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2/26/2006

FAITH OF OUR FATHERS (AND MY GRANDMOTHER)

The smell of age rushed up my nostrils and filled my mind's eye with fuzzy images from the past: sitting in her plump lap with her wrinkled hands clasped across mine, the humid hum of "Rock of Ages" whispered against my cheek, the creaking of a wooden rocker on a linoleum kitchen floor.

I remember my mother's mother well. Granny, the others called her. She was Geemommy to me - with a hard "g", not a "j".

We rose together at 4AM the Summer mornings I spent at her house in Bridge City, Texas not far from the bayou. She'd brew a pot of coffee, pour me a cup, double it's measure in milk, serve me her own special recipe strawberry preserves over biscuits pulled from a can and then an oven. We'd leave it open. She in her rocker, me on an office chair, our feet up on it's door as if it were twenty below outside and not already in the seventies.

She'd read from her newspaper, the reason for our early rise, to see how busy we'd both be that day. She was a florist and I was her helper, her delivery boy and ribbon braider: I made red and white braids three feet long for about two weeks in her shop in the Summer, helping her get a jump on Homecoming season, at which time boys would inevitably shell out more than $100 for two mums strung together with my braids and other inexpensive trinkets designed to extricate cash from adolescents and serve as proof of one's love for the unfortunate date who would wear such a monstrosity pinned to her chest for an entire evening of football.

In the Summer, before mums and corsages, she lived on weddings and funerals. Weddings could be seen from months away. They sat on her calendar, planned for, no surprises. Funerals, on the other hand, hit her at 4AM every morning over preserves and biscuits. They were printed daily in the "obits" as she called them.

"Oh, Old Mr. Hatfield finally went home to be with the Lord," she'd say. And it struck me odd even at age ten that my wrinkled slow moving grandmother could refer to anyone else as "old." She'd make a mental list of the deceased, any relatives or friends of theirs she knew who might call or come by for flowers in their honor. She spoke the list out loud as if God was listening, as if she were pleading their case before Jesus who had pulled up a chair next to us to sop some preserves and sip coffee. "I remember Mrs. Walker from when your momma was little," she'd recall. "Mrs. Walker was your momma's fifth grade teacher. We saw her at church every week. Every week. You know I heard her husband died when she still had babies at home. She never married again. And she was a beautiful woman with a big smile and dark black hair. Just beautiful. I hope they don't put all that makeup on her for the funeral like they do...You want another biscuit, Sugar?"

We found out after Geemommy died that she didn't charge a lot of bereaved families for her art. And it was art. Sacred art. Prayed over. With Jesus sitting beside her, listening to her sing and watching her work, his pants unbuttoned at the top to make room after breakfast.

That smell was her - her faith, her lullabies and and biscuits and prayers. It was the smell of heritage and lessons lived before spoken. It smelled old, ancient even, but comforting and eternal.

It was the smell of wooden pews stocked with Baptist Hymnals, high ceilings, stained glass, carpets stained from generations of potluck dinners and baby spit, sermons hollered, choir lofts filled and pipe organs calling fathers and sons and their sons and their sons to worship. It smelled like a legacy.

I plugged my guitar into the puny sound system of the First Baptist Church in Barnesville, Georgia last Thursday night, my lungs and my heart filled with this smell and made my contribution to it. I added a verse to the song that's been playing there and around the world from every branch of God's family tree for six thousand years at least. Mine was strummed and rhyming and sung. But I know it was no better than those that were read and stilted and conducted in that place over the years. And that place is no better than the slave-worked fields nearby made blessed by negro spirituals. It's no better than the alleys of Dublin where saints sang door to door or the houses of Rome where the fathers of my faith broke bread and celebrated friends who died at the hands of the Caesar for the speaking the name "Jesus."

It was just a room, no better than any other where two or more have gathered over the centuries with not much more than faith in common. But it smelled like the room where my faith was born, where I first heard the songs and felt the love and compassion and saw the giving that faith inspires. It smelled like Jesus to me. Like he was sitting beside me with jelly on his cheek and coffee on his breath whispering our story into me.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Lu (Soundchick) said...

Wow. Awesome. Beautiful story, beautifully written. Thank you.

2/27/2006  

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