Grandpa Bennett lived the entire twentieth century. He was born in 1900 and died in 1999. He never lost his health or his mental faculties...or the license to drive his Jaguar. Just quietly died in his sleep one night, at age 99-plus. Amazing.
They lived in a gorgeous English Tudor house with a stream and a waterfall in the back yard. (And a swimming pool for most of our growing-up years.) Our favorite room was the library. Glass doors opened into a quiet study with a giant dictionary on a stand, a big antique desk, and floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
Just beyond that -- on the other side of the glass doors -- was the grand piano. The one my mother learned on. It stood silent most of the time. But you could tell Grandpa’s first love was music. And that is my favorite gift from him.
At one time he had his own radio show. He would sing a favorite hymn, then present a beautifully-crafted personal essay on the meaning and text of the hymn, then sing the hymn again. One year when I expressed a particular interest, he presented us with tape recordings of every single one of his radio shows. What a treasure! I’m fairly sure I’m the only granddaughter who scored that entire collection.
For years he was the baritone soloist in the Messiah. His rich, golden voice was legendary. By the time we were old enough to appreciate such wonders, he was too old to sing in public, but he would ALWAYS sing for his grandchildren, once a year, at Christmas. Some of my favorite memories were the family parties we held in the top floor ballroom of the McCune Mansion. There our patriarch would gather his family, and (with my mom or me at the piano) conduct his 100-plus descendants in a rousing four-part sing-along of the Hallelujah Chorus. It was the highlight of the holiday.
Another highlight was caroling. We’d join as cousins and follow Grandpa through the neighborhood, an 80-voice choir, singing our hearts out from door to door in the freezing cold as he delivered gifts to his friends and neighbors. Best caroling ever!
But there was one more tradition, so sweet and so priceless it takes me right back to my earliest childhood days, with a memory so tender I lack the words to describe it. At the end of every family party, Grandpa would gather the children around him and sing the Christopher Robin Songs. Suddenly this dignified old gentleman was transformed into a young English lad. His eyes twinkled, and grew large and expressive. His mustache twitched under a boyish grin. His diction, demeanor and decorum were all that of a young London schoolboy. His real personality came through when he sang those songs. Meanwhile, my mother sparkled on the piano behind him. She had accompanied him for so many years I think she practically knew all the Christopher Robin Songs by heart. Everything was electrifying and magical when Grandpa sang.
After I was first married and moved away, I coerced Grandpa to sing the songs for me one more time, so we could record them for our children. I wish I could post a little video clip from one of those recordings. It’s a blustery day outside, but this is even better than a big jar of honey!
What I learned from Grandpa, and again from my mom, is that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without music. I love singing about the baby Jesus at Christmastime. Singing helps me access the deep crevices of my heart and offer up gifts I didn’t even know I had tucked inside. I can sing love and testimony and gratitude and grace that I can’t express any other way. I can rejoice as I lift up my voice with choirs of angels. Life doesn’t get more jubilant than that. I think any other ritual or tradition could come and go (like the residents of Whoville when the Grinch took all their presents) but music makes Christmas. And I’m glad I’ve been blessed with so many wonderful ways to participate.