afternoon. The doors were locked; the building, deserted. All he could do was huddle in a narrow bar of shade and wait. He sank down on his bags, exhausted and confused.

“Elder!” a voice called enthusiastically. He looked up into the smiling face of an older man. The man grabbed his hand and began pumping his arm furiously, at the same time pulling him toward the front door where he escorted him inside.

Hermano Marcos, who had come to prepare the building for the Sunday meetings, introduced Elder Richards to his new home. The building doubled as the branch casa de oración and the elders’ quarters. Two large rooms on the ground floor served as the chapel. They were filled from wall to wall with gray folding chairs, all of them facing two small tables, one obviously the podium and the other the sacrament table. The only other furniture was an old battered and scarred piano.

After Hermano Marcos’s short welcome and tour, he turned to his work, sweeping and mopping the floors and wiping the dust from the chairs and tables. While Hermano Marcos worked, Elder Richards wandered about, trying to imagine holding a church meeting in such humble circumstances, so unlike anything he had ever experienced. A flood of loneliness swept over him, leaving him groping for something to lend him stability. The only thing in these strange surroundings that had any semblance of the familiar was the old battered piano standing forlornly against the wall.

Elder Richards had grown up with a piano. In fact, he could never remember his home without one. It had been as permanent a fixture as the kitchen sink; and yet, the piano had always been Terry Richards’s curse. Even though the rest of the family had musical inclinations, he had rebelled against everything musical—especially the piano. However, his mother had insisted and he had been forced to practice the piano one hour each day. Until that daily payment was made, he was in his mother’s debt. There was no football, no movies, no TV, nothing until the piano received its due. His heart was seldom in the practices, but he put in his required time, banging out his version of music, which was often nothing more than a cacophony of reckless pounding.

When he turned 16, even his tenacious mother relented and relinquished her dream of making him a great pianist. The lessons were abandoned, and with some money he had saved, Terry celebrated his freedom by buying a portable stereo, declaring that any music he made from then on would come from the stereo and not the piano.

Now in Guaymas, lonely and somewhat dejected, he gently ran his fingers along the chipped and broken keyboard. A wan smile touched his lips. “It would take more than a pianist to get music out of you,” he whispered. He began to walk his fingers across the keys, listening to the sharp ping of the falling notes.

A worn hymnbook lay on one of the folding chairs. He reached for it and turned to “Ere You Left Your Room This Morning.” It was the first hymn he had ever learned to play. He studied the notes for a moment. When he was convinced he could, he sat down and began to play. His fingers were terribly awkward. The piano needed tuning, and several keys were broken. At times it was difficult to determine whether he or the piano was making the mistakes. But he labored through the hymn, once, twice. He played until the music, if not entirely melodious, was at least recognizable.

It was late when Elder Becket, Elder Richards’s new companion, and Elder Cole found him upstairs lying on their cot asleep.

The next morning as Elder Cole was preparing the sacrament and Elder Becket filled out a mission report, Elder Richards strolled to the old piano. “Who plays this old box?” he asked with a grin.

Elder Becket looked up and laughed. “That, Elder, isn’t just an old box. To the members here, it’s the most precious thing in Guaymas.”

“This?” Elder Richards asked with surprise. Elder Becket nodded. “Why? Did Cortez bring it over from Spain or something?”

“It’s a piano. There are a few of them in town, but you certainly don’t find them in every house for the kids to climb on and kick around. Some of the newer members haven’t even heard this one played, and none of the members have heard it played very well. An Elder Fisher, who could play a few hymns with one hand, was here about a year ago, a few months after they bought it. The members almost made him a saint. They made him play his hymns every Sunday. Finally he jokingly told the mission president he was going home if he had to play those hymns another time.”

“It’s seen better days,” Elder Richards commented. “It could sure use a tuning job.”

“You play?” Elder Becket asked.

Elder Richards laughed and shook his head. “I can make noise, pretty bad noise at that, but I don’t play. My mother thought I had musical talents, but after five years of lessons and no noticeable improvement, even she gave up.”

“If you had lessons for five years …”

“I didn’t learn anything.”

“If you played that long, you can play as well as Elder Fisher.”

Just then President Perales and his family arrived and the piano was temporarily forgotten, but just before sacrament meeting, President Perales approached Elder Richards with a hymnbook and spoke, pointing to the piano. Grinning and shaking his head, Elder Richards said shyly, “No, no puedo … tocar.”

President Perales motioned for Elder Becket to come over. “Hermano Marcos said he heard you playing yesterday,” Elder Becket said.

“Yesterday?” he gasped. “I was just fooling around. I can’t play.”

“You sure impressed Hermano Marcos.”

“Elder, I haven’t played for over three years. Yesterday was the first time—I mean the very first time—I’ve even sat down to a piano for over three years. I was just …”

“Play what you were playing yesterday.”

