Tag Archives: prayer

“Blessed Assurance”.


The boy had a mouth on him.

He was the shortest, darkest, angriest trumpet player I had ever seen. Furthermore, his embouchure (through no fault of his own) had never been properly set and his tone, well, that’s what happens when your embouchure hasn’t been set right.

But, there was something in him. He had a deep, inborn sense of the good. He had principle. And, this combination produced a student of such determined commitment, a young man who put forth with every cell in his body to produce. I was merely the music teacher – a scant, 29 year old, belated second year fledgling – and this guy had convinced his impassioned concoction of underprivileged, underserved, and undertrained in the East High marching band to vote “Yes” to compete. I had my work literally cut out for me – by John Jefferson.

The first solution seemed to be a transfer to the F horn. This instrument’s conical bore mouthpiece would allow an easier tone production, in an alto range. John took to it. He learned the solo. I felt my first small triumph.

But, this, of course, was short lived. John spoke out. From the top tier of the bandroom at the end of the annex, he’d answer me back, in full on challenge, and loud enough for the whole room to hear. He was the alpha male, and I needed to know my place.

As for the next decision, I can remember neither the day nor the hour. I only knew that John needed to be out front. He needed to lead. And, that is exactly where I put him. By the end of his first season as a sophomore, John Jefferson was East High drum major.

The whole uniform fit him like the glove on his right hand. The epaulets were never more proud to grace any shoulder. But, most of all, John could finally assume the position he was born to take. John Willis Jefferson could stand, stock still – chin up, eyes fixed – at attention. And, John Willis Jefferson could salute.

The band did their absolute best. I always regretted that the association in charge of the competitions never produced a trophy for Most Developed Ensemble, because my kids deserved a big one. Nevertheless, led by John and his cohorts Shawn and Melanie, the students faltered not once. They just held up their heads .

John graduated from public education during my final year at his high school. The district would move me, against my will, across town to fill a vacancy, and I would never see either him or the rest of the students who would call me “mom” again.

That is, not until one, singular occasion.

Via the blessing of social media, I had been reunited with several former students. Naturally, one of the first to find me was John. Except that he had produced quite a life story – married, to Mindy, and the father of at least two of his three boys. But, about to realize more of that story, quite without warning I received news of an upcoming event: a 20th Class Reunion.

I’d been to several. In fact, every five years, my classmates from Academy High had dutifully taken on the enormous task of bringing us all together for dinner and more.

But, John.

John didn’t just tell me about his. John invited Miss Scanzillo to the East High 20th Reunion of the Class of 1990.

He was hosting, he said. Would I please come? They would be honored by my presence.

To my memory, no teacher had ever attended a high school class reunion. Certainly none of my former teachers were ever present at any of mine – not the 5th, the 10th, the 15th….you get the picture.

The night of the event, I thought perhaps I should appear low key. Clad in a casual, soft summer top and capris, I slipped into Calamari’s Squid Row.

The doors opened into a full diningroom draped in white linen. A grand buffet spread across the front, covered in decorative stainless steel. And, presiding at the head of the long, formal room was: John Jefferson.

Master Sergeant John Jefferson, US Air Force.

In full dress.

The red and grey drum major’s costume had been replaced by the dark woolens of the United States Military, Sgt Jefferson’s chest emblazoned with three rows of colored ribbon and precious medals. I was beyond stunned.

Finding a discreet seat at one of the table rounds, I set my gaze on our John. He spoke as loudly as ever before, but with a refined speech, a grace, and a carriage that made my heart well up. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

We kept in touch, after that. Facebook chat was a great place to convene, no matter where he was deployed. He’d check in, from Iraq, Afghanistan….and, always, the sign off: “I love you!”

See, something else had happened to John.

During the first year he and Mindy became a couple, they had both committed their lives to Jesus Christ. Now, not everyone will know what that means to those about whom such an act bespeaks. But, to the faithful, becoming a born-again Christian is what happened to John. This meant that, like my father before him, John accepted a life changing force into his heart. They called this the Holy Spirit, and to this Spirit’s direction and counsel both men would vow to remain true.

John and I continued, now familiar references to prayer and faith peppering his dialogue.

