Home, now, from a wonderful weekend in Seattle. More about that soon…but in the meantime: #CanIGetAWitness?
Home, now, from a wonderful weekend in Seattle. More about that soon…but in the meantime: #CanIGetAWitness?
The preacher’s wife rose from her pew one Sunday, said God revealed to her in a dream that an invading “army from the North” would soon overtake America. Russian soldiers would slaughter all the Christians, she warned.
“Come, build with me a ‘city of refuge.'” That’s what my Nana’s pastor said. (For more about Eden City, follow this link.)
In the gauzy hour before sunrise, our shuttle pulls into the circular driveway of Ronald Reagan Medical Center. Streetlamps twinkle on shiny poles, and polished travertine gleams in our headlights. My husband collects his pre-op instructions; I give his hand a gentle squeeze. Sirens wail. Paramedics lower a gurney from an ambulance, and the hospital doors whoosh open, bathing everyone in light.
Here, staff members treat surgical patients with the same accord as trauma patients, who get the same level of care as celebrities who roll up to the entrance in chauffer-driven Bentleys. Stretched by limited space and overwhelming demand, staff members nevertheless find a way to share a deep appreciation for the human beings that occupy their beds. “What’s your story?” finds its harmony in the oft-repeated, “How can I help you?”
Several hours later, I find myself pacing the length of the recovery unit. A grizzled man clings to an IV pole, winces as he shuffles past me, pivots, and matches his steps to mine. “Way to go,” I say, and he gives me a wan smile.
“I was born in the original UCLA hospital,” I say.
“Don’t date yourself,” he warns.
We walk together in silence, but before long, he’s describing for me a harrowing tour of duty in Vietnam. He’d signed up for the military after high school—same as his daddy, and his granddaddy before him. But while he didn’t expect a hero’s welcome when he returned home as a decorated paratrooper, neither did he expect to be pelted with glass bottles, verbal expletives, and spit. He shrugs, scratches the tattoos that span the length of his arms, says his heart transplant was probably caused by stress. But he is quick to reassure me that the protesters hadn’t broken his spirit. He is proud of his children, and several grandchildren look up to him, now.
We linger in my husband’s doorway, talking softly while he emerges from his anesthesia haze. A nurse swoops in, repositions the cotton gown around his shoulders, offers him water, and fluffs his pillows. Eric opens his eyes, gives me a weak smile that says, roughly translated: “I love you. We made it.”
They are worlds apart, my husband and this wounded veteran. Their paths converged in this hospital because of health concerns, nothing more. Their prognoses are good. They have everything in the world to live for, and they know it.
Believe it or not, the same can be said for the people who huddle inside these temporary quarters, parallel-parked on a road less travelled.
You’ve perhaps seen this kind of encampment on your way to work: a derelict dwelling that afflicts the comfortable. Most people avert their eyes as they hurry past…but I don’t.
What I’m about to tell you might come as a surprise to some, given that I most often blog about hummingbirds and butterflies, wonders of nature and writerly stuff.
As the daughter of an itinerant preacher, I’m intimately familiar with the musky odors of makeshift quarters like these. I’ve experienced poverty so severe that it creeps into your psyche, have endured hunger pangs so severe that they feel like a shank to the belly. I spent a good portion of my childhood in the margins, wholly dependent on the kindnesses of strangers. Despite–or maybe because of all this–I cling to the comforting words of my Nana: “In the darkest nights of winter, watch the skies and listen for the robins.”
Nana taught me to lean in the direction of things that are “lovely, honest, and true,” to believe, without wavering, that “joy cometh in the morning.” She never stood in the pulpit, but by her example, I learned the simple elegance of the Golden Rule. It’s the gold standard, when it comes to taking the measure of your life.
I’m not afraid to venture into neighborhoods best known for crumbling sidewalks, ghost signs and hazard cones, and curbs so steeped in garbage that you turn your ankle when you step into the street against the light. Call me reckless if you will, but I’m not afraid to venture into darkness to serve “the least of these.” I love the whirr of iridescent wings, but this is the pulse of my life.
