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December 01, 2009

Obituary for Mr. B?

I remember the smile smeared mischievously across his lips as he was about to produce one of his celebrated puns. I remember his voice, twangy and smooth as iced tea, instructing us how to use ours: "You may not be able to read music, but at least you can tell if the little black dots are moving up or down!" I remember how it felt to finally sing, to sing for him --

I recently found out that someone very dear to me has died.

His name was Edgar Billups, and for 8 years, from sixth grade until my first year of college, I sang in his church choir. Yes, your tough talking, raise requesting, gun slinging (more on that soon) asker spent more than a few Sundays in a church, lifting her voice if not always or exactly for divinity, then for beauty, for peace, calm, hope, history, and for that strange entity I was then beginning to discover, which one might call the self.

Mr. Billups was the music director and organist of a church with two adult and two bustling children's choirs, which means he trained somewhere around 40 or 50 giggling girls and boys every year to produce absolute silence and harmonious sounds -- in precisely the intervals he desired. When we were good his eyes and a grateful nod said it all, and when we were bad his mouth did the talking.

Through his explanations of Faure's Requiem we learned about World War I, and I started thinking about the relationship between art and suffering; in rehearsals for the spring concerts I read my first medieval song lyrics, which made me more curious about poetry; and in the towering cathedral, in the instants after he cut off a chord and the echo of the notes lingered with the incense, that was the closest I've come to the sublime.

Of course, it was more than a musical education. Between school dances, a first kiss, karate tournaments, college application essays and AP exams, slumber parties and practicing for my driving test, there was choir. Between displacements and disease, a divorce and a death, there was choir practice. Tuesdays from 4:30 to 6, with a break halfway. His cigars, which he smoked on the church patio under ever changing leaves, determined how long those breaks would be. And that was when we talked. About all that, and more.

He was at once a gentleman and a feminist. He founded the girl's choir and believed in us, when the tradition favors boys. He paid us just like he did the boys (not much -- a few cents or bucks per week, but it added up). And any opportunity the boys had, be it to sing in an opera chorus or wedding or music festival, we did.

In 2002, Mr. Billups retired and he and his wife moved closer to where he'd grown up: North Carolina. I'd graduated from high school years earlier, moved to New England for college and grad school, but on a roadtrip through the South with my sister in 2003, of course we stopped by for dinner. It required a four hour detour, but how could we not. She fed us, he cracked his same jokes and made sure we were happy, healthy and sane, and they waved goodbye from the front door.

It's taken me a while to get around to writing these paragraphs. Weeks. Because I have trouble comprehending. I have not fully processed that he is gone. Cancer? Dead? Not even those words, or the past tense, make it real. Maybe because my last memory of him is out of the familiar context, in his new and distant home, or maybe it is simply because Mr. Billups exists beyond time. He's a standard, a classic, an archetype. For more than a decade, since finishing his choir, every time I sang his music (mostly alone, driving late at night, washing dishes, or sometimes with my sister) he was there. He is here. That will never change.

But when I heard the news he had died, I asked someone with access to a printing press to commemorate this good man. I wrote an email to a friend and mentor who happens to work for the local newspaper, and suggested they do an obituary. Here it is. Thank you, Jeff and David.

And thank you, wherever you may be, Mr. B.
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