Life marched on, past another decade of Veteran’s Days. Twenty five more years, to be nearly precise. My adored father passed on into eternity, age 95, and I retired from public school music education. Then, word came to me that John and his family were coming back to Erie for another visit. Would I please join them all, for dinner?

Overjoyed, I met the entire family – at Chic-Fil-A. The boys were sweet, quiet (like their mother!) and polite. John talked of his travels and experiences, of meeting President George W Bush; I marveled. Mindy and I met, for the first time, that day – and, before we ate, John bowed his head and publicly asked the blessing for our food.

Last October, (could it be?) John had reached a life milestone. Now Senior Master Sergeant, he was set to retire from the US Air Force. Twenty six years of devoted service to his God and country. A full military ceremony was scheduled, at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. On Facebook, the word went out as an open invitation.

It only took me a couple days to decide.

I flew in. Mindy met me, at the gate, to grant guest of family passage. High security, all around. Miles of real estate, devoted to air power, air men and women, and their commander. I was introduced to the latter, in the office where SMSgt Jefferson had been spending most of his time. A gracious civilian base employee chauffeured me all around the grounds, allowing me a few select photos.

And, then the ceremony. Getting a bear hug from John was the icing on the cake, or so I thought. But, then John’s colleague, a Major, stepped to the podium.

What followed was a litany of awards and accomplishments so vast that I could not contain the realization. John hadn’t just devoted his life to service; he had positively excelled. Officer of the Year. Medals for this, and medals for that. A contract officer, SMSgt Jefferson had, near as I could tell, managed millions of dollars of military monies over two decades of military action across the globe.

The celebration was surreal, a fascinating trek through life passing before one’s eyes. His insisting that I sit “with the family”, me stubbornly resisting that “order” so as to get my choice photos, I sat on the officers’ side. The formal presentation was followed by John’s individualized “thank you’s”. I received the final, single red rose, and words of gratitude which could only be overtaken by those of my own; this old music teacher just had to make sure everyone in the room knew that John had begun his career out front, directing the East High Marching Band. Always a leader, always an outstanding man, from the beginning.

Then, the final occasion.

Last week, I would receive the last of so many words on my beloved student, the boy who came closer to being my own son than any other child I would ever know. Inexplicably, after a mere two months of retired bliss and following a statistically innocuous routine medical procedure, John would cease breathing; efforts to revive him failing, his brain would swell; by sundown the same day, those in power would declare his brain death and, only hours thereafter on a vent and then off, at the age of only 45 his body would give up its ghost to the God of all believers.

This time, I could not attend.

John’s had been a life so worth celebrating; how could I even acknowledge his untimely and unacceptable death? My best effort was to sit, holding the single rose he’d presented to me, and weep.

The world had become, in large, increasing part, a frightening and sinister place for humans to reside. Nations, rising up against nations; holy wars fast becoming the order of the day. Addiction and apathy, married; deceit and treachery, lurching into the limelight; and, all efforts to revive hope, faith, and charity met by the darkest of demons.

Today, many a Scripture verse from the Book of my childhood speaks to me in solitude, along with the memes on my grandmother’s wall:

“For if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

I hope to God it’s all true.

Because, if ever there were a voice on earth deserving of the realization of its passionately held convictions, that voice belongs to the soul of SMSgt John Jefferson.

And, I can still hear him.


© photo by Ruth Ann Scanzillo 10/17.





© 3/9/18   Ruth Ann Scanzillo.  This piece dedicated to the life and memory of SMSgt John Willis Jefferson, of Erie PA. All rights to its contents the strict property of the author, copied only by the author and shared with those who carry respect for its subject.










The Zephyr.

Today was the warmest one yet – the kind that made us all sure we’d really survived another killer winter. And, sunny? Many thought God had a special place in his heart for the Young Peoples’ Chorus of Erie, especially those in attendance at their spring concert. They were sure he’d provided such beautiful weather just for the children.

And, this being my third stint as guest obbligato cello soloist for these beautifully trained young voices, I was glad to be sitting in the shade of their shining day.

