A number of years ago I attended a writing conference in upstate New York. While there I spoke to a woman about defining moments in life. She told me about once being married to a preacher. Their only child was born with a horrible birth defect — only living for several days. Several of the women in her small town community suggested that she and her husband must be harboring some horrible sin and that the child was God's displeasure. Neither she nor her husband thought that they were being punished.
Her husband looked for a sign from God. "We both received signs," she said, "and we both went in different directions." I've often thought of these barebones of a longer story. This story came out of that conversation. The Sign
Sarah volunteered to read first.
"I had my first experience with Jesus when I turned ten."She stopped reading and placed her story face down on the wood table.
"A preacher from somewhere far away came to our place on the map and set up a tent for a revival. My momma dressed us all up: John wore a shirt and shoes, Bessie Mae wore a big skirt with a flowing line and I wore a dress my momma hand made for my birthday. I met Jesus that star studded night."As Sarah spoke her voice softened and her vowels changed in mid-air. We felt the dampness of that tent, the exhilaration of the saved. When Sarah hummed a hymn it filled the room and bounced off the walls and the windows.
"The church was my fellowship. I can't even speak about growing up without thinking of my church. Billy, a boy with the straightest dirty blond hair, was my first date. We spoke about how we'd marry someday and raise a family. I imagined Billy seated at the head of the table and praying so beautifully. My children would say yes ma'm and yes sir just the way I had been taught. I loved listening to Miss Annie Jo tell us the stories from the bible. I couldn't imagine living anywhere that was so far away that I couldn't stop in on Sunday and sing those hymns and hear those voices ascend to heaven.
And I loved listening to prayers. Farmers praying for rain, a good crop, healing of Miss Miller's son whose leg got caught in a moving motor and near got cut off. We prayed for everything: my daddy once stood up and prayed that the big road the state was building didn't go anywhere near our town.
I met my husband the summer I attended a youth fellowship camp. Actually I heard him before I met him. He sang like a member of God's choir. Aaron . I fell in love with his name before I even knew his words. He was studying to be a pastor, a minister, a follower of the Lord. God had led me to this week and to Aaron. We married when Aaron finished school and was ordained. Then we moved away to another small town close enough so that I felt I really didn't leave."Sarah never did say what she did those years she waited for Aaron. I expect she simply waited.
"It didn't take too many months before I became pregnant. My momma knit for her first grandchild—a sweater, booties. She quilted a small crib quilt with material she had saved. My daddy stripped a crib and refinished it until it shined even when it stayed in the dark. I learned new melodies and thought how Aaron could sing so sweet.
My momma told me that some people thought Aaron was trying too many new things at his church. I 'm not certain what they meant. It was a small church that had never had enough money to get a real preacher, but we wanted to stay around these parts so Aaron agreed to a small pay and we had a house.My baby was born before the first frost. I had my pains fast, like that baby needed to get on with living in the world. I wanted the midwife to deliver our child so that it could be birthed at home. Aaron called her and she came right over. Before the hour turned itself to another place our daughter's screams filled the room. She screeched and yelled. I didn't see her at first because they held her down while they cut our life line. I heard Aaron's sob before I held Ruth. Ruth's toes were beautifully formed, her small hands were balled up into fists and she flayed at the air. Her face was distorted, missing pieces, her skull was open and you could see inside."
"She'll not live long," was what the midwife said.
"I held Ruth, named for Ruth in the bible and cried. Then I sang her all the melodies I had learned. I sang every lullaby I knew, every verse. I held her tight until she stopped crying. I told her that I loved her and soon she'd be back with God where she would be whole. That night Aaron and I sang hymns to our little girl. We tried to feed her, but she could only take a little milk before she choked. My momma came over and cried and my daddy cried. We all held Ruth wanting whatever time she had on earth to be filled with love. For two days we passed her around to everyone in our family. The room was filled with song. I thought she grabbed my finger, Aaron thought she turned his way. My momma said she was too young to do anything. I looked at her toes and her fingers, but I also looked at her face. Some people visited and stared without meaning to stare."Some of us cried as we listened to the story of a child born twenty years ago.
"She died in two days and she never was alone. We buried her in my church graveyard- My momma tried to get me to stop thinking about why this happened."
"It's just that you were visited by some of the ills of the world. You and Aaron will have healthy children."
"My mommy invited me to come to a meeting of the women's group that the church sponsored. Only married women belonged and the ages spanned a number of decades. I'd like to think it was a dank gray day, but it wasn't. It was bright out, shimmering light off the new white paint job on the church exterior. The women arrived on the early side. Some people were awkward when they saw me. Several said how sorry they were. I'm not sure how the whole thing started, but I overheard one women say that when sin visited a family it often was disguised as ugliness, distortion, malformation. "
"What are you saying?" I asked.
"No offense meant," said one middle aged woman who I knew had four children, "but you and your husband need to look and see if there is sin in your lives. The good Lord may be giving you a warning."
"Yes," said another, "remember Lonnie and Mae. She was taking up with a hired hand and when her baby was born his whole face was covered by a deep scarlet red mark."
"And," added another woman, "the Lord don't need to give too many warnings before he'll close up a women's womb. Best to scrub down your soul. Ask for forgiveness."
" My momma didn't hear most of the talk, but when she did she said that it wasn't any sin on our part."
"There's trouble in the world," said my momma, "and it visits people. It ain't what you done that brings the trouble, sometimes it just comes. It comes to try you, like Job. Wasn't he a good man?"
