Church was like my foot. It was always there and my mother made sure we were properly scrubbed up for the event. Nothing prevented our going. Even when my father announced that until the Catholics returned to Latin he would not attend mass, we did. Even when the entire hour became an uncomfortable ritual of handshakes and peace kisses, we went.
I don’t remember my earliest relationship with God but I always had a keen and imaginative relationship with the dead. Sitting along the hard pews of my every Sunday, I would talk to one of the recently deceased who I imagined, with my full capacity were able to hear my thoughts. My mother kept me seated to her right, my sister to her left, the older brothers on the other side of my father, and baby on her lap. I was grateful for her seal coat and the ease with which we could draw the tic-tac-toe lines to play during the sermon. Mother at times added an X or O too but when she had enough she would shake our game back to a smooth black fur and raise her chin toward the pulpit. My eyes rested on the wooden replica hanging on the cross and my thoughts would return to the dead who I assured myself were most certainly close at hand.
As a young child, I was brought on occasion to Corrine’s church where the altar was a much busier place, with a full choir, a lively organist, and more often than not, one of my brothers playing his harp. There was no time to fixate on the dead or get tangled up in my own thoughts there. Clusters of folks in matching robes came and went, each singing until the very thick and hot air got that much more tangibly so. I sat mesmerized.
“Ouch!” My scalp tugged with the sharp pull of Corrine’s brush. My waist length hair resisted every twist of the braid she formed. I wore seven that day. The day we were being taken to her church.
“Reen, why do you have to pull so hard?”
“Girl, I bout half ready to chop this mess right off.”
I could only hate my hair. It was a useless mess to me most of the time, with thick knots always forming at the base of my neck, like the fast growing crabgrass in my father’s lawn. But I still did not like the thought of it being chopped off. I spent my earliest years in the barber chair next to my brothers so as a preteen, as I felt the pride of privilege, I grew it as long as allowed. Corrine’s threat worked. I sat still.
The whole brood of us gathered in the driveway, while my older brother backed the large station wagon out of the garage and into the cold Sunday morning. As he nervously backed up the car jolted, rocked, and stuttered toward us. We were ushered into the wagon with strict orders not to twist a bow, nor wrinkle a seam. Somehow patent leather managed to stay reflective, and ties lay straight during the short drive and walk to Corrine’s church. Climbing the seventeen stone steps, we were among a sea of brown faces, ours glowing like coals in a fire bed. The first pew awaited our entourage and all pushed over to give us our seats.
My youngest brother was passed around when Corrine went up to the altar to sing. She made the ceiling fan move faster and even the ladies with paper fans could stop their fluttering for a moment to bask in her breeze. She enchanted. She swayed. She motioned to my second oldest brother with a harmonica to come join her on the altar and up he went. Soon three or four ladies stood and sang out. My younger sister sat next to me like a small robin afraid to fly, her feet dangling from the pew, while I wondered at the force of this Corrine of ours.
Near me, in the pew behind, a woman stood and yelled and swung her arms like she was drowning in the sea of song surrounding us. Several women rushed over to her to rub her limbs; as she collapsed between their bodies they called to Jesus. And they called Amen, Amen, as her eyes showed only white.
Corrine just kept her singing breath and filled the church with that wind of hers. This went on all morning, while I watched my baby brother being passed around from pew to pew, never really noticing that not a single face was one he saw before. My sister who could never sit without a wiggle in my mother’s church now sat as if anchored.
Only one brother, who was a year and three months older than myself, was missing from the pew. He stood among a few snickering men in the vestibule engaged in some conversation that I was sure Corrine would speak to him about later. Of that I was certain, because they were laughing and I had enough church experience to know one did not laugh in the presence of religious ritual. At least that was the way it was at my mother’s church two towns over.