This morning I attended services at a little country church a few miles down the road from the Redbird Cottage. As usual, after driving twenty-four miles, I had no real idea where the little country church was, a gps is worthless where the internet doesn’t live. However, one can always count on a man at a country gas station to tell you. In small towns, there’s always someone who will know. They probably know a better version of your story than you do. He used his calloused, oil stained hands to show me to go past in the bend in the road and then said to turn directly right on Red Hill Road…while he pointed left, I understood completely …directionality is a mystery to me most days. He said to turn that way with his hands as he worked his chewing tobacco and tried to help me, someone he recognized as a citified stranger. Didn’t matter that he didn’t go to church himself, everyone knows where John Guess goes to church and he knew if I was asking, there was a need for help in this one horse town without a stoplight even. He looked at me a little interested, for someone who asked for a church by referencing John Guess was bound to have a story to discover.
I travelled down the first road the man pointed to, driving past another country Baptist church, the small gravel parking lot comfortably crowded this Mother’s Day, my mind reached past the tall pines to a place riding on the same road with my Pappy Nunnally about forty-five years ago.
We had been to the “ranch” the worn homeplace where my Pappy Nunnally, a railroad man and gentleman farmer, raised a few cows and fed a few hogs. Where water came from an artesian well in the back yard and a chicken wandering and pecking at your bare legs could be a scary thing to a five year old child.
Time seemed to transport me to forty-five years before on a hot summer day when Pappy and I drove down this same road in his old LTD with the windows down on a humid spring day in May.
We passed a house familiar to me, where porch posts are made of small trees and the boards rough hewn by hand. Round the next bend we saw a homemade pond about eleven acres and hawks circling like buzzards in a pack of eight or nine, unusual for the day. Country folks might say something died in that lake, or someone is going to.
As we pulled into the dirt drive, a red truck with a shiny red bass boat was trailered directly in front of the cemetery behind the church, no sense wasting time on a Sunday. My own red Honda stood out from the mostly modest cars gathered for worship in the little white church in the trees. A red car can be a reputation breaker in our neck of the woods, I had forgotten how they stand out in the deep country.
The church building modest, front door open to catch the lovely blue skies Mother’s Day weather, and though there were no greeters, nor bulletins, we were welcomed in.
We entered into the back of the church with no more than a half dozen folks already present and visiting. You had the feeling that each of them had known each other a lifetime. Sweetie Berry, my married name was called out and not one face showed recognition, but the group shared curious friendly faces until the frame of reference was shared. It turns out forty-five years is not long enough to lose your family’s name as the stranger I’d just met, John Guess, called out “she’s Doc Nunnally’s girl” A smile to my heart for indeed that’s who I am…the littlest Nunnally as my brother’s friend, Richard Sprow once said, and it stuck….Doc Nunnally’s girl.
Praising God in a country church doesn’t require a piano player or fancy sound system. The minister simply began and voices raised to praise the Lord… Home…. My father had only once asked a promise of me and I took it seriously. The promise was that I’d someday return to this little Methodist church….”it was important to your Grandfather Geddie that you are Methodist…and it’s important to me….promise me?” “You can pick any one you want, there are a half dozen of them, but promise me you’ll visit Red Hill at least a few times.” My Dad has been gone four years, my mother over a decade, my husband and children unable to be with me this Mother’s Day, a quiet, lonely sort of day, so I figured it would be a good day to fulfill my promise.
My father, a country doctor, never asked a thing of me in my life except for me to do my best and to respect my grandparents, and certainly never asked me to promise him anything before that day before he died. I drove to his rural area to begin fulfilling that promise. I didn’t know I’d also find a part of my childhood left long ago on the hot, leather, seat of my Pappy Nunnally’s passenger seat.
Some Mother’s Day gifts are finely packaged, pretty papers and ribbons brought with a card. Other gifts, cannot be wrapped, like gathering friends round a table and knowing that the choice to gather was made. Today I received an unexpected gift in the sharing of stories, in sitting next to a stranger who knows stories of the scenes of my life, but never knew me.
I opened a world of memories somehow tucked away and hidden from me for over forty-five years and found them as vivid as the last time I walked into the church I didn’t know not the name of, or where it was…a faint memory long ago of attending holding my Pappy’s hand. Taken to church on a rare weekend he took me home to Lester by myself, because that’s what you do on Sunday’s in my neck of the woods, you take your children and grandchildren to church.
I remember the stiff of his collar, how handsome he looked in his suit, how the shirt was folded in his dresser when his wrinkled hands chose it from his drawer. I could smell his cologne and feel his rough beard this morning as he leaned over to tell me I was pretty and to not worry about singing loud in church, for he reminded me he liked my voice. Memories flooded my mind as I remembered the scenes forgotten long ago of us preparing to go to church in that very space. Of Pappy, a widower, frying country ham in the skillet, pouring coffee from the stove and asking if I’d like one egg or two. I remember how he fussed with how to get my hair wrangled, ringlet curls always so hard to tame. I remember his wrinkled hand twirling one against my head and smiling at its springy nature.
As I sang two songs with the members acapella style, searching for the notes and trying to read the words I’d never heard before, I thought of the Grandmother Marie Nunnally, my father’s mother who died before I was born. She was whom I had been named for. I thought of the folks sitting near me that hadn’t missed more than a handful of Sundays in over fifty years and the riches they have. Riches unbeknownst to most modern families, experiencing generations of worshipping together. I drank in the beauty of the morning sun streaming through the stained glass windows facing the cemetery of Red Hill Methodist…and knew, that despite not having my husband or children, my dear ones near this Mother’s Day, nor my mother or father, or Pappy Nunnally nor Grandparent Geddie’s with me…all of them already in heaven…that my father gave me the greatest gift of all this day….
My Dad asked me to promise I’d return to the little Methodist church in Chidester a day before he died in a moment of clarity, so near his homeplace of Lester Junction….little did I know it would also return to me a flood of memories of just how good God has been to me…and I know already, where my heart has found home….the promise fulfilled.