I’d followed my usual routine, eating pasta primavera at precisely two and a half hours out, setting the hair, running the tough licks once more, and arriving at call to watch the wall clock carefully until it hit exactly one hour from my tune’s downbeat. For the propranolol, ten milligrams, because a racing heart meant a bobbling bow and vibrato out the wazoo, and all the seasoned players knew how to calculate fear out of the equation because this is how we all rolled.

Today, I sat in my assigned spot off to the side of the Lutheran sanctuary, left hand gloved, program beside me on the carved straight backed bench two feet from the cross on the pole and two more from the velvet prayer altar.

The total body experience of live performance really can’t be described fully. It’s kind of a time warp beholden to opposing forces. Fifty percent intense desire; fifty resistance. Wanting, so, to make something beautiful; needing to run and do anything but this, anything else, oven cleaning. Years of archaic indoctrination running headlong into the quest for the ideal: producing a perfect, even transcendent, rendition of somebody else’s music.

From childhood, I’d been what they called a “natural.” Dad’s inborn talent manifest in me tenfold. Rarely a day went by that I did not spend, compulsively, hours at a time, playing the piano and singing. Later, the cello – the master, the lover, the second skin of my soul.

But, traditional training never knew anything but demand. Getting it right. Matching the composer’s intent. Reading the notes on the page. What a curiosity, notation, really. At once a mathematical template and a symbolic language for the aural definition of beauty. Playing “by ear” was what Dad did, and what we all did in our family; but, reading and interpreting the written version of what we loved happened someplace else in the brain and, unlike my father before me, I’d learned to know the difference.

This year’s choral selection featuring cello came with its part written entirely in treble clef. I’d taken one look at the music, and chosen to waste no time rewriting it in bass and tenor. And, I’d used whatever makeshift printer paper I had on hand; invariably, standard drug store white got the job.

Sitting on the carved bench as the children began their program, my gloved hand felt hot in the warming room and I felt the familiar OCD starting to creep. Fairly new at the medicating routine, I’d noticed this phenomenon coming off the migraine drug, as well, a pill I’d been forced to take earlier that day. But, years of perfectionism raged; I must not look at the music before the performance. I must not fixate on the descending shift, lest it jump at me from the page en route. This, I’d learned the hard way, could sabotage even the most diligently prepared passagework. And, the children had come ready to sing. They deserved the best.

And, the sound of them. Their Anglo-Saxon tonal purity rivaled the heavenlies. They belonged in Westminster Abbey. I simply must match their offering. The perfect spring day required it.

I’d been raised on prayer. Prayer on the knees, before bed. Prayer over every meal. Prayer before every trip on the highway. Maybe it was the velvet prayer altar, or the cross on the pole. But, I prayed. And this time, I asked God to just play the music for me.

And, then, I was up.

Dead center they’d placed me this year, right under the director’s eye. I sat down, positioned my two sheets of hand-written music on the stand, chirped my strings one last time, and nodded to the director.

The piece, “In The Night We Shall Go In”, by Imant Raminsh, began with the lone voice of the cello, stating the motif. And, then elaborating that motif, through repetition and a modal contour that resolved in sustain, setting the tonal stage for the young peoples’ vocal cue.

But, something else was making an entrance.

I hadn’t even reached the second motive statement before noticing it. The music. The top left corner of the page began to flutter, as if in a breeze. Yet, the church was packed; there was no air moving, anywhere.

In nearly thirty years of live performance, I’d sung in a pop band, played in church – for services, weddings, full orchestral concerts, funerals. Been a regular fixture in the throng on the Warner stage. But, what happened next I may never be able to explain.

The corner of the music continued to gently puff away. Then, just as I headed into the contour of the line, the page lifted itself entirely from the stand and flew to the floor.

I looked up at the director, Gabrielle, whose eyes only faintly delivered recognition, whose mouth only slightly turned its corners, whose face rightly sought the childrens’ undivided attention. A young girl sitting in the second pew entered my field. But, she didn’t move. Nobody moved. “The show must go on”. The director kept phrasing the beat, and the children kept singing.

And, I kept playing.

Or, my bow kept moving. And, my fingers followed.

And, the verse played out.

No small marvel, this. Not only that the room was devoid of noticeable air flow, that the music had begun to move, and then the float to the floor, but that I.kept.playing.

