Visiting chapel and Beth’s tree

Mary, Tricia, and I with Beth's tree next to Helen Hills Hills Chapel, Smith College
Mary, Tricia, and I with Beth’s tree next to Helen Hills Hills Chapel, Smith College

After the Alice Parker concert at Sage Hall, Mary, Tricia and I proceeded up the hill near Paradise Pond to Helen Hills Hills Chapel.

Our first priority was to visit the winter-flowering cherry tree planted beside the chapel that is dedicated to the memory of Beth McBeath, another class of ’82 Glee Club member, who died as the result of an airplane fire during October break of our senior year.  Her funeral was held at the chapel and Glee Club sang Bach’s setting of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” through our tears during the service.  Later, I attended the planting of the memorial tree, although the tree in the photo is not the original tree but a replacement for the one we planted that day, a weeping cherry that was unrecoverably damaged in an ice storm years later.

Beth was a light-filled, infectiously joyous person. She served the Ecumenical Christian Church (ECC) at Smith as a deacon and liturgist.  She participated in the Smith choral program in all her years there, serving as an officer as well as lending her alto voice to our choirs.  In the best tradition of the liberal arts, she studied with both breadth and depth, including taking a course in the art department on bookmaking.  She was always friendly and interested in other people.  Like me, as we entered our senior year, she was engaged to be married.

Her loss, along with another classmate who died from lung cancer later in our senior year, taught us not to take time for granted.  Her memorial tree is something that I try to visit every time I get back to campus. I make donations to the Smith Fund in her memory, which puts me in touch with her mom, who still survives.  Mary sent the photo, which we took with her phone, to Beth’s mom.  I hope it made her smile.

After visiting the tree, we went into the chapel.  None of us had seen it since the pews were removed, although we had seen a photo in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.  Despite that, it still was a bit of a shock to walk through the front doors of the chapel, which was modeled after a traditional New England Congregational style church, and not see the rows of white-painted wooden pews with the red center aisle carpet down which I had walked as a June bride a few weeks after our commencement.  Instead, there were heavy, boxy wooden chairs, arranged in circles over a wood floor.  Given that there are no longer regular worship services in the chapel, a fact that still makes me sad, I do understand the impetus to remove the pews to make the space more versatile for concerts and other events, but I wish that the wood floor had been a traditional New England hardwood and the chairs had been more elegant and in keeping the architecture.

Still it was better than the last time I had visited chapel in May 2012, when I wrote this poem that touches on both the chapel and Beth’s tree. chapel at reunion  (Sorry for the pdf embedding, but I didn’t have time to fiddle with the editing settings to get the indents and spacing to work correctly.)

After walking through the main body of the chapel, we went upstairs to the gallery and visited the organ, which was a memorial gift in honor of Helen Hills Hills’ husband James. I spent so many hours on that bench, practicing, having lessons, accompanying for Choir Alpha, playing for Mass, prepping for my junior recital with Mary and Natalie, preparing for and playing preludes or postludes for ECC services, and additional hours standing beside the bench turning pages for other organists.  It’s moments like this when it feels odd that I haven’t played for years…

We also walked to the basement where the offices are. Almost every room has a different occupant or purpose than when we were there.  I thought about the series of Marc Chagall prints that used to hang in the hallway.  I think the art museum took custody of them so that they are in a better protected environment, but it used to be so cool to have original artworks in an everyday space. The Bodman Lounge is still there, with shelves of spiritual and religious books and couches and comfy chairs.  Mary had given me a bridal shower there and it was the room in which I dressed for my wedding.

I felt reluctant to leave. Even with all the changes, the richness of the memories will always draw me back.

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