I played piano yesterday for the funeral of a remarkable woman named Frances Ziemann – and among the many interesting things about her is the fact that – according to her family – she was born in the house which you see in the background of Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic – you know the one with the dour-looking farm couple standing side by side. That painting was done in Eldon, Iowa – which indeed is where Frances was born back in 1933 – and even if she was not in fact born in that very building, it would be wonderful if she were and I’m happy to take the family’s word for it. Anyway, thought of Grant Wood’s American Gothic is why I chose to use this particular photograph, in which you see two of Frances’s children standing side by side, delivering a joint eulogy in her honor. I love that image of two siblings standing side by side, each there for the other in a really tough moment – helping each other to be strong in the midst of a painful loss.
Frances and her late husband Otto belonged to Holy Communion (and their daughter Pam, pictured above, has been a good friend of ours- along with her husband Charlie.) Frances was an incredibly bright and inquisitive woman – with indefatigable spunk – and a powerful artistic gift which, if I’m not mistaken, she really didn’t get to fully explore until quite late in life. Well past her seventieth birthday, she was studying art at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and I fondly remember seeing her walk those halls with her little pull cart behind her, moving as speedily and energetically as the students who were a fourth her age. And it was especially interesting to see her in action once she had found her true artistic love – welding. There was something amazing about seeing this aged and diminutive woman (she didn’t stand too much above five feet tall) with a welding torch in her hand, doing her thing. She had some beautiful pieces in her home, but the most wonderful work she created hangs in the narthex of Holy Communion. It’s a metal image of Christ crucified – and the edges are coarse and rough – but she titled the sculpture “Softly and Tenderly,” which is a stroke of genius, if you ask me.
Frances was not at all musical . . . but she sure did appreciate what I did at Holy Communion – and I miss seeing her in the front row (always the very very front row) listening so intently to the songs I sang. She herself couldn’t sing at all, and the family for many years had what they describe as a hilarious tape of her trying to sing “Poor Jud is Dead” from the musical Oklahoma- which she sang as daughter Pam played the accompaniment on the piano. They joked for years that the tape should be played at Frances’s funeral to give everyone a good laugh – but sadly the tape went missing some time ago. So in her honor, I played the song as part of the prelude. The funeral was at the Siena Center, and I don’t know if any of the nuns attending the funeral recognized that particular song and wondered why in the world it was being played for a funeral. (I stole a glance or two at them as I played, watching closely for signs of displeasure or bewilderment.) Anyway, I tried to play it very reverently, as though it were “Abide with Me” or “Nearer my God to Thee.” Fortunately, Pam explained all in her eulogy – which, by the way, was one of the loveliest eulogies I have ever heard. And this exceptional woman named Frances, whom I admired so much, deserved nothing less.