The Gifts

When the first chords of “Amazing Grace” hit my
ear, something touched me. I couldn’t stop myself. I put
down my soup ladle, and a few steps brought me to the
side of the grand piano in the corner of the dining room.
My heart opened and the sound flowed. The pianist found
my key, and the chords he played embraced my voice. I
was at home—in the lyrics, in the music.

As I reached the climax of the stanza, from behind
me a high-pitched voice interrupted, “Please, Shayla,
could I have some more lemonade?” Looking up at me, a
bib covering her chest, Alice sounded like an aged Oliver

I came to earth in an instant. I was working for
minimum wage in a nursing home and was glad of it. In
a few minutes, entrées and desserts would be up. The old
and lame would eat, then return to their rooms or sit in
the hall and watch passersby while I cleared tables and
recorded how much each person ate. Good nutrition is
critical for the elderly.

I turned to get Alice’s lemonade and the pianist
said, “You have a nice voice, Shayla. You should sing

I said, “Oh, I can’t sing.”
He said, “You sound pretty good to me. I’ve played
for quite a few singers.”

That night when I got home, I sank into an
upholstered chair that had sprung its last spring years
ago. Mama reigned from her newer chair to my left. I told
my family what the pianist had said.

My younger brother said, “He must be crazy,” and
laughed himself into the kitchen. My sister rolled her
eyes. Mama sighed and said, “Baby, different folks have
different gifts. You’ll find yours.”

I thought, Could it be that waiting tables in a
nursing home is my gifts? I like the patients and the people
I work with. I make a lot of the patients smile.

The following day, five minutes before the door
opened for lunch, the food was ready and bibs rested
beside each plate. Residents can’t come in until a CNA is
present, just in case someone chokes on food or has an
attack of some sort. Marvin, at the piano, said, “You got
time to belt one out?”

I thought, Why not? What have I got to lose?

He played the opening phrase of “How Great Thou
Art,” one of Mama’s favorites. The song swept me along
like a bird winging its way through the air.

“I like your voice. Perhaps you could do something
with it.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like sing.”

I said, “Nobody thinks I can sing.”
Still fresh in my mind were the words of the music
director at New Harmony Church. Eight of us were
practicing a gospel arrangement, backed by a small band.
In the midst of rehearsing “The Road to Glory,” a message
of hope, my voice was moving up and down like a ship in
a storm. The leader motioned me aside and said, “Shayla,
I’m sorry. You’re not fitting in. You can’t seem to keep the

I was crushed. I was singing what I felt, feelings I
have that only come out when I sing. The choir was dead
silent. I was afraid to even look up as I took my coat off
the hanger and dragged myself out the front door.

The third time Marvin invited me to sing, I didn’t
know what I would sing. I just knew I would do it. After
the drinks and soup were out, there were a few minutes
before the entrées arrived. I went over to the piano and
said, “Marvin, I’d like to try again, but we have to do it
quickly. I need my job. I don’t want to do anything that
would get me fired.”

Marvin smiled and said, “Fine. Let’s do it.” And
his hand swept up the keyboard. I began to sing Stormy
Weather. Whoever wrote that song knew how a storm on
the inside and a storm on the outside are alike.

When the song ended, the patients broke out
clapping, like I was doing a concert at Carnegie Hall. I
felt proud and embarrassed at the same time.

At home that evening I told my family about
singing and the patients clapping. “Sure they clapped.
They were glad you stopped,” said my brother.

My sister reminded me that old people don’t hear
well. “They like anything that moves.”

“Baby, you might not be as smart as your brother,
or as pretty as your sister,” and I thought, Here comes a
backhanded compliment. “You work hard. You know all
those old people by name. You style your hair nicely. You
know how to dress. You have a sweet smile and your
teeth are the whitest in the family.”

“But what about my voice, Mama? Do I sing as bad
as my brother and sister say? You’re a good singer. What
do you think?”

“It don’t hurt to try, Baby, but you gotta remember
we need all three checks from you kids to keep this house
going.” Mama’s eyes were pleading. “Just don’t do
anything to get fired.” Medicare only paid for part of
Mama’s medicine. Her high blood pressure was hard to
control. We couldn’t scrimp on medicine.

During lunch the next day, I asked Marvin, still
seated at the piano, if I could talk to him after the tables
were cleared. I asked him, “How would you describe my

He didn’t hesitate. “Your style is gospel.”

“Gospel? What do you mean?” I asked.

“Traditional singers sing the notes on the page.
Gospel singers add notes that come from their hearts.
They sing all over the page. But the good ones also
respect the music. They know what they’re doing when
they add extra notes,” he explained. “Your style is
definitely gospel.”

“‘Stormy Weather’ isn’t gospel.”

“It doesn’t have to be religious. Everything a
gospel singer feels emotionally can show up. You could
use a little rehearsal,” he added, “and some exposure. I
can help you if you want to give it a go.”

We began that evening after work. He taught me
how to sing “Amazing Grace,” what he called “straight.”
He said, “Tell your heart to take five. Let your mind get
a grip on the song as it was written 250 years ago. When
you get the bones of the song in place, then you can
improvise to your heart’s content.” That’s putting “meat”
on the bones, as Marvin put it. “People can still hear the
tune within the notes you sing.”

He was right. It took a couple of weeks of an hour
a day, but it worked. I could go wherever my voice and
heart led me and still hold onto the melody. Marvin said,
“I think it’s time we take this on the road. You think
you’re ready?”

I felt more confident. Perhaps he knew of a small
church where I could sing. “If you think so, I’ll try.”

