I am walking my dogs through a residential neighborhood. I pass a house with open windows and an open door. I hear an old piano playing. Music drifts from the windows, out to the street.
I stop walking to listen. The music reminds me of the feeling you get when you smell fresh bread.
There is something about the way freshly baked bread smells. It’s euphoric. Whenever I get homemade bread, I don’t eat it all at once. I keep it around so I can smell it. I usually do this before bed. That’s right, I sniff bread. They have support groups for this.
So that’s what this music is like. Bread. It’s a warm, soft sound.
What is this song? I know this tune. It takes me a few seconds.
“Up From the Grave He Arose” is the melody. The international Easter song of Baptists everywhere. This is the springtime anthem of my childhood.
See, every denomination has its own favorite Easter hymn. The Methodists love “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” because it was written by John Wesley, who, in case you aren’t up on your history, was the founder of chicken broccoli casserole and Dixie-cup baptism.
The Pentecostals sing clapping songs. The Presbyterians don’t even clap at football games. And for Easter singing, the Church of Christ people march down the street to the Methodist church and set fire to the piano.
But we Baptists sing, “Up From the Grave He Arose.” And at least we did at my church. There are two sections to this song. The first section is done slow, like a funeral dirge:
“Looooowww in the Grave he lay,
“Jeeeeeeee-zussss my saay-vior…”
But when you get to the second section, you’re supposed to sing it “bright and lively.” Our piano player, Miss Betty, would bounce back and forth on her stool like she was playing ragtime piano on the Ed Sullivan Show. The congregation would sway back and forth grinning while the fire department extinguished the fire at the Methodist church across the street.
There are people gathered on this neighborhood curb. We are all standing at least ten feet apart, listening. We have been quarantining ourselves for twenty-some days. This is live music. We haven’t heard much of that lately.
The piano plays another hymn. I recognize this one too. “Oh come to the church in the wildwood…”
Good Lord. An American beauty. The tune goes by different names: “Church in the Wildwood,” or “Little Brown Church in the Vale.” Some even call it “Little Brown Church in the Dale.” We don’t know why some people do this. Perhaps these people are weirdos who sniff bread for kicks.
This was one of my grandmother’s favorite gospel tunes. The words are universal:
“No spot is so dear to my childhood,
“As the little brown church in the vale…”
I think of my own childhood. The way our little church sat in the distance, nestled in the grass. It seems like so long ago, people were so different back then. The food was so rich, the memories were even richer.
Did it all really happen? Did Carolyn Andress really almost drown because the pastor baptized her at the exact moment she sneezed and she aspirated? Did the ambulance really have to be called? And did Brother Kenny actually try to get one of the EMTs to repent?
Did the guy who played Jesus in our Easter pageant really fall off the cross once during the play? And did his little diaper come loose so that he was standing in front of a hundred people wearing only Fruit of the Looms? And did he actually finish the entire scene wearing only his underpants?
Did I really walk up to the pastor one Sunday when I heard the song “Softly and Tenderly” playing on the piano for invitation? Did I sit beside him at the front pew because I missed my late father so bad that I didn’t know what else to do? I didn’t want to kneel at the altar during the invitation because I didn’t want everyone thinking I was a sinner who watched “Charlie’s Angels” or “Three’s Company,” which I have never done.
The preacher simply placed his arm around me. He didn’t try to bark Bible verses, he just draped an arm over my shoulder and we listened to the song.
Did it all happen?
Next, the neighborhood piano plays “Old Rugged Cross.” I am a baby again. I am on my mother’s knee. She is hanging laundry on the line. White sheets are flapping in the breeze. My mother has long hair like Crystal Gayle, only prettier.
Mama is singing, “On a hill far away, stood and old rugged cross…”
My granny is near us. She starts humming the tune along with my mother. The white-haired woman who was taken from this world too young because of Winston cigarettes. They are both singing to me. And I am in their arms.
The music from the house stops. An old woman comes out the front door. She lights a cigarette and sees us all standing nearby. There are maybe four of us. The guy standing to my right starts clapping. I join him.
The lady doesn’t say anything, she just waves. The applauding man is white-haired. He stands about ten feet away from me. He says to me, “That really took me back.”
“Me too,” I say.
“Have a happy Easter,” he says.
“You, too,” I say.
When we part ways, we are humming. Because no matter how old I get, no place is so dear to childhood as the Little Brown Church in the Vale.