Monday, July 8, 2013

of happy hearts and glorious things

as a child i used to sit on the living room floor, slide out the bottom drawer of my parents' secretary until the brass pulls clicked softly against the wood. inside the drawer were treasures — baby books for my siblings and me, old photograph albums showing my brother, sister and me as babies, and a creamed-colored book with gold-leafed edging that contained evidence of my family's beginnings.

it was my favorite — my parents' wedding album — and i would spend hours studying the photographs of the day my parents pledged their troth to each other. my mother, striking in her ballet-length crinoline, my father handsome in his white dinner jacket. they stood with their back to the camera in the center aisle of a church the likes i had never seen. large stone columns stood sentry as my brim-hatted grandmothers, my dapper grandfather and dozens of family and friends gathered around them.

they looked like teenagers, holding each other's hands as the young rector gave God's blessing over their union. (within 10 years, this same man would become bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina. would confirm my brother, my sister and me some years later in our home church.)

i studied the sepia images — the lights hung from the ceiling, the carved fretwork over the pulpit, the stained glass windows, stone floors and marble altar, those stone arches standing watch, protecting them from what lay outside the walls. and as i studied, i wondered what it might be like to sit in a church as grand as that. 

when i was 32, the sepia photograph faded into my reality, and i came to stand myself in the stone aisle of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, feel the grasp of those arches and knew i was home. my husband and i had just moved our young family to winston-salem from atlanta, where though we attended church most every Sunday, it never felt quite right. 

that first Sunday morning in Winston, we rose, not questioning where we would go. we set out early — getting to church in atlanta took 45 minutes — and arrived for the 9 o'clock service before the early service had even let out. our five-minute commute left us time to head back home, grab some coffee and start over again, and we marveled at our good fortune. on our return trip, we still arrived early enough to take the kids to Sunday School and the nursery, so the two of us could sit for an hour in peace.

uncertain of this new pace and space, we walked into the back of the church and there it was, the picture i had studied all those years ago. the place where my parents got their start, where i first became a twinkle in God's eye. and that's when home hit me.

that first day, the teacher in my 5-year-old's sunday school class invited us out for hot dogs. in the weeks after, we joined the young families supper club, even hosting it at our house. so easy it seemed to make friends, when in atlanta i struggled to make two close friends in four years.

but here, i wrote essays on my mornings at home, took the dog to show and tell at preschool, walked the baby with my next door neighbor whose son was the same age as mine. it was on the way to st. paul's that one day i found myself singing alone in the car: oh i feel so very happy in my heart, because i was.

we would be there only 18 months. 

the day we found out we would have to move, i came early for preschool pickup, walking into the darkened nave so i could spend a few quiet moments under those stone arches. i found my pew, kneeled, begged out loud for things to be different, for God to let us stay... we had just really gotten started in this place where it seemed so easy to be. i cried a bit...might have even screamed in the empty space, but i can't truthfully admit that now.

the arches didn't seem to hear.

we moved, started a new life, found a new church that has become more of a home to me than St. Paul's ever was. my daughter barely remembers her time here, and my son not at all.

but still.


ten days ago, we were in town for a family wedding. finding ourselves with an idle hour or so, i asked my mother if she'd like to go to her old church. it would be her first trip there in 61 years (61 years and two weeks, she reminded me.) so we drove up the meandering hill toward the church, and i almost lost my way.

'it's that way,' she said, pointing, never minding that she was 24 years old when she last made this trip. 

the stone bell tower stood right where we'd left it, and i hoped that a June saturday meant the doors would be open, though when we checked they were locked. we took a picture of her in front of the bell tower anyway, talked about that day so long ago in her life, then slowly made our way to the car.

just then i spied a man, keys jangling from his belt, slip out the side door. i approached, asking if there was any way we could get inside, and he pointed to the door he would happily unlock for us.

'take your time,' he said, slipping away quickly as we walked into the narthex. mama edged her walker onto the stone floor of the nave and stood, taking it all in.

at just that moment, the organ shouted through the stone, "Glorious things of thee are spoken," and i couldn't help it, the tears just came. i watched mama, her own eyes wet, but her mouth forming a smile.


my husband and i have a habit when we visit churches of slipping into a pew to say prayers for our family. from the corner of my eye, i saw him edge into a pew in the front. (didn't he remember that we always sat in the back?). i didn't want to leave mama, so i motioned to her to move down the aisle toward the pulpit.

she shook her head no, held onto the frame of her walker, listening.
"glorious things of thee are spoken/Zion city of our God; he whose word cannot be broken/formed thee of his own abode; on the Rock of Ages founded, what can shake thy sure repose? with salvation's walls surrounded, thou may'est smile at all they foes."

as i listened, i thought about all my mother had seen of this world from her last day in this church — her wedding day — to this one, the day her grandson would be married. i imagined what she might be thinking of that life well lived, the heartache she must be feeling without my father by her side this time. my family began on this particular rock, and God had formed it as he saw fit, and in my thinking, though Daddy isn't with us physically anymore, the fit was just right.

there is a line later in the hymn that says: safe they feed upon the manna, which he gives them when they pray.

my family has prayed plenty, has seen plenty of manna in its time, and on this day both my mother and i felt full to bursting with it.

'i'm ready to go,' she said, just as the organist ended hymn 522 and moved on to another. as my husband helped mama, i walked up the aisle to about the fifth row on the right and took to my knees. i asked for blessings on my nephew's new marriage, just as God had given my parents so many blessing they'd begun to feel first in this place. i asked for guidance, for blessings on my children and gave special thanks for my family gathered to celebrate, when for so many weeks we have felt so little joy. and i thanked God for this moment with my mother, etched forever in my mind like the stone arches of this beautiful church that was built the year my parents were born.
'tis his love his people raises over self to reign as kings: and as priests his solemn praises each for a thank offering brings.'
glorious things indeed. amen. 

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.