Baxter County, Arkansas 1979
They loved me. I was hitting the high notes, working the room, looking good. My polyester dress had been carefully chosen to complement the sanctuary carpet and matching upholstered pews. It covered my bare arms with a floaty chiffon shrug, so no one could fault me for inciting impurities amongst the menfolk, and the rhinestone belt around my waist was neither overly flashy nor tightly cinched, so as not to attract any envy from the women, either. My look was exactly right. I reminded them of their granddaughter or sister or the girl next door, if only she would get over that bad boyfriend and get herself back in church where she belongs. Of course they loved me.
I’ve always been a pretty good singer—better than you’ll find in most churches, but by no means the best. I just know how to make people think I am more gifted than I really am. “Oh, that Ruby Fae,” they say, “she lights up the whole church when she sings.” Back in high school, the show choir judges all loved me, too. They’d go on and on about my “stage presence” and “energy” and things like that. The other show choir kids wanted to know my secret, but there’s no great trick to performing. All you have to do is stand aside and let the song go on without you. A good song is like a half-broke horse with an idea all its own and there’s no use trying to wrangle it. All you do is open the gate.
I liked singing Poor Wayfaring Stranger as a solo and accompanying myself on my guitar, so I wouldn’t have to warn anyone else to get out of the song’s way. The last time through the chorus, the guitar dropped out and an older verse, often forgotten, sprang free. And I’ll go singing, home to God. I shivered. Singing. Home to God. The people in their pews did, too. Shivered, I mean. We all waited, breathless.
A beat of silence followed and I knew that the audience—I mean, congregation—would talk it over later and debate the etiquette of applause in church, but they broke with protocol and clapped anyway. Some of them thought they had clapped for me and disapproved, but others knew different, and those lucky ones would carry the song with them all week. I broke into a smile.
“What was that up there?” JW hissed. “I told you not to try anything unrehearsed.” The bouncy gospel music covered his words and the Joy of the Lord that was pasted on his face hid his disapproval from the congregation. He ushered me to my seat on Wife’s Row like a devoted husband, even as his vice-grip fingers bit into the flesh of my arm. It would bruise, no doubt. Maybe that’s why sleeveless dresses are a sin. They show too much that husbands don’t want seen.
“Are you trying to make me look stupid?” he whispered, still smiling. He settled the Bible on my lap and riffed the pages open to Revelations. On cue, I reached up and tweaked his bow tie against his lapel and smoothed his ruffled shirt front. He looked over my shoulder at the congregation and winked. I heard their soft sounds of polite amusement. In response, he dropped a sweet, chaste kiss on my cheek before bounding up the steps to the pulpit.
That tender little scene was a special new touch of his. Thoroughly discussed, debated, and deliberated by his father, of course, but it was all JW’s idea. The elder Reverend Jasper had been against it at first. He’d felt it showed an unseemly amount of passion, and worse, deference to a woman. But JW had held firm, for once, arguing that it showed the opposite; his benevolence in bestowing a kiss upon my cheek and the way that he stooped down to my seated height all drew attention to his ordained headship. My father-in-law agreed we could try it, and so, on a probationary basis, my husband was allowed to kiss me.
Of course it worked.
It was the kind of charming little touch that the churches liked to see. I could almost hear the collective sigh from the women in the congregation. So attentive to his wife, the married ones would say, approving. Please God, send me a Godly Husband like Reverend Jasper—the younger one! The single women would pray themselves to sleep that night. That don’t mean nothing, the married men would think. Does he take such good care of her when no one’s looking? That’s what counts. As for the unmarried men, I don’t know what they thought, because they weren’t there.
My mother-in-law—always introduced as Mrs. Reverend Lemuel T. Jasper and never her given name, Merrilee—abandoned her post at the piano and joined me in the front pew. The home preacher’s wife always sat in the first row, next to the center aisle, in the place of honor. Next came the preacher’s kids who would be seated according to age, as well as to each congregation’s tolerance for babies and toddlers. I always sat next to the children, with my mother-in-law at the other end of the pew where she could easily leap up in time for the offertory. That particular preacher’s kids, the three-year-old with ink doodles on her hands especially, made me miss my Susannah. I couldn’t keep her in the pew with me anymore, like I had when she was first born. When she was still tiny, some dear mother-hearted woman would always reach for my sweet-bundled baby, holding her while I sang, returning her to me when I sat back down. Those were the services when I worshipped best. While the Reverends Jasper spent those hours raging and preaching with all the fury of Hell, I would be right there at their feet, at peace, adoring my little bit of Heaven swaddled in my arms.
