CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women
Summer 2012, Vol. 27:2
They travel from all over the Southland to saturate their souls with nonstop singing about Jesus by their favorite acts: Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, the Easters, the Isaacs, the Collingsworth Family, the Booth Brothers, the Hoppers, and of course, the headlining Gaither Vocal Band. To the southern gospel insider, these family names mean business; they are the crème-de-le-crème of Christ-crooners. They are worth concert passes and a three-night hotel stay at peak season in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, “Gateway to the Smokies,” the holy site for the yearly pilgrimage to Family Fest. My husband’s research on southern gospel music icons Bill and Gloria Gaither has led him to Family Fest, the Gaither-orchestrated annual Memorial Day singin’ for diehard southern gospel fans. I feel queasy this morning, a phantom nausea I imagine accompanies pregnancy, as I incubate low-grade annoyance for having agreed to tag along with him on the five-hundred-mile trip to Gatlinburg.
A decade ago my father-in-law Paul (who was then only my boyfriend’s dad) introduced me to the Gaithers. How could I have known then that Ryan’s doctoral dissertation would send us zigzagging the South and Midwest in groupie-like pursuit of them? On Sunday afternoons, Paul turned the TV to Gaither programs. On screen, both old and young sat in rocking chairs; both white and black sang about their heavenly home; both men and women wore concealer and carefully-coiffed hair.
“Who are these people?” I asked, innocently.
“You don’t know who they are?” he blurted, disbelieving and disappointed, as if by this point in life I should really know these sorts of vital things, as if I had just asked him how babies are made.
“No,” I said with the sort of embarrassment and deference that often mark exchanges with future in-laws.
He smiled and proclaimed the good news: “It’s the Gaithers!”
The Convention Center, the host site of Family Fest, feels of Meccan import for the Gaither fans, but the host town itself feels like Bourbon Street rehabilitated by white vacationing families—corndog stands replace adult shops, the corner propertied by Ripley’s Believe It or Not instead of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. Our hotel, the Park Vista, sits, past its prime, on a steep little mountain on the edge of town, giving it bragging rights as the “highest point in Gatlinburg.” It is a white and sterile cylindrical building, which betrays its birth in the malaise of the 1970s. It sticks out of the mountain like it’s flipping the bird to the town and surrounding landscape.
On this Sunday morning, I need my stomach to settle and the blood-hymn harmonies to drain from my skull like a lanced wound, so I’ve chosen to stay behind at the Park Vista as Ryan zips off to Family Fest morning worship in our Civic. In the hoped-for silence and humidity at the banks of the hotel pool, I am poised with pen to edit a pile of poems that Ryan is preparing for publication. As I scan for typos, word choice, general effect, I am baptized in words. This morning, poetry—spiritual and earthy and human—mediates my salvation. Snaking sky pillar, potential prodigals, tampons and sparkplugs. These words charge the ordinary with wild possibility, fray the edge of the too-tied-up world with surprises, like tampons and sparkplugs rolling out of your glove box when you reach in for last year’s registration. Nothing is not sacred, entirely.
A cannonball, good by anyone’s splash standards, dots the top poems with pool water, and I cannot help but look up onto the watery stage of poolside theatrics. Women in skirted swimsuits hide rumps rippled and rounded by childbirth and chicken fried steak. A pubescent boy’s baby fat evaporated since last summer; his water-logged trunks have no waist or hips to keep them from slipping. Newlyweds play water games like kids—she with her tied-on bikini and he with one of the dangling strings coiled around his ring finger. Begoggled kids are the ruling majority, who would, without adult interference, build a chlorinated kingdom supplied with hotdogs and juice boxes, to live in pool water forever. The nine-year-old girls have at most two summers left before they are too worried about shaving and the boy who is losing his trunks to throw underwater tea parties and race to the edge, their arms and legs as slack and shapeless as squid tentacles. Dad, who has rounded his belly at the BBQ pit, sits, maybe watching, probably worrying if he locked the minivan or when this life will be over.
Ryan is waist-high in worship at Family Fest. This year’s featured speaker, a New York Times bestselling author and “edgy” evangelical, tells of his childhood as a missionary kid on a primitive Pacific island, his experience of sexual abuse, and a story of a nurse secretly saving, in a Petri dish, a premature baby whom the doc wanted to discard. The physician charged the nurse with the responsibility of disposing of the bean-sized infant (“he has no chance of survival”), but she defied the orders, placed him in the warm sterility of a Petri dish, and the baby somehow survived. That baby became an Anglican priest, a friend of the author, and the one responsible for helping the author’s mother come to accept and admire her son’s “heretical” book (that has sold seven million copies). The crowd, charged by the miracle and politics of it all, gasps. No doubt, the gasps would grow as the story would be told again and again at small groups, over coffee, into microphones. He said “no larger than a kidney bean,” praise God.