And, then, it happened again.

On page two. Only this time, my bow suspended on the B – natural fermata, alone on the precipice, choir tacet, just ahead of the descending octave shift to recapitulation. Up went page two. And, down. Paper, face to the floor.

I played the entire theme.

Or……….God did?

*    *    *    *

A piece about omens had come to me the other day, and I’d closed it asking the Almighty for the kind of sign that would stop me cold.

I think I got one.

And, it knocked the wind right out of me. Right on the wings of the sunniest day of spring.


“Let Go, and let God.”






© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

5/3/15  all rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line.


Dropping Your Sunglasses.

Mammy was the family saint. She always had a smile, a cheery, chatty story, and a deep peace. But she was also profoundly intuitive, perhaps even psychic.

As a child of the late 1800s in eastern Pennsylvania, my grandmother’d enjoyed the “Key Game”……one blindfolded, spun around, then sent – still with the blindfold on – to find the key hidden by the room full of players. And, who could say how she always found it, every time, and quickly.

Yes; Mammy was a source of comfort and encouragement to a vast extended progeny, primarily through daily, hourly prayer. But, she was also quite superstitious. Long after putting aside the deck of cards when, as a young girl, she converted to the life of a Christian, she retained several “beliefs”.

One of them concerned omens. Mammy always knew that, if a bird fluttered by your window, you needed to stop and pray for the safety and protection of all your loved ones. And, this, along with other signs, she took as seriously as she did a direct answer to supplication when it came her way.

In the days before my mother died of cancer, lying in the hospice bed brought into her room at home, a crow appeared in the back yard. The bird was lame, unable to fly, only walking slowly across the yard. This omen was impossible to ignore and, in spite of my fragile faith, I knew my mother would soon pass.

Decades earlier, our dog, Nero, had been a lively part of our family. The day I’d come home and was met by an eager wagging tail and a face, that face still branded in my memory, of a beseeching, sweet animal who wanted to chase the stick, me too busy at that moment, bounding instead into the house – at that very second, something told me that this would be the last time Nero would ask me to play. Sure enough, two days later, our precious dog was dead of a flipped stomach, my pleas that she be lifted by someone strong enough and carried to the vet ignored by everyone.

The year my beloved father moved in with me, I’d searched for a daytime caregiver to supplant my efforts while at work finishing up the school year. One girl I’d been directed to contact by a woman who overheard me in the drugstore. She came so highly recommended that I could not ignore the opportunity. But, the day she showed up at the front door and I looked into her face, there was a grey shadow that crossed her countenance. A sensation passed through my chest and out the other side. Though I couldn’t know at the time, she would be the prime suspect in a household theft discovered days later, with only my 94 year old father as witness.

Last Christmas I took a trip south, to visit my brother and his family and to check out the baby grand piano that was waiting on hold for my perusal. Upon entering the dealer’s showroom, I removed my sunglasses and looked around at the setting in the lobby. In a few minutes, the salesman with whom I had spent many email exchanges preparing for this moment appeared. Lean, taller than me, balding and bow tied, he extended his hand. As I reached to grasp it, my sunglasses fell to the floor.

Bending down to pick them up, I had yet another of those infinitesimal moments. The same feeling I’d had so many times before tore through me like a fleeting current, so brief so as to be almost undetectable, as if my body intended to process and discard it before my mind could react. This was yet another sign, and another foreboding.

And, typically, I disregarded the omen. Following the salesman into the room, I would subject myself to a power of persuasion so overtaking that months would pass before I would fully grasp what had happened to me.

Today, I sit facing a legal scene that will likely take weeks of my most precious thought hours, impacting my productive quality and every aspect of my more nourishing anticipations. And, I can’t help but look at my Mammy’s face, in photograph and illustration, and feel her gentle admonishments, and implore her intercession one more time on my behalf. And, I ask the Almighty for an even bigger sign the next time, one that might slap me right in my tracks and make me feel the pain. Far better a momentary hurt than half a lifetime of regret.

“Be still, and know that I am God.”






© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

5/1/15  all rights the author’s. Sharing allowed upon request. Thank you.