"That put a stop to the talk, but words said can't be reeled in and put away. For the next two months I wrapped my mind around being a good pastor's wife. Aaron worked hard. He spent hours praying each evening, asking for a sign. Gideon's Fleece, he'd say. I didn't ask too many questions."Sarah had talked right past our break, but no one moved. We sat as if in church, on hard wood pews—the air settling down at our ankles. We waited, the way I expect Aaron waited for a sign.
"I visited Ruth's grave every week and left flowers. I talked to her. It helped. Aaron had buried himself in his church. The sign. Yes, when it came it was so small. I didn't notice. We had a creek in the back of our house, a small rambling creek that just about wet your toes until a half mile upstream when it chilled your shins. One day in spring it rained hard and the creek filled itself up and moved onto the land. The rain wasn't savage, just steady. I looked out the kitchen window and watched the creek moving closer to the house. Not deep, more like a puddle spreading itself out. My neighbor said that the creek had never reached the house we lived in, the house owned by the Holiness Church. It started raining on a Monday before the sun set and didn't stop until Thursday morning. The Davis Creek reached our house Thursday morning. It didn't come in, just wet down the flowers I planted near the front door. It stopped before it climbed the steps."
"We sat on dry land, but I felt that creek moving. I watched it spread, slow like, snake like."
"That Sunday morning Aaron glowed. Amazing Grace filled the kitchen and mingled with the pancake batter I poured. It had been months since Aaron sang. That winter his voice in church blended in, carried along by the other voices."Two women started humming Amazing Grace. We were coming to the end of the story.
"That Sunday when Aaron got up in the pulpit he held each congregant with his eyes. He looked all around. Nodding to those who had stayed away for several weeks, noticing the whole Miller family spread across one row— arranged like steps up a pyramid until reaching Huey Miller and his wife Mary. Mary held the ninth baby in her arms. They named him Thomas. Aaron smiled when he saw Miss Lucille. Her skin so thinned with time- almost let you see inside her face. She held an old fan with advertising on one side - telling of a funeral parlor long disappeared from town. When the quiet settled so deep it sent roots down to the ground beneath the Holiness church foundation, Aaron breathed in—he breathed in the waiting."We waited.
"Just before the first frost, Aaron began, Sarah gave birth to our first child, a daughter. Ruth . According to medical doctors she was a statistic. One out of every so many births. Every so many seconds, minutes, hours ... I lived with that through the winter and into the spring. I read about how we cause birth defects. The poisons we place in the earth, in the water. And I believed what I read, what I had been told. When the land was at its coldest and the sun at its lowest I began asking God to give me a sign. I didn't have any words to put to God. I didn't say, Lord, why me. Why not me, I thought. Just, Lord, give me a sign. I didn't ask for a particular sign. I didn't even know what I would understand from the sign. The winter wore away until the spring broke through. Then it started to rain. Remember the rains. Not maddening rain. A good rain for the soil. The kind of rain that melts into the ground. And what happened. Davis Creek spread itself out— behind our house, the house owned by this church. The creek worked its way up the hill and toward our house. It never got angry and rolled. It never took away anything. It came neighbor like to our front door, stopping before entering. It just waited for us to notice. And I knew this was the sign. The Lord sent me a sign because He loved me so. Ruth's birth was a sign too. I am a sinner. I asked for forgiveness and asked the Lord to help me clean my house of sin. I'll use a stiff brush to scourge the insides of my house. Sin has taken residence. It afflicts the walls of my house. My very soul is filled with lesions."
"They moaned with their own sins." said Sarah,
" The burden on their skin. Some stood up and offered words of praise. One woman spoke in tongues- others followed. I kept moving to the back of the church as the congregation swelled with sins bathed in sweat. Praise the Lord filled the room. The sounds of strange vowels pulsated. Aaron began to sing. His voice filled the church. I heard the others join him."Our room swelled. We rocked in our places, unsure of where this story would go.
"Aaron came home early in the afternoon. He didn't ask where I had gone and I didn't tell him that when I left the church I walked until I found a sitting place and watched the sun smooth itself across the ground. The warmth felt good. I told God I needed a sign. Aaron told me —quiet like— how at peace he felt"
"I think, he said, we should restore our love to its first state and see where Jesus leads us."
"So all through the spring and into the summer we lived together in the house but apart. I missed Aaron's body, but he gained strength. Whenever he prayed he thanked Jesus for sending him the signs. By midsummer I spent more time down by the creek-looking for smooth rocks, cooling my feet. I watched the water nibbling at the grass—but staying in its place."The sense of place permeated the room. We all had our sacred space, holy place— place we called home.
"I had packed my belongings into two bags my momma gave me. She didn't ask any questions, just hugged me. I packed one morning when Aaron was out visiting his cousin. I waited for him to return to the Holiness Church house. I sat on the chair I had covered with blue plush material during the winter and waited. When it became too hard to stay put in one place I walked outside and sat on the front step."
"What are you doing?" he asked when he saw the two bags sitting like gates on either side of the first step.
"I found my sign," I said.
"Be careful of false signs."
"It's the creek," I said. "You know how the creek couldn't be contained in her stream. She just gently moved until she arrived at our door, not angry—just like you said, just spreading out. It's time for me to move on, not angry, not taking anything. I spread my arms out and lowered them until each hand clasped a bag handle and as I stood I lifted those bags and drew them toward my body. As I walked away from the Holiness Church house I could hear Aaron singing. His voice carried me past the creek—the creek where God whispered loving words to me."
—Linda Watskin © 2011