Saturday, January 29, 2011

faith, weeds, and dancin' shoes

The Christmas after my husband died, my daughter, Adrienne, sketched the pond on my sister-in-love's farm and wove in the lyrics to "I Hope You Dance." I recalled a minister's comments about the Israelites who sang and danced after they crossed the Red Sea. The drawing and these words transported me to the memory that follows.

Daddy would occasionally take us to the old church of his childhood for dinner on the grounds. This was preceded by three hours of finger-pointing, hardcore rhythm and blues, hellfire and damnation preaching. A couple of sacred harp songs - a cappella since musical instruments were banned - were thrown in for good measure. A tiny one-room building, the church was dark inside, as was everything about the experience. Even as a child I could recognize a proper metaphor.  

An ancient wooden pulpit scarred by the fists of preachers who pounded out the cadence of the message stood at the front. Behind this, a wood stove hid in the corner. The preacher, in a hoarse rapture of agile condemnation, kept a folded handkerchief in his left hand at all times to wipe the sweat that poured down his face as readily in December as in July. The only moving body in the place, he never saw a need to stoke the fire. Perhaps he thought the huddled bodies before him were slain in the spirit.

A center aisle separated the six rows of pews, men on one side, women on the other. As a child I was allowed to sit with Daddy. My job was to poke him in the ribs ever so politely when he began to doze. He said that I had the sharpest elbows he’d ever encountered. In the summer, between his naps, I would trace my finger around the picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that decorated one side of the cardboard fan – the building’s only air-conditioning - then flip over to the funeral home advertisement to see how many words I could make out of “mortuary.” Wooden shutters that served as coverings in lieu of proper glass windows were open. I hoped that air might pass through before we all passed out. Two hours into the sermon, I allowed Daddy to doze, my elbow reserved for when he began to snore. I figured he needed sleep more than the endless rant.

During those naps, I sneaked glances out the window. A butterfly lit on a spirea bush and occupied my thoughts for a while. But I kept one eye on the small, filled-to-bursting AME church across the dirt road, waiting for them to sing. That congregation made a joyful noise that shook the walls of the little church. No terrible, vengeful God visited them but rather a loving Father who was waiting for them in a beautiful heaven.  

Daddy continued to visit the old church alone, mostly to take Uncle Will who, at 98, had been forced to relinquish his driver’s license. We found him a year later up a ladder. He hammered away as Daddy tried in vain to talk him down. The old man said the old place needed a new veranda. He died at 104 of, as a cousin reported, "nothing serious." This sweet, jovial man never had a bad word for anyone. Raised in a small community saturated with a vitriol born of fear and poverty, he chose a different path. His smile radiated the joy of his choice and lives in me today.

The last family visit to the old church was in August before I entered eighth grade. The boiling sun, hot as the preacher’s message, bounced off the asphalt. Daddy knew I didn’t want to attend. He glanced at me through the rear view mirror and said, “Honey, this is probably the last one of these trips we’ll make. I never wanted you to grow up in this place.” He paused before continuing, “. . . too much inbreeding around here, nothing for young people.” I understood but wondered why he continued to come.

Almost fifty years later, the scene we encountered that Homecoming Sunday morning remains vivid. The elders flanked the wooden steps where the preacher stood, Bible in his hand, barring the door of the church. A thin, pale woman with mouse-brown hair, her voile dress limp from the heat, stood meekly in front of the minister. Several children slumped behind her, heads down as they stared at the ground. The oldest son, however, glared defiantly at the preacher while the youngest daughter drew pictures in the sandy soil with her finger. We couldn’t hear what was being said but I saw Daddy’s jaw set as the woman and her children walked away, their heads bowed. I thought she was crying. When Daddy walked over to talk with one of the elders, Mother sat down on the edge of the front seat, her spike heels resting on the only clump of grass she could find, and I retired to the back seat, fanning myself with an envelope.  

I glanced sideways toward the front at my mother. She practiced a frugality born of necessity. In her latest effort to save money, she had purchased guaranteed run-free mesh stockings for me. At 5’9,” I towered over everything, always dreading the moment at family reunions when some uncle would announce, “Well, Vancene, if you’d just put a brick on her head, maybe she would quit growing.” No bargain in my book, these stockings that stopped several inches short of my garter belt were now torturing me. The unyielding, scratchy hosiery tugged against spring-loaded garters, irritated my razor burn, and spawned a wicked case of prickly heat rash. As we sat there in our mutual discomfort, the preacher headed our way. Mother mumbled something that I couldn’t understand when he approached the car. 

“Well, good morning, lovely ladies. Get out and come on inside.” He squatted down next to me and said, “My goodness, haven’t you grown.” I remember his hand resting on my leg a bit too long. My insides churned with disgust.

