The Flat above the Store: An Unpretentious Faith Active in Unselfconscious Love

[1] For nearly three generations almost everyone in or around Elkhorn, Wisconsin who played the piano was likely to have had the same teacher. Her name was Ida Mott. She was my great aunt and my godmother.

[2] Lessons were held in her little dining room in the flat above the hardware store where she and Uncle Tom lived. The room was plastered with pictures of pupils and recitals past and present along with hand lettered admonitions to practice and aspire to excellence.

[3] I loved her and I loved that place. It was as “homely” a place as you’d ever want to see, a place without pretense, like the woman who lived there. In reality it was as “homey” a place as you’d ever want to be, especially if you were a child who liked being loved and cared about and fussed over. In that flat Christian faith and love lived in a remarkable blend with piano lessons, hidden chocolates, old warm blankets, coffee and kuchen, fat chairs festooned with doilies, laughter, and Ida’s childlike delight, and mischief.

[4] Some spoke of Aunt Ida as having “childlike faith,” simple, unsophisticated, and unquestioning. Maybe they thought that way because her world seemed so small, mostly orbiting around church and piano lessons. She was not troubled, they suggested, by the temptations of life in the fast lane, the conflicts of worldly involvement, and intellectual challenges of our scientific age. They may have even felt that she was fortunate to be spared the trial of the “real” world.

[5] Aunt Ida’s life was marked by simplicity but her faith was not simplistic. She was tested by the heartache, disappointment, and pain that overtake us all. Hopes for children, dreams of publishing her music, and an abiding desire to just have a little home of her own – even just a trailer home – were all denied her.

[6] She made one grab for the brass ring when she somehow gained an audience with a New York music publisher. She took the bus half way across the country to audition her composition. It was called Nocturne. They turned it down. The disappointment on her face was palpable as she played the piece for us and recounted her fruitless trip to Tin Pan Alley. Some said she was naïve to think she had a chance and a real “innocent” in the ways of New York music publishing. But, then, none of them ever wrote anything or took any risks. They had been spectators and she had been a player.

[7] Aunt Ida’s faith was the exemplary childlike faith of which Jesus spoke, not because she was ignorant of life’s trials and shattered dreams and, therefore, was able to believe without question. Her “childlike faith” was exemplary because it was completely without pretense. She understood with incredible clarity that God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ is all we finally have and all we could ever want. That’s why she was so much fun to be with and so full of wholesome mischief. She had no need to display her piety or make much of her virtue. She would doubtless chide me for writing this memoir. Confirmed in God’s love, she had nothing to prove and therefore all her energy could be used to love her pupils, enjoy and help her neighbors, and have fun with her nephew whom she confidently predicted at his baptism would one day be a pastor.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.