This is something I have never told anyone, other than my mother and Brenda. It has always been one of my most private things…. But, here goes: I used to dream 1) that I could fly…. and 2) that I was a professional singer… not only a professional but one of the world’s best.
For both, I realized early – despite what they say in the movies – that I could not follow my dreams. Not to fly. Not to sing. This latter point came to me in the Church of Wide Fellowship in Southern Pines, North Carolina when I was in full hymn-singing voice in the pew with my family – and people of Christian charity all around stopped and frowned as they looked down at me, until I lowered my voice. Mother later said it was a singing voice only she could love, but to be honest, it was going to be an effort. Leave singing to others, she suggested.
My wife agreed with that mightily, not because she didn’t like the low but loud squelchy sounds I made, as much as she was embarrassed when I mispronounced some of the words. When everyone was singing “lovely mornings…” and I was out there loud with “lonely mountains…” it drew attention, which Brenda always felt was better focused on music other might be singing correctly. I told her it was the hymn-book fonts. Not me. Fonts. I really want to sing, “And I,” she said, “really want to fight professionally.” Or something like that. Though maybe it was, “Oh, grow up.”
For all of my wicked, heathen ways, you wouldn’t necessary believe that for most of my adolescence my parents insisted that I attend both Sunday School and Church every single Sunday… rain or shine. And somethings visiting my maternal grandparent’s farm, it meant going to one of granddaddy’s Primitive Baptist church, where they talked in tongues.
I remember attending one of those services. It was an anniversary for his small rural church they called Antioch. Several men, on a stage in the front with Granddaddy, took their turn one after the other behind the pulpit. After starting with some understandable comments about hellfire and damnation, they each began speaking words only they could understand. There was a cadence, though, a sing-song lifting of the voice after a few sounds, to give some ultra-meaning to the message. There was the swaying back and forth of the men before the alter, an occasional lifting of hands toward God in heaven, eyes closed and the incoherent babble of the Primitive Baptist men. And there were the copula songs. Old Christian favorites: “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Amazing Grace.”
My occasional mispronounced words – sung loudly – seemed to have been overlooked, what with the speaking in tongues theme of this church.
The service, however, lasted a couple of hours. For a young eight year old, that’s an eternity. I remember that I had a sister between me and Mother. After a hour or so I was getting with my own inner self, having a short little conversation, and then squirming, my feet swinging back and forth under the pew. That’s what eight year olds do in small rural churches when the activities on the stage in front with your granddaddy had lost its appeal.
I was unaware that Mother had snaked an arm over behind my sister, heading toward me. She cocked her middle finger behind her thumb in the hand now inches from my unsuspecting head. She waited a moment – as I mumbled to myself and squirmed – before launching her finger missile. It hit my skull like a bomb. Bells went off inside my head. My eyes bulged out and I sat frozen in shock and pain. And only Mother and I knew what had happened. I turned to look at her, my head ringing, and saw her bringing her arm back to lay in her lap. She turned toward me with her special I-love-you look, and then turned back to watch her father preach.
That was the most powerful message I ever got in church.
Don’t mess with Momma.