The white clapboard church is barely set back from the asphalt road, an old cemetery on one side, the raw red brick parsonage on the other. The church is small and spare, with only a steeple for adornment.
My car pulls into the small parking lot, spitting gravel and dust as it halts. There are battered pickup trucks, washed and polished sedans, a couple of jacked-up muscle cars. It is already hot, although it is not yet 11 in the morning. The air is thick with humidity, a dense wall almost too thick to breathe.
The men stand outside by the front porch, smoking and talking. Their faces are sun-reddened. They wear short-sleeved shirts and ties, and have removed their dark suit jackets in the heat. They will put them on to go in the church, then take them off again and fold them carefully before the sermon starts.
I go up the worn concrete steps into the vestibule, suddenly dark and a little cooler, and emerge into the sanctuary. The old, dark wood floors are muffled with runners of faded red carpet on the aisles. The pews are old, dark wood as well, hard and slippery from generations of churchgoers.
The white walls are bare. There is no cross on the wall or statues in niches. There are only a bare wooden pulpit, a small choir loft, a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, and a communion table—the altar, we call it—with a vase of flowers left over from a funeral, beginning to wilt.
The sanctuary smells of dusty carpet, furniture polish, the wilting flowers, and people beginning to sweat as the room fills. The women’s polyester flowered dresses are bright against their husbands’ Sunday suits. I fan myself with a paper fan on a wooden stick. It is printed with a scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is kneeling in a white robe and praying, pinned in a beam of white light like a deer in the headlights.
Then the preacher comes in, the choir loft fills with my aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, and the service begins. The preacher cannot stir me. I am impervious to his thin, nasal voice; the mistakes in his grammar gall me. His collar is too big. My heart is harder than stone, it oozes contempt like the asphalt road outside oozes tar.
But I am undone all the same. It is the old country hymns, sung by untrained voices. My uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my neighbors sing harmony without effort or thought, singing a melancholy song their parents sang to them. They sing, “O come, angel band, come and around me stand/O bear me away on your snow white wings/ To my immortal home.”
And I am borne away on those wings, out the back door of the church, into the green graveyard. Ancient cedar trees shade the graves; the breeze whispers through the branches. My grandparents are there, and my great-grandparents, and my great-great grandparents. The old, grey stones are worn and crooked. They are simple, no fancy carvings, no weeping Victorian angels. They sink into the mossy graves. There is no room for anyone else. The past owns this place.