When summer returns so do my Mississippi memories. In particular, I remember one July when my parents stuffed the station wagon with my siblings and I and drove at night through a shaft of darkness toward the Deep South. We bound for Summerland, Mississippi to visit Grandmother Della. After a school year confined to house, homework and our hounding parents, we looked forward to our respite in the country. Each visit with Grandmother was an awakening. It was like coming out of hibernation: shedding woolly winter skins and discovering the light that electrified the air that tingled our bodies to life again. We looked forward to exploring fields of rambling grasses; hearing morning sounds; tackling my cousins during games of touch football; and making red dirt mud pies and letting them sun-bake in the air’s oven. We even looked forward to the Sunday rhythms and rituals at my grandmother’s Baptist church.
Erect and solemn, the compact brick church up the hill from Grandmother’s house was special to me. My grandparents helped lay the church’s foundation as two of its founding members. Although Grandfather Oscar died before the last brick was placed, Grandmother, along with other members, completed Pine Valley Baptist. They both rest in the family cemetery, a few footsteps of dust and dirt from the church’s side door. They were buried so close, I know the doors open each Sunday so they can attend the service.
Grandmother loved Sundays. There was never a bad Sunday, no matter how saddened the morning sky appeared with its bruised and dirty clouds or how bleak the week before had been. Sunday was transformation day. The day for discarding the pains, sorrows and burdens folks held on to during the week. And it was church-going day.
“People can carry-on all week, but on Sunday, they need to go to the House of the Lord,” Grandmother reminded us.
“I thought Sunday was for resting,” one of us always said hoping to sleep in during summer vacation.
“Sunday is the day of rest. Church is where you rest. It rests your soul and renews your spirit. Carry Sunday with you every day,” she said. “Remember that children.”
Grandmother lived by her words. She carried her faith, her Bible and Sunday with her every day. She served and protected her family and all the folks living in Summerland. She prayed for haters and sinners knowing prayers ridded the world of a lot of ugliness. She resembled her church, erect and solemn—a brick of unperturbed tranquility.
On Sunday in Summerland, my siblings and I, in our ironed clothes and only-on-Sunday shoes, walked up the hill with Grandmother to Pine Valley Baptist. Angelic-looking ushers in their white uniforms of starched dresses, quiet shoes and cotton gloves greeted us, “good morning, Miss Della. Let me take you and the kids to your seat.”
We squirmed on the hard benches. The mixture of hot air, long sermons and sleepy bodies, immediately melted our attention. We talked and played in the pews or drifted asleep lulled by the heat and the hum of the Baptist preacher’s repetitive rhythm and rhyme cadence. When sleep struck, only a few things awakened us: Grandmother’s nudging words, “children pay attention;” the booming voices of the choir; or the jingling of coins dropping into the collection plate. The one other thing that always awakened us was someone getting the spirit, someone getting happy.
To our young ears and eyes, getting happy was when the tempo of the entire church reached a crescendo and burst. It was when the syncopated preaching, the metronomic hand fanning and the chorus of congregational “amens,” forced someone to jump up pulsating because the Holy Ghost touched them.
“Grandmother, what happened?” one of us always asked.
“They felt the presence of the Lord,” she said. “They were just moved to joy by His blessings and goodness. They felt an inner happiness so strong, they had to ‘make a joyful noise unto the Lord.’”
We never saw anyone getting happy at the Army chapels we attended with our parents. Chapels were quiet. Church services followed a disciplined one-military-hour regiment. There were no hand fans fluttering. There were no angelic ushers. The chaplain’s sermon was Haiku compared to the Baptist preacher’s free verse style.
What I saw at Pine Valley Baptist was refreshing, exciting and daunting. So I fixated on anyone moved by the spirit. Was getting happy contagious? Would it grip me? As a shy child and a church visitor, my greatest fear was that one Sunday at Pine Valley, I would get happy. Unaware who would be moved next, nor when, I felt safe seated next to Grandmother. I nestled close to her whenever “Sister Helen” or “Brother Jake” or any other church members started gesticulating. Grandmother would protect me from the spirit because as long as I visited her church, I never saw her get happy.
Then one Sunday something happened. I saw the closest thing I had ever seen of “the coming of the Lord.” As the preacher’s resounding message was ending, he loosened his tie, pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed drops of dampness from his forehead. His voice grew louder. The congregation grew livelier. He commenced his call and response.
“Can I hear you say, amen?” he said.
“Amen,” the church responded.
“Hmm…let the church, say amen, amen.”
“Amen, amen,” the church said.
As the fidgeting increased, the shouts “yes, Lord” and “I hear you, Lord,” grew louder and the hand fanning reached staccato style, I knew something was about to happen. The Holy Ghost was about to grab somebody.
I heard a voice scream out, “Lord, help! Lord, help!” It was a familiar voice and breath-touchingly close. I turned to see whom the Holy Ghost grabbed. And Grandmother stood up flailing her arms. I froze. Was I awake? I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to pray. I wanted to get up and leave. Suddenly, I realized if Grandmother got happy, I might be next. While everyone around was energized, I sat immobilized. I watched Grandmother transform from my protector to a stranger.
My older cousin noticed what was happening and walked over and gently put his arm on Grandmother’s shoulder, took his fan, and waved a breeze of heat across her face. The congregation turned and watched as he walked Miss Della outside for air.
“Let us stand and sing, “Lead Me On, Precious Lord,” said the preacher after ending his sermon. The sisters and brothers of the church fanned harder and sang louder than ever.
What seemed an eternity, while the congregation sang “Onward Christian Soldiers,” the doors opened and Grandmother, erect and composed, stepped back inside, walked up the aisle, and took her seat. I looked a her eyes. Had she changed? Was she the same Grandmother Della? She looked at me and smiled with her customary contentment.
We finished the last hymn and said our final prayers and goodbyes before heading back down the hill. As the congregation dispersed, nobody mentioned anything to Grandmother about getting happy. Folks talked about the good preaching, uplifting singing ,and how blessed they were to see another Sunday.
Once back at Grandmother’s house, we changed from Sunday clothes to play clothes. We ate potato salad, candied yams and chicken for lunch. We played touch football with our cousins and made red-dirt mud pies and let them sun-bake in the air’s oven.
In all my visits back to Pine Valley Baptist before she died, I never asked Grandmother about that Sunday; and I never saw her getting happy in church again. I seldom return to Summerland now that grandmother is gone on, but I often return to my Mississippi memories. Memories of that day travel with me from Sunday to Sunday, church to church and beyond. When days are bleak and bruised, when seasons change and temperatures overheat and heated tempers singe my spirits, I remember Grandmother and her words. I quietly get happy. And my serenity returns.