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?
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.
We didn’t stay in any one place for long, nor did we ever sit for family portraits. And while revival organizers sometimes took candid snapshots of my father’s fiery sermons and the like, most of those got pitched overboard to make room for an ever-expanding family. So by the time my siblings and I reached adulthood, only a handful of personal photographs remained.
Some wayward pictures were eventually returned by my father’s associates. Some found their way ‘home’ when I reached out to estranged family members. My sister Sheryll, who shares my interest in personal genealogy, tracked down quite a few photographs on her own. Secrets oftentimes stay buried, but we encouraged more than a few hoarders to share their private stash. And as it turned out, I retrieved a good number of images by climbing into my “Nancy Drew” roadster and following my father’s tire ruts down the Sawdust Trail.
When Roger passed away this month, I felt a hollowness in the places where his voice once reverberated. So precious–then and in hindsight–the times we shared in communion, recounting the highlights of our individual and shared stories. Such treasures, the memories and pictures we’ve managed to archive, for ourselves and future generations. This doesn’t seem to me the appropriate place to write my brother’s obituary, but I’ve assembled a small number of images that bear witness to his life.
To my brothers and sisters, a love offering. That’s already printed on the dedication page of my memoir–in my mind’s eye, at least. Same with the pictures of Roger that you see here.
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.”