Life lessons about what we’re meant to do in this season (and year-round) can come in unexpected packages. One Christmas my tutor was Alta May Biggers: a 92-year-old who appeared and behaved like a Southern Belle half her age and double the spunk.
Alta May was quite diminutive yet larger than life. Everything about her – the towering hair, the expertly-applied makeup, the array of massive diamond rings worn on each hand like trophies from a series of former husbands and suitors, the glittering shoes, her rapid gait – all screamed, “I’ve arrived, so the party may commence!” I’m pretty sure she carried a loaded pistol but was never brave enough to ask.
She was my church pianist, and her approach to music was as dazzling as her persona. Folks crowded the place every week, not to hear me preach but to thrill to Alta May’s virtuosity. Every Sunday she’d stride in mere moments before the service, plop down at the Steinway, crack her knuckles, and launch into a thunderous high-octane medley of old-time gospel favorites. Any visitor anticipating a sedate worship experience soon found themselves doused by a spiritual sonic wave.
Imagine the combined verve of Jerry Lee Lewis, Liberace, and Ray Charles possessing the fingers of a woman who looked like she’d just stepped off the set of “Steel Magnolias.” I once asked about her energy. She said, “I guess it’s a gift of God’s Spirit, and I figure I’m meant to share it!” That was Alta May.
She was a piano prodigy at the age of three and for decades gave private lessons in her parlor. Parents placed children’s names on her waiting list the moment a pregnancy was confirmed. Her annual student recital was one of the prime social events of the year, filling the high school auditorium.
However, Alta May’s main gig was not private lessons or playing for church. On Friday and Saturday nights, she was the featured performer at a famous dance hall and honky-tonk. Legends of Country Music, Western Swing, Blues, and Rockabilly gave their right arm to play a set with her. Even though her engagement down at the “joint” - as she called it - kept her up until the wee hours, she made it to church like clockwork on Sunday mornings and blazed through every song with electric zeal.
After a late Christmas Eve service one year, as the large crowd dissipated, I noticed Alta May walking to her car and called out to her. “Any special plans tonight?” “No,” she said, “I’m just going down to the joint, like usual.”
I was stunned. I said, “Seriously? I wouldn’t think they’d be open tonight.” She said, “Sure. It’ll be packed. These folks here at church have their families and friends, and that’s great. But this is the loneliest night of the year for lots of people, and I figure I’ve got to share that good old Spirit with those who need it most.”
Thanks for the lesson, Alta May.