Rarely has any of this made its way into my blog–not explicitly, anyway–for reasons I’d rather not go into right now. Mary Oliver once said: “Write for whatever holy things you believe in.” I’ve always done that, sometimes in broader strokes than others. But the events of this past weekend have inspired me to put a finer point on things this morning.
All that to say: when I sprinkle candies over a swirl of frozen yogurt (to celebrate my husband’s homecoming), I also toss a large wedge of gourmet Swiss cheese into the grocery cart. An impulse buy, for total strangers.
I keep a respectful distance, smiled as I peer into the shadows. “Hi, my name is Melodye,” I say, “Do either of you like cheese?”
Four hands, light and dark, stretch beyond the portal of the tent. A wordless answer, easily translated.
We exchange names, share a few pleasantries, and then I retreat to the warmth of my car. New friendships need oxygen, and grace.
Storm clouds cover the sun with a wooly-gray blanket. Heavy winds lift the edges of the tarp. My husband’s discharge process takes longer than expected, and as I tap-tap-tap my fingers on the steering wheel, my heart tugs me in the direction of their curbside home. Again. I cut the engine, shove my keys into my purse, grab my camera, and cross the street.
“May I sit with you for a while?” I ask. The answer is yes!
We warm ourselves around a makeshift grill, spin yarns about our childhoods, and muse about the events that brought us all together. They’d met two years ago, Starr tells me, at a bus stop in Hollywood. Inky gives her shoulders an affectionate squeeze, “I’ve been looking for her for all my life,” he says, “and we’ll be together for always.”
“Would you mind if I take your picture?” I ask. “And maybe take a short video, so I can share your story with my friends?”
Inky flings his arms open, fingers splayed, and flashes an open-mouthed grin. “Sure,” he says. Starr nods, with no hesitation whatsoever. So I switch my camera to video mode, and press the shutter button. The result is this unedited clip–not inclusive of everything we covered in our earlier conversation, but enough for you to get better acquainted. Roll straight through to the end, and you might learn something new about me, too. I’ve never fielded this question publicly, but his curiosity was genuine, and disarming…
Call them serendipitous, call them happenstance or good luck. But the truth is, these seemingly random encounters occur more often than anyone (aside from my closest friends and family members) might guess. My husband calls them “a Melodye thing.” I call them shivery magic–miracles that come of flinging your heart’s door wide open, and basking in the light.
For who will testify, who will accurately describe our lives if we do not do it ourselves?
–Faye Moskowitz, And the Bridge is Love
My friend Emjae created this mock book cover for me a few years back, as a loving gesture and gentle prod. “Keep writing,” she told me. “You have a story to tell, a song to sing.” I tucked one copy into an antique church bulletin display box, and slipped another into the clear front pocket of my writing notebook. I’ve spilled many
tears drafts onto the page, emptied and replenished several notebooks since. Lucky me, I’m represented now by two, top-notch agents at D4EO Literary Agency, and CAN I GET A WITNESS? is under consideration by several editors. I’m so looking forward to that magical day, when the contents of my writing notebook become a published book, graced with a reinterpreted cover image!
Day 6 of Susannah Conway’s #AugustBreak2015 photography challenge. In case you haven’t yet guessed, the word of the day is notebook. In this overlaid image, my father’s revival tent serves as backdrop. I’m standing in the foreground, facing my future.
I learned phonics from my mother, on a cross-country trip from California to Baltimore. I devoured the messages on billboards, and then graduated to books like this one.
I have vivid memories of those magical moments, can easily recall the shivers that ran up my spine when block letters first translated themselves into sounds and syllables, and then sentences that leaped off the pages.
I developed an insatiable appetite for books, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Perspectives shift. New discoveries challenge old beliefs, and textbooks are rewritten. But at the tender age of three-going-on-four, I believed everything I read.
