It was a smoldering hot day. Everything was frying slowly. The common term for that kind of day is “oppressive.”
Madeline, Diane, and I climbed into the slick black leather section of the over-shiny limousine on its mission to take us to Mary and Pat’s wedding in the Bronx.
We tried to smooth our long dresses into thinking they wouldn’t be wrinkled at the end of this formidable ride. We tucked our imitation Leiber bags into the big pockets in front of us and settled back to fuss over Mary’s decision to have her wedding in a high Catholic church far away from Manhattan.
Well, we debated the issue for a while and then we started giggling. The three of us in a collegiate circle of 12 friends had successfully launched our Alabama Alumni Club in the Big Apple and now we were attending our first Alabama match-made wedding. We settled down with the realization that our professional meddling had finally gone somewhere and we were about to personally rejoice in the result of our collective matchmaking talents. It seemed like just a few minutes when our delightfully air-conditioned limo came to an abrupt stop before the kind of tall stately church that one only sees on Caspari Christmas cards at holiday time.
We emerged from our polished car and walked up the church steps trying to look cool in the 90-degree heat. We had decided that going to the ladies room would be our first surreptitious move so when the ushers came to seat us, we whispered our unanimous intentions.
Three stately ushers offered their arms to us and much to our horror marched us down the wedding aisle and up to the altar in front of several hundred wedding guests. How many churches locate the ladies room right behind the altar? Well, this one did!
Afterward, our three ushers marched us right back up the aisle to where we had entered the church. Then, without a word they did an about-face, each offering us their other arm, and marched us right back down the same way to our seats, which in honor of our successful meddling were quite near the altar so we could see the wedding firsthand. I could not bear to think what the several hundred wedding guests were thinking.
I was a Methodist who had just converted to my new husband’s faith. Being an Episcopalian was really different — it seemed I was always asking forgiveness for something. I felt I had probably sinned by walking down Mary’s aisle twice before she did, so I bowed my head for forgiveness. I said silently, “I guess you’ll give me a sign if you heard my apology.”
At that very moment there was a tap on my shoulder. I whispered to the Lord, “That was pretty fast!”
I looked up to see a priest standing over me: “Are you Penny Knapp?” he asked.
When I nodded, he said, “ We need you to play the organ — our organist did not come today.”
“But Father,” I protested, “I am a professional violinist.”
“It doesn’t matter. We need you to play the organ.”
Madeline, who had been the first trans-Atlantic stewardess for Pan Am, was our alumni chaplain and a devout Catholic who prayed for any and all of us on a regular and necessary basis. She immediately went into action and said, “Don’t worry, Penny. I’ll pray.” She bowed her head, folded her hands, and I knew the praying part had already begun. It was the playing part I had to worry about now.
Diane, the first woman ever to be vice president of a Southern cotton mill, grabbed my hand and we ran up the stairs to the choir loft. I was depending on her executive encouragement. I desperately looked for music — my mom was a wonderful pianist and had taught me to read music. But this was a Catholic church requiring special pieces I did not know. My heart sank. The music wasn’t there.
Nearly hysterical, I turned my attention to the daunting church organ. I’d never met one up close. My junior year in college I’d played an electric organ for a semester but those two organs were not in the same league. You had to fight them separately.
I frantically pushed buttons until a green light appeared. I heard a buzz. I tried a note. Then I tried a chord. I couldn’t hear anything. So I stood up on the pedals with all my might and the sound practically blasted the several hundred wedding guests out of the church.
The phone rang. The Father said I should play something before the service. “But, Father, there is no music and this is a Catholic church.”
He calmly answered: “Just play something for 11 minutes and we’ll start.”
I ran a spell-check of my musical memory. “Kitten on the Keys,” some “down dirty blues,” or “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” hardly seemed appropriate for this occasion. I took a deep breath. I put my fingers on the keys and delivered the best Catholic version of “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” you’ve ever heard. And I played it and I played it and I played it until I could think of another hymn. It started getting easier but the phone rang just short of my launching a rousing new version of “Bringing In the Sheaves.”
This time the priest said the ceremony was going to begin and I must get the bride down the aisle. I took another long breath and started playing Wagner’s “Here Comes the Bride.” I’m certain the church organ itself was in deep grief that a violinist was trying to play this piece by ear. At first, I couldn’t remember one transitional chord toward the end so I played the first part over and over like a neophyte rock band. Then, I remembered and played the whole number.
Mary arrived at the altar and I stopped playing.
It seems that I’d no sooner stopped playing than Mary and Pat were heading back up the aisle. Oh no! I had to play again! The phone rang and the Father gave me his specific instructions. I played the only piece I knew to end a wedding. It was the popular excerpt from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
I played it and played it and played it.
The phone rang again. “ You can stop now,” the Father boomed. Stop? Stop now? I was just getting warmed up. I had made my debut as a church organist and it was over? I took a jubilant breath, I smiled and much to the surprise of the several hundred wedding guests, I stood up on the pedals that controlled the volume and launched into a joyous version of the “Alabama Fight Song.” The alums jumped up singing, people laughed, and I could see in the church organ mirror that Mary and Pat were grinning by the door.
Later, at the reception, I took a few victorious gulps of champagne. Madeline, Diane, and I joyfully toasted our creative wedding success. I finally gathered my courage and went over to the priest. “Well, Father, how did I do?”
He took a pause. He looked at me solemnly. His eyes gazed up toward the heavens. Then he replied quite deliberately as if still searching for the right words, “Well . . . you were . . . certainly . . . ecumenical.”
Penny Leka Knapp is a presentations consultant who has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies. She lives in East Hampton with Fred Knapp, her husband, and their Siamese cat, Encore.