But at eleven months, Susannah was no longer a good church-baby. She cried at strangers, babbled during prayers, and couldn’t sit still no matter how many Cheerios I fed her. That’s why she had to spend her evenings holed up in the nursery with some baby-lusting pre-teen. I told JW that Susannah’s new behaviors were perfectly age-appropriate and normal and in no way an indication of either poor mothering on my part or moral failure on Susannah’s. But Old Reverend still worked on JW constantly, telling him how that first birthday was the time to begin training up a child in the way she should go, that the rod of reproof was the safeguard of her soul.
Old Reverend was preaching the last sermon of our Five-Session Series, “America, The Beautiful,” which was one of our more popular shows. Our little traveling team was available for booking in sessions of two, three, or five-day revivals, depending on our schedule. Local churches paid travel expenses up front, including a per-diem, plus our take of the love offering. Our budget was rounded out by sales of our tapes and records, and from pledges from our regular prayer partners mailed to a PO Box in Iowa City. There they were picked up and deposited by our lone employee, the elderly widowed mother of one of Old Reverend’s Bible college buddies. Despite her faltering health, Mrs. Gibley took phone calls, forwarded mail, and handled calendars for four different ministries. Only occasionally did she mix them up. This was no mean feat, because Old Rev was adamant that we schedule on a first-come-first-served basis rather than waste any time worrying about whether we could feasibly squeeze a week in Mercedes, Texas between two weeks in southern Idaho. That was the Lord’s problem, not ours. Mrs. Gibley would get cranky with Merrilee and me, but because she was doing The Lord’s Work she was utterly trustworthy in handling our money and took only enough to pay one quarter of her rent and phone bill and our ministry’s share of the postage. The rest of the money went to Reverend Jasper, to whom she was hopelessly devoted.
“Brothers and Sisters, we have been told that there would be wars, and rumors of wars; this should not take us by surprise. Look at the newspapers! Turn on the television! What do you see? War! From Ireland to Iran, Cambodia to Afghanistan; War! Jesus told us himself this would happen! The end times are upon us, dear ones, have no doubts! Even so, quickly come, can I get an ‘amen?’”
The congregation answered with a low murmur, a doubtful baritone, a stage whisper or two. Our people always liked to see a little drama onstage, but they didn’t shout back from the pews. They weren’t Holy Rollers or Tongue-Speakers—that wasn’t our brand. Old Rev said those denominations were more show than dough. People who followed non-denominational, tent-revival-style evangelists tended to be poorer, more erratic in giving and less reliable on the pledge follow-throughs. Old Rev felt they were more of a gambling man’s game.
We stuck to established churches and built a reputation for bringing a fairly decent music show—besides Merrilee and me on keyboards, JW played a fair trumpet, I could chord a guitar, and we all sang—so we had no trouble booking up on the Holiness Circuit. Holiness Churches are your various Freewills, Little Baptists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, and, of course, Pilgrim’s Holiness types. Conservative, but quiet and earnest, for the most part. Back then, they didn’t go in so much for politics, like the Big Baptists did. The distinguishing characteristic of Holiness churches is the belief you can lose your salvation. That you can, somehow, be minding your own business along the Good Ol’ Straight and Narrow with your name safely written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life, when all of a sudden, Whoops! Where’d my Salvation go? I just had it! Now it’s gone! And there you are, frantically turning out your pockets and dumping out your purse, right there on the floor in Hell’s Lobby.
Oh, I’m sorry, God. That wasn’t right. I shouldn’t make fun. For all I know, they may be right. Me, I’ve been saved three times, and my brother Leland gets saved every chance he gets. But my other brother, Chuck, became a Big Baptist when he married Leslie, so he says his twelve-year-old-salvation is still valid. That kind of Baptist only gets saved the once.
Old Rev’s rich voice filled the church. “What is America’s role in this Glorious Unfolding? In this, the Grand Finale of Days, the foretold End of Times? Turn with me to the Book of Revelations as we delve into these truths.”
Bible pages rustled and whispered as the congregation commenced the delving. I looked up at JW sitting in the big oak deacon’s chair behind and stage left of the pulpit. He could have sat in the empty one directly behind it and out of sight, but Old Rev felt it was better for him to set an example of attentiveness and responsiveness where everyone could see.
“How, long, oh Sinner, will Jesus contend with thee?” Old Rev lamented.
