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As a little boy, I grew up inhaling the sun-kissed, muggy air of an old gutted out flat. We called it a Pentecostal church. Back then my yearning ears would recline in the breaths, the heavy plumes of sound, cadence, and echo, that ushered laboriously beneath the Preacher’s raspy hum:
“If these walls . . . uh . . . could talk . . . they would tell you . . . they would tell you, uh . . . there is nothing new . . . under the Sun.”
After the Preacher would labor through his burdened breaths, Grandma, sitting next to me, would shake her head, her round body mimicking its motion, affirming the Preacher’s statement up and down: “A-men Pastor!”
This interchange of calls and responses would play back beat to more burdens and breaths, punctuating the Preacher’s ecumenical statements with voiced exclamation points that rippled through air like floating ellipses.
Grandma, rocking back and forth, up and down, would sink into the timeworn divots of the long wooden pew and fan herself vigorously in wait of some ill-reserved breeze that might air-condition the perspiration casing her melting flesh. She would agree that there is nothing new under sun: “I done seen it all honey, but there is new life on the other side of the sun.”
Sister Cadwell, seated not too far away from us, would shout in a key of her own: “HA-LLEL-LU-AH, Thank you JE-SUS!” And while unexpected, her sudden burst of conviction would evoke no one’s response. It was part of the natural jazz of the space, part of its music of strength overcoming sorrow, part of the enduring song that stretched above the sun where new things are possible. It was the echo of life that grandma would speak of when talking about heaven, suns, and new things.
I would hear this same music years later when I returned to the church to bury my grandmother.
Sitting at the church today, I notice the hush of progress. Not much has changed. The long curtains flung against the buried windows still drag low just above the surface of the floor. Divoted wooden pews still line the surface of the sanctuary in receptive rows all pointed at the pulpit. There are still noises sequestered in the walls, whispers that hold onto the secrets of what’s not new under the sun.
Sitting there, I am taken by the blossoming of remembrances, of old small things hidden under the sun. There is the memory of Grandma’s heavy hands uplifted toward the ceiling of the church. Her face is folded into a less than subtle expression of her thousand agonies ascending from her orbed-shaped body to the four celestial winds of unseen things. This sculpture of pain gives art but decadence to her soul, its tragedies and weakening sorrows, the very essence of whom she had stubbornly resisted.
Seeing her in my mental periphery—eyes tightly pressed with fixed lids so closely milled as to deny even the shadows of light—I recall the reclusive tear, which struggled down her blazoned cheek. It looks a lot like the tears that drenched my face that day, and the tears of many others who have flooded the space to pay their respects to Mother Johnson, my grandmother.
I wipe my tears away. I don’t want her to see me cry. Instead, I want to see her more clearly.
Church was asylum for a blues people at a time when their sorrow songs were sang out of Eden, while they labored hungry in the wilderness passing time picking apples until they, like grandma had, reached the Promised Land. For cherished people like grandma, church was an orchard for naked souls to bathe drunk in the cider of God’s deferred graces until God granted them permission to pick up last (-ing) apples and leave the Forrest of forbidden fruits fulfilled.
When she left, new leaves petalled on grandma’s ripened apple tree. And somewhere, between shades of fallen apples and new petals blossoming, I could hear the Preacher hum:
“If these walls, uh, could talk . . . they would tell you . . . uh . . . there is nothing new under the Sun.”
The Preacher didn’t realize that the walls were much like my grandmother; they could talk. Like my grandmother, they were wise though reserved. They preferred to listen and sing to themselves whispers and songs of truth, of leaf-clothed apple trees withering un-freely beneath the naked sun.
Eddie Kirkland strolls into the church, singing my grandmother’s song. Her soul, in harmony with his guitar, jazzes into the inner courts of carnal heaven much like the Spirit of the wind dancing secretly in the celestial meadows of deferred dreams.
Even the creases at the corners of the walls hear and begin to echo Eddie Kirkland’s song. And his blues revives her, if only for a moment. She lies in front of the room as still as the walls surrounding her doing what she and they often do: She listens.
“I am so tired,” Eddie Kirkland’s fifth daughter says just before the shades close their eyes. The moan of the blues man slumbers into the ancient aura of apple-fattened walls. And grandma looks dead again.
I am sitting, staring at the man with the dark coat standing over grandma’s frozen body. I ask momma, Eddie Kirkland’s fifth daughter, who is the man with the dark coat? She isn’t quite sure, but she says, “Maybe one of grandma’s friends.” I think to myself, grandma’s friends never wore dark coats. It would ruin their wings.
A host of other people enters the church quietly like entering a library. (The unspoken soul is a curious thing. People say so much when they say nothing.) Interrupted. Ms. Ann, my grandmother’s other friend—the one without wings—screams into the quiet room, upsetting the ether, bending the silence, but not reviving the dead. I once heard the Preacher instruct, “For everything, there is a season.” I think to myself: maybe this is the season for granny’s friends—even the ones without wings—to make loud, sudden noises.
“Don’t look so down,” momma says. She sounds a lot like grandma now.
“There go the Caldwells,” she notices.
The Caldwells notice her too. After visiting grandma’s frozen body, which is in the front of the room, the Caldwells make their way to where we are. They sit behind us.
“How you doing, Mul-lean?”
“As good as to be expected.”
“I understand honey. You remind me so much of Dixie. Your grandmother meant so much to us, dear. We have to get together sometime soon. I know that’s what Dixie would want.”
“Ok,” my mother says just before the walls squeal. Am I the only one in the room, besides my grandmother, who can hear them?
My mother and the Caldwells never got together. Despite the fact, I never will understand why the seasoned take so kindly to the young. Maybe we remind them of steps once taken—better yet of steps that should never be taken or steps that could still be taken. Whatever the case, I remembered at that moment while listening to the lament of walls my grandmother’s incredible love, particularly her love for me.
Gazing at my grandmother’s crestfallen face peeking out the open casket, I remembered how she loved me and told me that her love for me would endure forever. And if there is anything common beneath the sun, indeed it is this thing we call love, yet the ways of love seemed, to me then as they do now, to be quite unique, so utterly personal and new that when hearing the Preacher say, “There is nothing new under the Sun,” I instantly questioned his truth.
Love is erected like walls. On one side it contains intentions of the heart. On the other side it leaves open vast space for new intentions to emerge.
Love grows old like walls. Listens like walls. And is sturdy within its own walls. It eclipses the space between old and new. Though flesh decays and lives pass on, Love is eternal like the whispers of walls, which speak of the secrets of new things.
Love echoes the forgotten voices and sometimes sings the remembered blues. But under the sun, it’s eclipsing beyond its own walls. In this space—the space of the heart, the space of a grandmother’s love, Love inspires not only new music, but also new life.
For a while, long after she had left life’s orchard, I could still hear Eddie Kirkland out there, singing my grandmother’s song, telling her secrets. Unfortunately, we listeners are usually too clumsy, too casual, and too busy moaning to our own blues to hear to the song of walls or the passing truths that resound silently in their cries.
I heard the walls cry one night, and, listening, my ears faintly glimpsed the sound of new stars shining on the other side of the sun.