It is hard to tell stories absent from the gospel stage, stories as true as the Anglican priest’s birth. When Melody and Justin found out she was pregnant, they were not married and presumably had not been having sex. Like all college students among the zealous religious elect, we were well-practiced at denial. Melody and Justin’s confession of indiscretion and pregnancy, if we were honest with ourselves, came as little surprise. Justin was the friend who was our favorite foil; we loved to watch him like a sitcom, in stitches, as his overzealous and clumsily sincere pursuits for a girlfriend usually ended in momentary heartbreak. Our voyeuristic consumption of his life buried our knowledge of his shadow side—tragic, untidy, unwatchable: a family history of mental illness and abuse, his mother’s suicide, his fundamentalist Christian upbringing that coiled him like a boa constrictor. Melody herself was a troubled young woman, and their partnership was on shaky ground from the beginning. (Justin admits now that they had never become friends.) We all knew it, and yet choices seemed frighteningly few. Under the advice of the elders of Justin’s church, Melody and Justin were married by Justin’s stepfather, a pastor. In the midday obscurity of a small community park, an elder and his wife served as the lone witnesses. Instead of risking the fearful and wonderful abyss, they—we—knit together lives never meant to be joined. Melody reported to me that she was dog sick on their wedding night and spent it on the cold tile in their hotel bathroom.
A week or two before their secret wedding, word “leaked” that Melody had hatched a plan to terminate, lining up a high school friend to drive her to a clinic in St. Louis. When certain members of our group caught wind of it, they quickly mobilized—showing her pictures of baby fetus fingers and tiny heartbeats, effectively penetrating her thin moral membrane. Plan aborted. We clung to juvenile optimism, parading as gospel hope, that all-things-work-together-for-good-when-you-do-the-right-thing. Any word entertaining the ethics of nonbeing smothered under this gag order. (When I was a child, I thought like a child.) The baby was born seven months later and, with it, the impossible and pregnant question, “Can you even imagine life without her?”
Absence is inaccessible to the human imagination: picture a black hole; forget the way pineapple tastes. (Try the derelict practice of holding absence and embracing abyss; it is forsaken work.) Melody filed her first restraining order within the year; I heard some vague report of domestic violence from a mutual friend who said he didn’t want to know the details. The second and final restraining order came after the birth of their third child—this time, the oldest daughter (now six) reported sexual abuse by her father Justin. (No one remembers their own passage into this world; no one forgets the traumas post-arrival.) When hearing the news of violence, abuse, and impending divorce, our friends—the ones with flipbooks of fetus fingers—scattered, like roaches at the flipped light switch. They let this cup—bitter with black blood pooled under skin, fist holes in the wall, babies on the lap—pass from them.
Inside the warm dampness of the domed hotel pool, I return to the stack of poems, a density of image and story collapsed and immense as an imploding star. One called “Adolescent Prayer” images a teenager experiencing that first feeling of alienation from self and God; a relationship that used to be easy and full has now become opaque and absent.
Fist under chin, I used
to talk to you, words skipping free
as on the April breeze
between a sidewalk and
an open bedroom window—cool,
light, laughing words. But now,
we talk as through a bathroom door,
me guessing by the weight of dead
air if you’re crouching in
the bathtub clutching your legs to
yourself or looking at
your biceps in the glass.
To find words for absence is to measure the weight of dead air. Poetry—pounded out in obscurity, published almost never—becomes the salvage yard of the narrative discard pile, the holding chamber for story fragments we utter only through a closed door to God knows who will listen. (Not until you have felt shut up in the airless sepulcher of alienation, and only if your soul survives it, can you expect to utter your truths unblinkingly to convention.) I become distracted by more words as the radio pipes in praise songs and a preacher. I hear jesus, lord, eternity, king, saved by grace, but that’s about it. I can’t make out the gospel story over the cannonballs, mom warnings to her elementary frogmen, and the bridal sweet giggles. At this place, forgiveness comes in the coverage offered by skirted swim bottoms; grace, in the whinnying dad who forsakes the unlocked van to play waterhorses with his daughter; prayer, in a pool stirred by bodies unaware of their own healing.