That was my cue. Old Rev ordered everyone to their feet while Merrilee performed her nightly magic trick of disappearing from her pew and re-appearing at the piano unseen, even though she was sitting right there in front of us. The wisps of her fingers flitted over the keys, not being so bold as to actually play them, but merely suggesting a tune as if she were leaving the outcome, an impossibly soft rendition of “I Surrender All,” entirely up to the Lord. JW edged to the side of the altar in front of the piano with a microphone in his hand. He looked over the congregation with a soulful expression that always provoked a flurry of repentance among women of a certain emotional variety. That was fine by me. Of all JW’s faults, a wandering eye was never one of them. He knew that adultery was my one and only get-out-of-jail-free card, and he was not about to hand it to me.
I took my place beside my handsome husband. We were a perfect pair, my husband’s light, sweet tenor soaring over my buttery-rich alto. Our earnest faces full of love and devotion to each other and our shared life mission. His strong arm behind me. His fingertip poking at the exact tender spot on my arm where he’d pinched me earlier, under the cover of my filmy chiffon cover-up.
Oh, yes, I could still sing. I was a professional; a pinch was nothing. One of my all-time best solos was a Sunday morning service at a church in Colorado Springs when I sang “How Great Thou Art.” By the time I got to “Then sings my soul,” I could feel every single person there was with me, feasting on the beauty of that perfect, true, sliver of a moment, all full of sunlight and God and sweet clean children and soaring, swelling notes. Even at the very top of my range my breath support was excellent. You’d never have guessed that my second and third ribs were cracked.
It was after nine-thirty. We needed to wrap this thing up. Come on, people, I thought. You can’t tell me you have an hour’s worth of sins with all of you put together. I could tell by looking there was a little envy, some grumblers, two malcontents passing as wives, a lusting Sunday School Superintendent, and a small pack of disco-loving teenaged girls who would vow to burn their BeeGees albums tonight. But there were no fans of alcohol, drugs, or sex at this altar. These were people who liked to keep their accounts short. Probably wouldn’t find much more than an overdue library book with this bunch.
JW left me to stand in front with his father and help pray over the sinners. I had sung every verse of “Just as I Am, Without One Plea” twice, and I wanted to get off my feet, so I looked over to Merrilee to see if she needed a break, too. Her eyes said yes, so I turned off the mic and slid over to the piano bench. Hovering my hands over hers, I waited for a break in the phrasing, then in one synchronized, nylon-swishing swoop, she slid off the other end of the bench as I slid over. We missed barely half a beat. She vaporized, but I knew she was somewhere nearby, massaging her aching hands in a gesture that was often mistaken for wringing them.
Old Rev finally dismissed us at a quarter to ten and I sprinted to the nursery. I wanted to spend a little time with Susannah and get her down for the night before my prayer time with JW.
“Ruby Fae?” Someone called as I rushed toward a rear door. Dang. I’d almost made a clean getaway. It was the home preacher’s wife, so I had to be polite; we hadn’t picked up the love offering yet. After a brief struggle, I came up with her name.
“Lisa! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there. I was in such a hurry to get to Susannah,”
She put one arm around my waist and continued walking me toward the nursery.
“Believe me, I understand. I don’t want to keep you from her.” She glimpsed my dress front and said under her breath. “You’re still nursing, aren’t you?”
Oh, how good it would have been to have girlfriend-talk again.
“Does it show? I’m only feeding her a little, at bedtime, but I don’t want anyone to know. They’ll all lecture me, or call me a hippy or something, you know?”
“Don’t I! Everyone thinks the preacher’s wife can’t possibly raise her kids without their helpful input. Like we can’t read a book, or don’t have our own moms and sisters to ask. I had one old kook tell me today that Ellie’s too old to sit on her daddy’s lap. What? She’s six!”
“That’s terrible. I’d sit on my daddy’s lap right now, if I could.” I said.
Lisa gave me a quick squeeze. “Oh. I don’t know how you do it. I’d be too homesick. But you all are so talented, and Brother Jasper has such a heart to save the lost, you have to get out there on the road, don’t you?” I didn’t have to answer because we were at the door to the nursery. “I won’t keep you, but I wanted to give you the mail. It got here today.” She handed me a fat stack of newspapers, magazines and envelopes. Thanking her, I stuffed them under my arm and shouldered my purse. One envelope slid out from the middle of the stack and landed on the floor. “Oh! Here you go,” Lisa said, sticking it in the same hand as my Bible. Thanking her again, I glanced down at the envelope. The familiar slant of the handwriting gave me a jolt of that particular mixture of joy and guilt that can only come from a letter from Mom. I was happy to get a letter, sure; but I was also ashamed that I hadn’t written to her in a long time. I stuck the letter inside my Bible to read later. Right now, I was in a hurry to see my baby.