When I enrolled kindergarten that fall, my world expanded by the number of books I was able to check out from the library at any one time. Two, same as the animals on Noah’s Ark. But when the bookmobile rumbled down our street one day, the entire universe was delivered to my doorstep.
The librarian pulled books from shelves I wouldn’t otherwise have considered. We flipped through the pages together and talked about their contents. Teacher to student, friend to friend. Thanks to her gentle guidance, I learned to ask the deeper questions and challenge the pat answers.
And that, my friends, is what eventually led me to write my own story, Can I Get a Witness?
In this faded photograph, my father’s kneeling in front of a (heated!) revival tent, with his preaching Bible spread across an open palm. My father said his hands were anointed by God, as evidenced by the fact that when he pressed that open palm on worshippers’ foreheads, their eyes rolled back and their bodies went stiff as corpses. He called that being “slain in the Spirit.”
This photograph pre-dates me, but not by much. Over time, the lettering has faded to the point where some of it’s illegible, but here’s what my father’s Pentecostal revival poster says:
COMING! Nation’s Leading Miracle Evangelists
Liberation Night! Demonology: What is demon power
Where are the 144,000? Predictions of Coming Events
I can’t identify the evangelist on the left, but my father’s on the right. Can you make out the line at the very bottom?
I know very little about my Great Aunt Eleanor, but these artifacts sure paint an interesting portrait!
Eleanor (“Nelly”) was born in Nottingham, England in 1887. She–along with many of my maternal grandmother’s family members–emigrated to West Brookfield, Massachusetts in 1916. Years later, Nana told us stories later about the WWI German submarines that chased their ship across the ocean, but at the time of their passage, the United States hadn’t yet entered “The War to End All Wars.”
People described Nelly as “high-spirited” and “adventuresome.” She and her husband, Allen T. Godfrey, were nothing if not enterprising. That’s what I heard tell.
When I steered my Nancy Drew roadster down bumpy roads, I found evidence of that.
She died the year before I was born, which makes me wistful in this remembering. I think we might’ve shared some things in common. And oh, the family secrets we could spill, over afternoon tea!
Although she fashioned herself a writer, Nelly didn’t leave to future generations any poems, journals or books. She did, however, enter lots of contests, many of which she won. “Duz Does It All” was my great aunt’s award-winning slogan for a laundry detergent company.
Wartime was hard for everyone, with more than enough hardship to go around. Gasoline and groceries were rationed, and money was scarce. Few people owned automobiles in the small town where she lived. But there were whispers down the lane about a certain relative who very much enjoyed rumbling through the streets of West Brookfield, honking and waving to pedestrians from the driver’s seat of a shiny new Ford. It wasn’t common, back then, for women to slide behind the wheel. But Nelly being who she was, I suspect she felt entitled, being the Grand Prize Winner and all.
I’m picturing all this in my mind’s eye this morning, and oh, what a happy portrait it paints!
In researching my memoir, I oftentimes revved up my roadster and slipped into the role of my alter ego, Nancy Drew. I’ve gathered clues from the National Archives; I’ve explored the sites of former tent revivals and churches, long since demolished; and I’ve unearthed numerous artifacts, along the Sawdust Trail.
And so it is, that on this Throwback Thursday (#TBT), I’m recalling that other blogging meme, Thankful Thursday. I unearthed this classified ad in the Portland, Oregonian archives. Like so many other treasures I’ve collected, it could’ve been lost to time and decay, were it not for for the myriad librarians, genealogists and archivists who’ve devoted their time and energies to the preservation of our individual and shared histories.
Here’s another picture of my mother, since this is her birthday week. She’s sitting in the front row, far left, at her high school graduation ceremony. World-renowned evangelist O.L. Jaggers is at the microphone. (World Church, circa 1955. Picture courtesy of Larry Abernathy, O.L. Jaggers’s son, who contributed it to our shared family archives.)