“I can’t,” he insisted, but the protest was to no avail. With his face burning with embarrassment, Elder Richards retreated to the piano. Never had he played in front of a group. At home when the bishop had asked him to play in priesthood, he had adamantly refused.

When it came time for the first hymn, he huddled morosely on the piano chair and braced himself for the shame. Even had the piano been a good one, he would have battled to coax music from it. With his fingers trembling and his eyes frantically searching the keyboard, he began to grope through “Ere You Left Your Room This Morning.” He managed to get through all three verses, but it was torture for him. Later he played the sacrament hymn, and at the conclusion of the meeting he played “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.”

Sensing that all eyes were on him, he couldn’t bring himself to raise his head. He wanted to race from the building and hide himself, and the thing that was so utterly frustrating was that he was forced to endure his shame in silence. There was absolutely no way he could explain in Spanish that it had been years since he had last played, that he had never learned properly in the first place, that this whole thing was a terrible mistake.

As soon as the benediction was said, he stood, planning to sneak from the room and hide from the members’ questioning stares, but before he took three steps a sister had him by the arm and was speaking to him, tears glistening in her eyes. The only words that had any meaning for him were her often repeated, “Muchisimas gracias!” Two more sisters approached and then a brother. Soon it seemed as though the entire branch crowded around him, many with tears in their eyes, each trying to shake his hand.

He saw Elder Becket and searched his face for an explanation. Elder Becket smiled and called, “They loved it. If the Church sainted people, you would be the first Mormon saint in Guaymas.”

“For what?” he asked, completely bewildered.

“For playing their piano.”

“That wasn’t playing. That wasn’t music.”

“You’ll have a hard time convincing them. They want you to play again.”

“Now?”

“But I can’t. It’s been …”

“That might have worked back home, but not here. Look at them, Elder. They’re all but begging.”

Elder Richards was touched. He felt a twinge of shame, a gnawing guilt. Suddenly he wished he could play like his mother had always dreamed of him playing. He offered a silent prayer, pleading for help, not to shelter him from shame and embarrassment but to be an instrument in the Lord’s hands so that through his neglected talent he might give these special people the joy and satisfaction they sought.

It was almost an hour later before the last of the members left the building and Elder Richards made his way with his companions up to their room. “I can’t believe they could even listen to that, let alone enjoy it,” Elder Richards commented.

For a long while Elder Becket didn’t reply; then he shook his head and asked, “Where are you from, Elder?”

“Logan, Utah.”

“Have you ever been to a chapel that didn’t have a piano?” Elder Richards shook his head. “Well, most of these people have never heard the hymns played on a piano. The elders have taught them the melodies. Before today, when they sang “Ere You Left Your Room This Morning,” it was the way the elders had taught it. Not more than a handful of them have ever sung that hymn accompanied by a piano. “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” is a hymn that many of them have wanted to sing accompanied by a piano, but they’ve hardly dared hope that it was really possible.”

“I’m no musician,” Elder Richards said, “but I can hear the difference between noise and music.”

“Maybe two years ago I would have felt the same, but this morning that sounded pretty good, even to me.”

“Where did they get the old box anyway?”

“In Logan,” Elder Becket chided, “that’s an old box. Here it’s a treasure. They bought it from the Baptists. They had a special dinner to raise the money. Everybody donated food and then paid outlandish prices to eat it. All the money went for the piano. Someday, when the chapel’s built, they’ll have a new one, but right now they have to make do with that. The members are proud of their piano. Even though no one can play it and even though it might be out of tune, that’s one of the most important things in this whole building.”

“If it’s so important to them, why don’t they tune it?”

“No money. Right now they’re trying to raise money so they can start building their chapel. Every extra peso goes for that.”

The rest of the day, as Elder Richards followed his two companions, he couldn’t forget the old piano. When they returned to the building that night, it was late and Elder Richards was tired, but before going to bed he went down to the old piano and played “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” The timing was off, and the notes didn’t come through as smoothly as they did when his sisters or mother played, but for the first time in his life he really tried to make music and not merely put in time.

The next day he wrote a short note to his mother: “Mom, I would appreciate it if you would sell my stereo and send me the money. Ted Roberts said he’d buy it if I ever wanted to sell. There’s this piano here that needs tuning, and the members don’t have the money to get the job done. I’d like to help them out. I figure I owe them something after wasting all those piano lessons. And, mom, thanks for making me practice the piano.”

When the letter was addressed and sealed, Elder Richards stood and started down the stairs to the chapel below. “Where are you going?” Elder Becket asked.

“Oh, I think I’ll go down and beat on that old box. I mean, I figure that as long as I’m going to be the new branch pianist, I should give the members something they can be proud of, not just a lot of noise.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert Barrett