The first family tragedy that chiseled my character occurred when I was four years old.
The two grandmothers were recruited to assist. One lived locally in New Jersey; the other hopped aboard the Silver Meteor train up from Florida.
They collided at my childhood home, debating how best to care for me while my parents were virtually absent.
Toot, my maternal grandmother, won the match. She became my primary caretaker: walking me to Parkway Elementary on the first day of kindergarten, all the while teaching me to love bird notes and read tree leaves.
She instilled a love for the feel of yarn sliding through my finger-furrows, for doing needlepoint and embroidery. She taught me to cherish books in an active way: to read, to rummage the dictionary for meanings, to write words into sentences of expression.
Professionally, she was a junior high school English teacher turned science teacher, so, academics and children’s minds were electrically connected for her. She was, therefore, the perfect mentor for a lonely little girl who felt confused and abandoned.
Toot coaxed to life so many passions that live within me even today. For this, I’ll love her always.
One dream that we shared, though, neither one of us found a way to achieve.
We each wanted to sing.
We each failed miserably at matching vocal cord to musical note.
We each lived outside the precision of the musical staff. We lived, somehow, according to our own mathematical graph of pitch with respect to time and tempo. Although, I believe to this day that Toot was quietly convinced that she sang on key:
An Out-of-Tune Life
I hear Toot’s singing voice in my memory. The one she used in church. In the safety of a large congregation of Presbytery. The wavering silk thread of a soprano quivering like uncertain hands pulling the silk from the worm’s cocoon in the bend of a mulberry tree.
I allow myself to imagine an ideal of existence in which words and song might alter the course the events. Out of such moments, springs hope.
I hear a remote doxology:
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host:
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
This short hymn. An expression of praise to God was of some value to Toot, and, what I extracted from these moments of interchange was of value for myself.
The church we attended was old and cold and settled in its ways of worship. It had the scent of a funeral rite, but, I felt more connected to my grandmother than to God or church.
I loved to recite the Lord’s Prayer; to chant the response after the Reverend offered the call to sing the doxology.
My faith was somehow built into an ancestry that spoke during those rituals.
I don’t know what to make of my early childhood religious experiences, but, they were not wrapped in a denomination or contained within a building or held captive in the words of a book.
They followed a person. A woman. A blood elder.
I may say that, for me, God was first found inside the upright spine and the vibrating strings plucked from an out-of-tune voice that ached to be celebrated as beautiful.
This set my own wavering voice free. Along with my questioning mind and seeking heart.
I was safe inside that out-of-tune life. And may be forevermore.