February 6, 2018

the first baptist church

"The chimes in the hall sound every hour;
The sun and moon go 'round;
Time flies by, fades like the flower,
And I can't slow it down ....
I am a prodigal daughter,
But in my wandering, I have found
There is a wideness in mercy."

-Kate Campbell, "In My Mother's House"

I've made the appointment to go back to my home church and make copies of all of my grandmother's poems and miscellany that they've collected there.  Apparently, there are three binders, not just one.  She was a pillar, and beloved.

I went to church every Sunday and Wednesday with Grandma.  My parents never attended church with us.  The band kept them out late at night on the weekends.  Even when I turned sixteen and had a car and my freedom, I was there.  Going off to college was the transition point, and Grandma never said a word about losing my Sunday companionship to the waiting world.

I'm making the trip this Sunday afternoon.

I contacted the one person I knew was still there who might remember me and not hold up a cross and scream, "The power of Christ compels you!" to ward off the contagious rainbow dust I'm likely to shed everywhere.  I remember Mary Jane as a bright spot among the company of adults I kept.  She's fixed in my memory as someone with a smile and a positive demeanor that, for some reason, secured my approval and didn't make me roll my eyes.  That says a lot.  I cannot think of a single person other than her whom I would want to emulate in that regard.  I spend more time than I care to admit wanting to smack "positive people" and those women in ads who are eating yogurt or salad and smiling at each other.  But Mary Jane, she smiled in the face of some pretty hard life.  Like her husband's bout with cancer.  He won, and is still winning, but under that loving, natural smile, the lady has grit.

Mary Jane put me back in touch with the preacher I conversed with a year ago, after Grandma's funeral.  He still welcomes me and let me know that the the doors of the church are opening early Sunday afternoon because of a church council meeting, followed by choir practice and then Sunday night service, and that I'm welcome to come use the church office and copy whatever I wish.  He offered to have the secretary copy them for me and send them by mail, but I need to perform the ritual of doing it myself.

I asked who's on the council, and there is another person I remember with fondness, who might not even get confused and wear garlic to ward me off.  Vampires, darling, not queers.  So I'm looking forward to some hugs, real hugs tinged with nostalgia but also with a great deal of withholding my true self.  Safe topics will include my job, how hard it is to raise kids, how time flies.  Oh, doesn't it?

I know from the web site that they've replaced the burgundy carpet in the sanctuary with navy blue and painted the white walls cream, bringing it kicking and screaming from the 1970s into the 1980s.  But it's the same cavernous space.  I'll take a break from my copying and walk in there alone, just as I did when I was nine years old, several times, because it made me feel something that I figured was the presence of God Himself, my tiny form under a high ceiling, the silence impossibly complete despite cars passing by on the street in front of the church.  This time, I'll pull the brass handle and enter through the left door, and walk down three carpeted steps, now not as an awed child but as a fully grown gay liberal foul-mouthed atheist, a branch of the tree that drank of the same sap but turned around and grew bananas instead of olives.  God won't show up, but Time will.

I'll be an alien, but I'll check to see if that hinge on the swinging door from the pulpit to the choir loft is still bent, and if anyone has tightened the bolts of the fifth pew on the right.  They were loose because on Homecoming Sunday each September, my aunt and cousins and my grandmother's sisters would all attend (more to get a helping of Violet Neese's chicken pie than religion).  There is a family trait I share on my daddy's side that involves crossing one leg over the other and then shaking a leg or foot.  We're not even aware we're doing it, and the whole pew would be vibrating slightly.  After years of this, the pew wobbled and creaked slightly when someone sat down on it.  People typically left it alone.

Which is to be expected.  Baptists sit in the back whenever possible.  This is a stock bit of Southern humor, but it's only funny because it's dead true.  The congregation fills in from the back forward.  On a well-attended day, the preacher only has to look about a third of the way back to find some gazes to meet.  On Homecoming, I saw that even the front pews were filled, while the aroma of fried chicken and deviled eggs and all manner of pies conspired to shorten our patience and make us glance involuntarily at our watches.  Somebody would always go down front and get saved or rededicate their life to the Lord during the first verse of "Just As I Am," so the preacher would be content to stop the singing before the seventh verse, say the blessing right at the stroke of noon, and let us stampede over to the other building, where the food beckoned.

Nobody sits up in the balcony.  That's where the sound control board sits.  The speakers controlled by the sound guy (probably still Wayne) are built into the walls in the front of the sanctuary, high in each corner.  A kid who found the access door to the closet holding one of those speakers could squeeze in and sit in darkness, and look out through the thick mesh wall panel and down on the whole congregation, higher than the preacher, higher than the choir or the baptismal pool.  God's view.

I'll figure out how the copier in the church office works and methodically remove and copy and then gently replace each poem in the binders.  I'll smell the heated toner and stare at the familiar and the unfamiliar, the logos and names and sheet music.  I think I'll still have enough time to wander the halls and rooms and measure how far I've wandered from them.

On the drive home, I'll remember who I am.  I am the banana branch.  I grew on that olive tree.

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