Today I was thinking about a particular time I visited the church I grew up in. Against the folkways of the dress standard, I word dashiki and blue jeans. I had been going through some emotional backs and forths and I, to my own bewilderment, longed to feel the sweet breath and look into faces of folks who have known me from baby shoes to press n curls and training bras. Have loved me with praise tongues and and stern voices and forgiveness. Rubbed my belly when I was pregnant. Stood with me. Agreed with me and believed in me. I went to church. The church that was white with rugged cross and red steps. I used to love red steps. The chruch that kindly held my clouded prayers from when I first understood prayin. Not just on my knees with hands clasped on communion Sundays in white dress and before dinner, but pray all the time. For everything. Good grades. New Barbke. Skateboard. For everyone. For my father, my mother, for myself. Myself, that I might have a voice commanding enough to speak the world of my dreams into fruition. Though I did not have language yet grown up to divulge all of my narrative, I knew He was listening. I knew that God had the whole world in His hands. In His hands. He's got the whole world in His hands. And hands so big still somehow fint into me. 710 south, exit PCH east. Church.
Where there was the Sunday school class of my youth that began at 9am and was held in the choir stand behind the pulpit. And Bro. Rentie, who recently passed away, picked us up in his station wagon. In the early years the blue and wood brown one, then the fancy burgundy one with air conditioning, teaching us how to oppose the persistent machinations of the devil the whole trip. My youth choir where I was the president for four years in a row and could not sing a note, but was there every Sunday and knew the books of the Bible at least from Genesis to 1 Corinthians. On second Sundays after we sang in church we went to Bel Vista Convalescent Hospital and sang for the patients and staff. Where I was tall and skinny with long pressed braids and paten leather shoes and fold down socks with white lace on the edges. I wore my first pair of Leggs B coffee grown up stockings from the plstic eg wrapping and my hair down for the first time at that church. Thick and tight curls from the small yellow sponge rollers that absorbed the excess hair grease that Aunt Rugh made and prayed over in her kitchen. There were Easter speeches and Vacation Bible School classes and gospel concerts, prayer and usher board meetings and other weekly and monthly routines that made our church. Home.
The church that held its own on the KDAY and crip infested streets of 17th and Lemon Ave. in Long Beach very close to my old apartment on Walnut. I lived in Compton before that but I was much too young to remember. My mother still attends. And like my grandmother before her, is the church secretary along with Sis. Birdie King who is my mother's very good friend.
Mostly, it was good to see my mother in her element. In her usher uniform. Lavender skirt and jacket with white top and scarf and q tip white gloves that you dare not rush past without permission. I remember looking at my mother with her beautiful tan skin and smooth, short gray hair and authentic grin. I started to cry as I watched her march around the church after the offering to the sharp corner turns and staccato of "We. Are. Sold. Iers." I used to be an usher. Stood knock kneed, long and lanky in the center isle with my back to the pulpit facing the front doors. Left arm behind my back with fist closed and right arm at my side ready to show the parishioners to their seats. But I was not my mother. I did not really care if the saints received a fan or not. Was not concerned if the programs were folded evenly or not. Mostly it mattered to me that I was president of the Jr. Usher Board too. What?
How long will I have her? I wondered. How blessed I am to even know such a woman, whose gloves I could never fill. With her comprehensive eyes and face. With her buoyant spirit, steady feet and unpolished toe nails that keep moving through it. My mother.
I sat next to a woman who reminded me of my grandmother, Omega Davis. Sis. Davis as she was called at St. Mark Baptist Church. But she was not my grandmother. Had her brown eyes and good skin and outdated Jheri curl and was a pretty woman like her. But she was not my grandmother. Did not have her must be jelly 'cause jam don't shake like that belly laugh that made the smallest joke even funnier, did not pass me fire stick candy during service or write notes in perfect cursive that made me laugh and were always inappropriate. My grandmother was a wise woman whose every predictioin came true. "Y'all gon see after I'm gone." After she was gone, we saw. She was our Orsen Wells and we did not even know it. Would not even know it.
Where did the time go and who were these people I used to babysit for fifteen dollars a night and why were they driving and had children of their own? Now I am not old enough to wonder where all the time went. These were the same walls and chairs, different choir robes and pews, but same piano and drum set as before. Only time changes, I was beginning to understand. Even the people were not the same. There were too many funerals and birthdays and communions and weddings and funerals so fast here. Too many peopl I knew eulogized right there on different carpet but same hyms. How will these children survive, I wondered, without Sis. Lang praising every off key song? Without Rev. Roberts who was tall and pigeon toed adn had an afto curl and was grown up and child like with us. And we understood him and loved him. He let us call him Bubba. How will service ever really begin without Bro. Lang leading the devotion in his deep dark skinned bass voice with the old Negro 100's ? "Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me til I want no more" and the church would respond "Breeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaddddd oooooooooouuuuuuuuvvvvvvveeeeee heeeeeeeeeaaaaavvveeennn fffeeeeeeeiiiiiiiieeeeeeeed mee til ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh waaaaaaaaaaoooooooonnnt nooooooooooohhhhhooooooo moooooooooorreeeeeeee."
Then bowing to one knee with the other deacons we would listen to Bro. Crews pray his signature prayer of "Aint gon study war no mo." And my grandfather who smoked and knew teh gospel perhaps as well as Matthew or Paul and with common sense to boot and right in every fight, would follow his prayer with one of his own spoken so softly that we could not hear. "I wasn't speaking to you" was his only reply.
There are memories on those floors behind those doors that are pieces of me like cells and lashes and pinky toes. That feel good like rent paid and stretch jeans. And hurt at the same time like sore feet and friendships gone bad with no completion and misunderstandings between lovers. There was Vidette and Cheryl and Pam and Cordelia and Kim and my own Aunt Janice who were women I looked up to. And I would be amazing like them when I grew up. There were the Harris sisteres whose voices could match a team of angels hands down. And Lezette and Sophia who were always as sophisticated and beautiful as their names. Sophia who was gorgeous. Whose life to me was flawless. Sophia, Sophia, Sophia, who told me the Sunday before her suicide that I was a pretty girl. And there was Nameless was was strict and respected and had a nice house and dutiful wife and new car and his tongue touching mine too many times in a way I was too young to understand and too scare to tell. Again. I suspect now, that I was not the only one. There are pieces of my shaping that have escaped the surface of my recollection, but the bricks, and strips of caulk, and boards of plaster of this building will always know.