The preacher’s wife drew a long, deep breath, pulling everyone into her orbit before delivering her prophesy of doom.
An army from the North is planning to invade us, she warned. They will slaughter all the Christians and destroy America. God revealed all of this to me in a dream…Can I get a witness?
Her husband stood beside her, nodding as he thumbed through his gold-leafed Bible. By the time she’d finished speaking, he’d settled on the Book of Revelation.
Armageddon is upon us, he said to the frightened crowd. We must build a ‘city of refuge,’ as a fortress against those who would persecute us. It will take some doing…We need money, and we need to move quickly.
In the immediate aftermath of WWII, it didn’t take much for that audience to hear “army from the North” and think: Russia! Pentecostals especially, who believed the End Times were near. This is a sign, the preacher said, and my sweet Nana believed him.
She wasn’t alone.
She handed over every last penny of her earthly possessions, as did most members of that congregation. Sensing immediate peril, they fled their peaceful, tree-lined neighborhoods for a religious enclave in the high desert– a pockmarked wasteland called Eden City. Jewelry, property deeds, pin money and savings bonds…the pastor pocketed all of it.
In this photograph, Nana and her sisters harvesting corn–backbreaking labor that she performed with a cheerful heart, because she believed it was “God’s will.” A 50-year-old widow at the time, she also bore sole responsibility for my mother, the preteen who’s peering through the windshield of that truck. They slept together in a canvas tent, scratched seedlings into the hardscrabble earth, and stored provisions in the bomb shelter they’d built as protection against an imminent invasion.
Snowy winters. Blistering summers. Strangers, in a strange land. But Nana’s faith sustained her, even when the prophesy never came to pass…even when their religious leader was eventually exposed as a huckster.
And it occurred to me this morning–70 years after Nana’s preacher was hauled into court–that we’ve found ourselves on the other side of the looking glass. In a stunning course reversal, the President speaks in cozy terms about Russia. He’s dividing us from within, using fear as a weapon. We must build a wall, he warns, as a fortress against the imminent threat of Other. He’s leveling our shining City on the Hill, one blatant overreach at a time, and erecting in its place a personal empire. Our nation will be made new–protected by God, Trump says–so long as we believe him over our lying eyes and trust his vision.
“End Times” prophesies had a significant impact on my life, as did Eden City. I’ve included both in my memoir, CAN I GET A WITNESS?
In researching my memoir, I oftentimes slipped into the role of my alter ego, Nancy Drew. I’ve retrieved clues from dusty archives; revisited the vacant fields where my father pitched his revival tents; and reclaimed abandoned artifacts, strewn by the wayside as we followed the Sawdust Trail.
I unearthed this family treasure in the Oregonian archives. Years ago, my father purchased this advertising space, in anticipation of a large turnout for an indoor revival meeting. The venue’s long gone, and the intended audience has scattered. But this newspaper clipping is a voice from my past, harkening me back to my childhood. I remember the murmuring crowds, the rise and fall of my father’s voice in the pulpit, perfumed women and sweat-soaked laborers, gospel choruses and clanging tambourines… same as if it were just yesterday.
Most certainly, dusty pages like this would’ve been trashed, were it not for keen-eyed, good-hearted historians–librarians, genealogists, archivists, and volunteers–saints of a sort, who devote their time and energies to the preservation of our individual and collective stories. I’m grateful to them always, but I think they deserve special recognition on Thankful Thursday. Can I get a witness?
My great grandmother, Annie Elizabeth Aldrich, was born in Hertfordshire, England in 1859. In this snapshot , she’s about 45 years old and has long since moved to Nottingham. As mother to 11 living children (9 girls and 3 boys), it’s no surprise that she looks a bit weary. Even so, she was by all accounts a very happy woman who probably imagined herself living out her days among the people she knew and loved, in the homeland she cherished.
But when World War I erupted, Nottingham was hit hard. Annie’s boys enlisted in the military, and my great-grandparents sought refuge on American soil. They were second class passengers on the USMS Philadelphia, which was chased by German submarines for countless, terrifying miles.
Her daughters found work at a local corset factory, and Annie — who, by then, was 56 years old–set about creating a new life for them on Pleasant Street in West Brookfield, Massachusetts.
She and her husband George worked hard, saved diligently, and eventually purchased a comfortable home on an old country road, across from a yeast-making factory and adjacent to the railroad tracks. Annie planted flowers on the hillside and was feted by her beloved children on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary.
Within a month, the Great Depression hit. They made do and did with less, so as to lend financial support to those in need.
Just five years later, my great-grandfather passed away. Annie was 75 years old. A widow now, she once again rolled up her sleeves. She endured floods and other hardships, but as it was with her pet canaries, she never lost her song. Local historians told me that hobos etched friendly symbols in the dirt roads that led from the rail cars to her house. “Hot meals offered here,” they said. “Everyone’s invited.” How utterly Annie, to share what little she had!
When I met the current owners of her humble abode, they offered me a gift.
Pulled from the crumbling remains of the original foundation, this brick reminds me of my personal roots. Too, it grounds me in the truth of things, within and beyond the current narratives we’re hearing. That is to say, that we are a nation of immigrants, settled by great-grandmothers who sacrificed much in the name of safety and freedom, and who were welcomed equally at Ellis Island.
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.
Memories float across our consciousness like bubbles, and then vanish into thin air. If we could capture those nostalgic moments in pixels, same as we do with the written word…imagine the possibilities!
Day 2 of Susannah Conway’s #August Break2015 photography challenge. Today’s prompt: air. Wheeee, bubble wands are the epitome of summertime fun! I chased bubbles through my flowerbeds, pressing the shutter release now and again. When this one landed in front of a flower cluster–pure magic! I just pointed my camera and clicked. Quick tip: If you add a few drops of glycerine to the soapy mixture, the bubbles tend to last a little longer. You can purchase both at your local drug store.
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?
A lesser star in the evangelical orbit, my father didn’t usually have a crew on hand to help set up his tent revival meetings, so we did everything for ourselves. It involved a lot of grunt work, with no guarantees that the crowds would come.
My father painted new signs for each location, hand-lettered without a template. While we cleared debris and smoothed the dirt, he sandpapered the scuffed edges of our portable platform. Pitching the tent was an engineering feat, in and of itself. It also required a lot of strength. My older brothers helped my father position and anchor the tent posts, and then stretch the canvas over top. Sometimes the canvas tore, whether from age or an over-energetic tug. One of the girls, myself included, would stitch the frayed edges together, using a curved needle and stiff thread. On our luckiest days, local church folks would volunteer their time and effort. Working in tandem, they’d help hang speakers from tent posts, string the interior and exterior lights, and sound-check the microphones. (Electricity was typically siphoned from a nearby church or charitable business). We then planted the folding chairs in tidy rows, scattered sawdust on the earthen floor, and plunked a hymnal on every seat.
Drivers slowed, gawked, and rolled on past. Sometimes they’d honk. Other times, they’d jeer. Passers-by would stop to watch our dusty, sweaty routine, would whisper among themselves as we worked. I remember my father’s fervent prayers over dinner, remember him asking God to deliver those spectators to our evening service.
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.”
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!