“I’ll ask my pastor if I can bring in a soloist. I’ll let
you know the date.”

The next day, he told me, “In two and a half weeks,
it’s on if you’re free.”

I wasn’t sure if I should invite my family. They
didn’t know I had been rehearsing. They might refuse to
come, for fear they’d be embarrassed. When the day
came, I told them I was going to church, but not which
church I was going to.

I had driven by the First Presbyterian Church but
never gone inside. Its size scared me. It was eight or ten
times bigger than my church. Their parking lot was filled
with row after row of cars, and Marvin walked me in the
back door. In royal blue robes with white stoles, a huge
choir filed past us into the sanctuary. I waited behind the
stage with Marvin until it was time for me to sing.

“Butterflies in the stomach” didn’t come close to what I
was feeling.

Marvin walked out and sat at the Steinway grand
piano. He nodded, and I walked out on the stage and
stood at the microphone. The room got deathly quiet.
When I looked up, I saw nothing but vanilla, a couple of
Orientals perhaps, nothing that looked Hispanic. Not a
black face anywhere, and not a single smile. Had I
accidentally come to a funeral?

Marvin’s long intro gave me time to get a grip and
time for the audience to get ready for some music with a
beat. I sang only three notes when faces began to turn to
me like searchlights. Eyes zeroed in on me like I was
either a stack of gold or the bubonic plague—which, I
couldn’t guess. I sang “Amazing Grace” the way they
probably never heard it. To me, it was like a rich cake
with great globs of frosting. I only hoped they were eating
it up.

When I came to the end, Marvin lifted his fingers
from the keyboard. I couldn’t read the faces. I held my
breath for a short lifetime, refusing to let them stare me
down. Then two hands came together, then four, then 40,
then 400. I could hardly breathe. The air sparkled with
excitement. I had done it.

After the closing prayer, their choir director said,
“You have a wonderful gifts. Thanks for coming.” A lot of
their members came and shook my hand. Marvin walked
me to my car and pressed an envelope into my hand.

The road home had the same chuckholes, and I hit
a lot of them, but I felt like I was riding on air. Wait till
my brother and sister hear. Mama will be proud of me.

“I sang a solo in church this morning,” I
announced before settling into my chair.

“Oh, Baby. I told your sister we should’ve gone
with you.”

My little brother said, “Count me out. I’ve got
enough problems without that.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” my sister asked. “Maybe
we could’ve talked you out of it. How do you feel?”

I laid the envelope on the table.

“What’s this?” she said, opening the envelope.
“This check is from a Presbyterian church.”

Mama took the check. It was for as much as I
earned in a full day at the nursing home.

“The church where I sang this morning pays
people who sing there. Marvin from the nursing home
took me to his church, a big one. When I finished, they
clapped for me like it was halftime at the Super Bowl.”

My little brother came over and picked up the
check. He stared at it and shook his head. “There’s gotta
be an explanation. You sang—and they paid you—
money? It must be a fluke.”

Momma got a determined look on her face. “A
fluke? A fluke! We’ll just see. You ask your friend Marvin
if he’ll come to our church and play for you. We’ll just

Mama’s been a deaconess at our church forever,
and when she asks, you can be sure the pastor listens.

“Let me talk to our choir director,” said the pastor.
Later that evening, he called. “I have to tell you, Sister,
it took some convincing, but we’re willing to trust your
judgment. Should we have Shayla sing at the evening
service? We have a much smaller attendance in the
evening, you know what I’m saying? What do you think?”

Mama said, “Considering the size of the check
Shayla brought home from that church uptown, I think
Sunday morning.”

I waited in our parking lot for Marvin, just as he
had waited for me at his church. I thought he would come
early as I had done, but when the service began, he was
still not present. I could hear the hymns and the prayers.
I heard the children’s choir sing. They were very
animated. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.
Maybe he chickened out. When the gospel chorus began
singing I knew the offering was being taken. My solo was
up next. Where was Marvin?

The Gospel Chorus reached the climax of their
number as Marvin pulled into the parking lot. “Sorry. I’ve
never been in this part of town before. The streets are all
unfamiliar to me and I couldn’t find a soul to ask for help.
I wasn’t too good at following your directions. But I made
it!” he said while we rushed toward the door.

There’s no back door to get into our church
auditorium, no secret alcove behind the stage. You have
to come in the front and walk down one of the aisles.
Everybody can watch your forward progress. When I
walked in nobody stirred. When Marvin came following
behind me, heads turned. A stranger was in our midst.

Before we could sit down, the choir director
announced my solo, sounding like he was apologizing for
an approaching train wreck. Marvin went straight to the
piano. He gave me his prize-winning smile and nodded
before beginning his introduction. As soon as the
congregation recognized what he was playing, a soft
humming began to fill the room. Amazing Grace was
familiar ground.

He paused and I began. As I continued, faces began to
light up like Christmas lights coming on around the room. Hands
began to move in rhythm to the music. Eyes turned skyward.
Deacons chimed in with warm “Amens.” And when I finished,
hands clapped and Mama glowed. My sister sat stunned. My
little brother looked around not believing what he had heard
and seen.

Walking Marvin out to our parking lot, I regretted
that I couldn’t put a check in his hands as he had done
for me. Our church pays our pastor, but not for much else.

Before I could apologize, he said, “I have a bit of
news for you. When you sang for my church, we had a
visitor from Los Angeles. He’s in the music business. He
said he’d like to hear more from you. It might be nothing,
but who knows? I think you have a gifts.”

And I thought, Maybe I have two gifts.