When I peeked in over the nursery half-door and Susannah and I both squealed. She dropped a naked, shorn-headed, ink-marked baby doll on the floor and waddled, upright, toward me, her arms outstretched.
“Look at you!” I gushed as I entered, “You’re really walking like a big girl tonight!” I squatted down to catch her in my arms and felt a runner in my panty hose split wide open.
“Yeah, we’ve been practicing all night,” the volunteer babysitter Tara? Kara? Sara?—told me as she picked up toys and tossed them into the little painted wooden doll bed in the corner. She looked at Susannah with undisguised longing. “Susannah’s soooooooo cute,” she sighed. “I just love babies.”
I plucked a summer-weight sleeper out of the diaper bag and plopped Susannah down on a changing table. “I’m sure you’ll have all the babies you want one day, and they will be just as cute.” I wiggled Susannah out of her ruffly church dress.
“Oh, I know I will. I have faith.” The girl answered confidently. “I’ve already claimed it. I’ve even made my list of all the qualities I want in my future husband and asked God for him.”
I heard that all the time from those junior nursery-workers. It bothered me, but I couldn’t really fault them. I’d made a future-husband list, too, once upon a time; that’s what Holiness Girls used to do for fun. I couldn’t argue with the system, either, because look how well it had paid off for me. God had blessed me with a handsome, blonde husband who loved The Lord, sang harmony and could support a family. Those were the top five must-haves on my list, so it wouldn’t have been right to complain after I had gotten exactly what I’d asked for. Why none of us girls ever made lists of the top five schools we wanted to attend or which European countries we wanted to visit, I have no idea. It never crossed our minds.
I handed Susannah her tiny white patent shoe while I yanked off a lacy sock and wiggled her piggies. I didn’t look up at Tara–that was her name, Tara–when I said, “Maybe you should ask God for something…more, instead.” I tried to keep the edge out of my voice, but still, she was taken aback.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, sounding exasperated. “Just, something…else…different.” I flapped my hand helplessly in the air. “Bigger.”
There was a stunned pause. Poor kid, I didn’t mean to shock her. Besides, I was trying to explain something I didn’t really know much about, anyway. When you marry your childhood sweetheart, move in with his parents and start a baby all before your nineteenth birthday, you don’t get to act like you know anything about The Great Big World Out There. I softened my tone. “I mean, don’t rush it. Do something first, before you have babies and a husband. Like college or travel or a really cool job. Do something yourself, then worry about babies and husbands.” I glanced up and saw Tara’s look of confusion.
Susannah fussed tiredly, half-heartedly. While I changed her diaper, her giggles slid downward into a dull, whiny, slobbery hum as she teethed on her shoe. I snapped up her jammies and handed her to the sitter. “Hold her a second?’ Tara was happier than Susannah about that, but I needed two hands to unzip the back of my dress, wriggle a strap off my shoulder and pull up the bottom of my bra on one side, all under the cover of my ever-handy, peach-colored chiffon drape.
I took Susannah back from the still-confused Tara and settled into a rocking chair. “Look,” I told her as Susannah yanked up the chiffon and lunged for my wet breast and we both let out a sigh of relief. “Babies are the most wonderful thing in all creation. Just don’t be in such a hurry, is all I’m saying.” The sweet, familiar tidal wave of mother-y feelings broke over me as Susannah molded and melted into my body and I relaxed instantly. Better than a drug, feeding her always made me sleepy and mellow. I yawned before I said it, but still, I meant it when I assured Tara, “Whenever it happens, you won’t believe how much you’ll love your baby.”
“And my husband,” she added, nodding knowingly, confident that this conversation was back on the path of all that is good and right and universally acknowledged. “I have to love him best of all, because I won’t ever submit to husband I don’t love.”
“That’s how it works,” I said, the answer coming as effortlessly as my ABC’s.
I asked Tara to turn off the overhead light as she left, then I rocked and sang and fed Susannah until her tiny baby snores were the only sound left in the world that mattered. In the shadowy room, I studied Susannah’s face. She had traces of JW in her hairline. Maybe the shape of her ears, too. Her golden coloring was definitely him. If I looked very hard, I could see the rough draft of my husband’s chin in her perfect little face, and my heart swelled. That was it. Right there. That feeling I had for my little family. What else could it be but love?
The Red Dirt Hymnbook Copyright © 2019 by Roxie Faulkner Kirk. All Rights Reserved.