Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Softly and Tenderly

The strangest things make me cry. My husband and daughter laugh at me sometimes for the way I tear up at things that aren’t the slightest bit sad, like when the preschoolers sing at church in the spring or someone sings the national anthem on TV. It’s a little embarrassing, but I can’t seem to control it. I think it’s because tears, for me, are an expression of many emotions, not just sorrow. My heart seems to be attached to my tear ducts, and the slightest sentimental squeeze sends them into action. It happens at the most unexpected times, and this past Sunday was one of those times. Are you ready for this? I welled up because we sang out of the Cokesbury hymnal in church.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, and many of you probably are, the Cokesbury hymnal was a staple in many churches for decades. First published in the 1920’s, it’s the only songbook many of us grew up with and is as much a part of the Methodist faith as a good potluck. It’s a slim book that contains all of the “old” songs with catchy tunes that were written from the heart by folks like Fannie Crosby (Blessed Assurance). Songs like The Old Rugged Cross, Rock of Ages, Softly and Tenderly and I Love to Tell the Story. Years of standing in my patent leather shoes wailing away to the tune of an old upright piano laid those songs on my heart and burned them into my brain. And I’m not the only one. I’d bet my left arm that there are several people in my church right now who could sing just about every one of the songs in the Cokesbury book without looking at the words. While it’s long been replaced with other more modern hymnals in many churches, the Cokesbury songbook still lingers on many a pew and gets pulled out every now and then for old times sake, which is what happened at my church Sunday.

When my eyes started to well up on about the second verse of the first song, I immediately started searching for the reason why. During the offering I sifted through the pages, smiling at the familiar titles. I realized the power of the memories I have attached to those old hymns. A lot of those memories involve my grandmother, and she’s been on my mind a lot lately. She’s been gone nearly twenty years now, and I seem to miss her more as the years go by.

Grandma and Mama

Grandma B. toted Mama to the local First United Methodist Church when Mama was just a baby, and Mama carried on that tradition with me and my brothers. Usually, we attended the church’s little chapel near Grandma’s house. Grandma didn’t drive, so most Sundays found us swinging by Grandma’s house to pick her up on the way to church. If it was Mother’s Day we stopped long enough to cut roses from her yard to wear on our lapels. White for Grandma because her mother was dead. Red for the rest of us because our mother was alive. Not too many folks practice that tradition now, but it was pretty common when I was a kid. So was wearing a lily corsage on Easter, which I still do when I can find one. Mama used to always bring a corsage to Grandma on Easter. Grandma loved flowers, especially her roses and her Mock Orange bush. When she passed away I asked for a cutting from her old white rose bush, and it blooms in my yard every May.

When she sat down in the car, I looked at her shoulder to see what pin she was wearing. She always wore a pin, and often it was a rhinestone flag that Mama’s brother gave her as a gift when he was very young. Sometimes it was a pin Grandpa sent her during World War II. Sometimes she wore dress gloves. She often carried a handkerchief in her purse, and she always wore a headscarf. Grandma didn’t have much money, but she dressed in her nicest clothes for church. We would bounce off to the chapel a few blocks away and scatter to our Sunday school classes when we arrived. If I was lucky, it was my turn to pull the rope that rang the church bell. Our pockets held a few dimes and nickels that we were expected to put in the Sunday school collection plates which were usually little plastic churches like this.

When I grew old enough, I got to collect the little churches, count the money and post the total and the attendance numbers on the chapel wall. I took the responsibility very seriously.

There were Christmas programs, chili suppers and vacation bible school. Daddy drove the church bus, so sometimes there were bus rides around town before and after services, picking up elderly ladies in nursing homes and kids whose parents didn’t attend services. There were Easter egg hunts and races to see who could find bible verses the fastest. I won many a pencil that way. And there was always music from that little hymnal. I’d swear we sang Mansion Over the Hilltop every other Sunday.

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder, we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold.

Our piano player, Mrs. Rush, was an elderly widow who liked to play ragtime, and she was well known for picking up the pace of the hymns we sang. I’d give a $100 to hear her play again. I liked the Sundays when Ollie Pucket and his wife visited and sang for us. They introduced this sheltered little white girl to spirituals and improvisation, and I liked it. It made me want to dance.

Sunday after Sunday, year after year we went to the little chapel, saying hello and goodbye to some dear preachers and dear friends. Grandma was always there, singing those old songs, taking steps in her own spiritual walk and unbeknownst to me, laying a foundation for my faith. I can only hope I’m half the person she was. Despite her poverty and many trials, she was good. Really good. I don’t remember ever hearing her say anything bad about anyone. She was kind, gentle and forgiving. I have many memories of her standing in the kitchen making her special turkey and dressing or sitting in our kitchen chair while Mama gave her a perm and color. But some of my best memories of her are standing beside her in church as the strains of those old hymns tickled our ears. Which is why the feel of that leather hymnal in my hands Sunday and the songs within its covers put such a squeeze on my heart. I miss you, Grandma, but you’ll be glad to know some of us are still singing In the Garden every now and then. Some of us still wear a rose on Mother’s Day and a pin on our suit when we dress up. And some of us take our kids to the little Methodist church on the corner.


Anonymous said...

Dee from Tennessee

Great post! I, too, miss my grandmothers more and more with each passing year.

Janis said...

What a wonderful tribute to your Grandmother. So much of what you said is how I feel about my own Gram. She was my role model. I too get weepy when I least expect it and when we sing the old hymns and the national anthem or even a pop song I like. I was raised Methodist also. Thanks for sharing, now heres a tissue.

Gin said...

Beautiful. You made me weepy too! My mom and I joke all the time about how we cry about everything.

Trailboss said...

Such a wonderful post Hula. I have fond memories of my youth and singing the hymns as well but I have never heard of the hymnal you speak of. I was raised Baptist so maybe that is it, don't know. I was never close to either of my grandmothers which probably has something to do with me wanting to be with my grandkids as much as possible. I want them to have memories like what you have. Good, wholesome and fun memories.

I am very teary too. Both of my parents, especially Mother, were that way. My brother and I are too. Yes, my family used to tease me about it but now they know that it is just the way I am and I think they see it as being tender and caring. That is how I see you too.

Thanks for sharing your precious memories with us.

karisma said...

Lovely! And thats what your faith should be all about! Not so much the church, but the togetherness, the faith, the love, the good times together, the caring. Its the good intention and people who make the difference NOT the building or the following! Loving and caring for others and bringing them together as one is what makes us Gods light! Keep singing, praying and loving as you do! Much love xxxoooxx

cjmom said...

I thought I was reading my own story. Even your picture(the young lady standing alone) looks like me. It is so uncanny. I had googled Cokesbury songbooks to get some more as we have worn ours out and use them regularly. We have started backup a monthly "singing" to keep alive these Methodist traditions as well as continue to share the gospel. Let's keep on getting teary eyed together...and rejoicing in our foundations. Blessings to you. pinkyjo