My father walked up at this moment and tapped the preacher on the shoulder. His usual smile absent, Daddy said, “We aren't going to stay. I need to check on Uncle Will.” The two men walked away for a minute to have a conversation that, strain as hard as we could, Mother and I could not hear.   In a minute Daddy returned, climbed into the driver’s seat, and cranked the black Chevrolet. Mother and I quickly pulled our legs inside and remained perfectly still and quiet, lest we break the spell. We rode in silence for a while before Daddy spoke. His eyes focused on the horizon, he said, “Celeste, don’t ever forget what you saw here today.” As we drove, he told us the story of the woman we had seen leaving.   

Her husband had deserted the family eight years earlier. Pregnant with five young children and no means of support, she had kept her family together. She worked without complaint in a variety of odd jobs: ironing, hoeing fields, picking cotton . . .  her children always in tow. A local lawyer and several male cousins had recently told her that she could, after all these years, divorce her absent husband. She would be eligible for financial aid that would bring relief to her family. Upon discovering the divorce, the good men of Pilgrim Home, with the complicit support of their women, branded her an adulteress and promptly shunned her along with her six children. When the story was finished and silence settled over us, contempt burned inside me. Contempt for those who shunned this woman. Contempt for the coward who left her. 

Forty years later, I returned to the rural community. Alone. A widow with grown children, I had set out on my own journey. As I turned onto the dirt road that led to the church, I saw that no vestige of the tiny building remained. A matted clump of briars and blackberry bushes hid any remaining rubble. I drove onto the church grounds and parked beneath the oak tree I had once climbed. Its drooping branches had shaded countless dinners on the ground, keeping cool fried chicken, lima beans, potato salad, banana pudding, and a multitude of homemade cakes and pies . . . sweet moments of grace in the lives of farm families whose fates turned as swiftly as the south Georgia weather. 

I slowly opened the car door and stepped out into the heat. No dark messages or sad memories remained, nor judgment of any who had come to this place for sustenance. 

This day I thought first of a friend as I stared at a dandelion that bloomed in the middle of the broken bricks. I recalled her gentle admonition ten years earlier when I'd sat in her kitchen as she prepared a family dinner and shared my frustration about a difficult relationship. Kay stopped peeling potatoes and looked up at me with a gentle smile in her eyes.

"A wise person told me once to be grateful for everyone, for every encounter, for every experience. Each is our teacher. Some mirror good choices, others the consequences of bad ones." She paused before continuing in her slow Selma drawl, "But each one guides us."

I looked at the old graveyard beyond the rubble and remembered a conversation with a friend soon after my father died. A retired military officer who had served in Vietnam, he spoke briefly of experiences he did not frequently revisit. Then he told of taking his children to the cemetery after his own father's death. They stood in front of the grave and he pointed to the inscription on the granite slab. "I looked at the dates of his birth and death, Celeste, then at the dash between. That's our life, one small dash . . . a whisper."

I smiled when I recalled an afternoon in Florida a year earlier. Overwhelmed by the challenges that faced me, full of questions, I placed my glass of sweet tea on the table and turned toward my friend. "Oh, Mel, I hope to goodness you won't look down from this porch someday," I gestured to the walkway below, "and watch men in white coats lead me away, me drawlin' my last words, ' I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers'."  We laughed that afternoon, as only those who have walked separate but parallel paths can.

Finally, an evening in the basement of a church, when I told my story to a roomful of families affected by alcoholism, surfaced. I had looked at the faces before me and said, "I came to feel that, if I looked into a mirror, I would see no one, much like a vampire dependent on the blood of others for existence." Unwelcome words to people desperate for a solution, a quick fix, but I had earned the right to speak them. I had given years of my life to another's disease and lost myself in the process. I told them that reclamation had been a painful slog. And recalled a conversation with a mentor. "There really is something to be said for the unexamined life. But if the price of personal growth is to be diminished [insert sigh] then so be it." In time, these words had brought me through my desert places to peace.

On that August afternoon, in the solitude of the old churchyard, I stood in silence and gave thanks for those who once populated my life. A minister's remark surfaced, words about the Israelites who sang and danced after they crossed the Red Sea. "Celebrate instead," she'd said, "before the crossing, in faith." Stirred by the journey that had brought me to this place, I turned and stared across a sea of red clay marked only by ever-changing shadows of the clouds that floated above. The weathered AME church and outhouse I recalled from my childhood were long gone, replaced by a freshly painted building.   

Inside that sanctuary, playing a concert for one - one left standing only by grace - the pianist rehearsed "Part the Waters” and I lingered once more among sandspurs under the hot sun. Surrounded by whispers and shadows, I raised my arms and danced.


Mary said...

On of your best Celeste. I like it when you stick your your own words and experiences. This one has an ebb and flow to it that pulls me through the scenes. I feel those hot summer days in South Georgia.

This is one of your best.

Celeste said...

finding our voices...a journey. thank you.

RosieJo said...

Yes, definitely one of your best! I could put a face on each one of your characters.

RosieJo said...

I came back for more!

Celeste said...