On Monday, the final morning of Family Fest, I return to the Convention Center. The stage performers begin to sing their teary farewells as the reunion winds down for another year. Many have toured with their own solo acts or groups, rarely crossing paths with each other, but on this weekend, the diaspora gathers back home at one venue. During the final minutes of Family Fest, Bill Gaither strolls the stage, squeezing the artists close to him with fatherly one-armed hugs. He walks to Wes, the tenor in the Gaither Vocal Band, pressing him tight against his side and invites Wes to share his good news. Wide-grinning Wes just found out that he and his wife are expecting again. The crowd claps, as if Wes and his wife would be giving them another grandchild. Bill moves to Kevin, the guitarist; he and his wife just had their first child. The camera zooms in, filling the coliseum’s large screens with the sleeping infant. The crowd coos. On to Jeff and Sheri Easter who, along with their two teenagers, comprise their family band. They share the story of their surprise when, three years ago, Sheri discovered she was pregnant—pan to their tow-headed toddler. “God has a sense of humor!” Jeff laughs into the microphone. “He sure does,” chimes in Sheri. The crowd laughs at their unexpected little one. Bill beams like a mother who has gathered her little hens beneath her. The stage aglow in Rockwellian light—no hard edges, no angry shadows—sets the mood for the last song of the weekend, “Because He Lives.”
Last I heard, after six months of no contact with his three children, Justin was granted the right to supervised visits. He has moved in with his widower stepfather and spends his days as an office supply salesman. A former collegiate sprinter, he has gained thirty pounds, watches a lot of TV, attends church on Sunday (a different church from his estranged family, as court-mandated), and hangs out primarily with his thirty-year-old brother who was recently busted for possession of kiddie porn. Justin visits a Christian counselor to work on, what he terms, “anger issues.” His childlike enthusiasm, the twin to his blinding denial, makes him simultaneously endearing and toxically pathetic. His life crumbling around him, he thinks to call my husband (a rabid Bono fan) to report that “U2 is coming to town!” I have tried to piece together the allegations of sexual abuse made by his daughter, accusations he denies flatly. In the absence of knowing the whole story, the mind begins to weave together details from the frayed ends of memories. Years ago, Justin mentioned that Belle (at the time she would’ve been a toddler) had a yeast infection or recurring yeast infections; I can’t remember which, but I think it was the latter.
Gloria Gaither penned “Because He Lives,” the most famous of her six hundred songs, nearly four decades ago during her third pregnancy at a time when the world, with its “unending wars and recreational drugs,” seemed to her a scary place in which to raise a child. Gloria recalls thinking, “If this world is like this now, what will it be in fifteen or sixteen years for our baby? What will this child face?” Bill and Gloria’s anxiety gave way to assurance. “We have babies and keep trusting and risk living because the Resurrection is true!” she writes in Something Beautiful, her collection of the stories behind the most popular Gaither songs. On the Family Fest stage that final morning, Bill tells the story of his son’s birth (the one who inspired the hymn) and, as if the story could not get any sweeter, now the Gaither’s baby son just had a baby son. A picture flashes on screen of large hands cupping a naked infant. The crowd cheers and with Bill’s prompting begins singing, “Because He Lives.” He skips the first verse in favor of the second—no doubt, for thematic consistency. It speaks of the bliss of snuggling a newborn, of how he can face uncertain days because of the resurrection. The groundswell of emotion is palpable; the pilgrims know this one by heart. The crowd pushes out the chorus from the pit of their gut, intoning that all fear dissipates and all life possesses meaning because He lives.
Dissonant stories submerge in the calm assurance of consonant chords and perfect four-part harmony. For a moment, each forgets the prodigal who never returned, the son who never straightened, the baby who never saw light. (These stories are told, if at all, parenthetically—whispered at the top of staircases, sobbed into pillowcases, confessed on the sidelines of prayer meetings.) The cavernous coliseum cocoons this fragmented family of untold stories; as in a Petri dish, they are spared yet another day. Perhaps, however cast off, one story, no larger than a kidney bean, will defy the discard pile, crawl from the darkness, resurrected, and we will have the momentary courage to cradle it like a naked infant in full light.
We, unlike the others, are eager to leave. At the resolution of the final chord, my husband and I slink into our compact car, click our belts across our thighs, and slide into the creeping traffic, pieces of mountain slopes and minivans glinting in our mirrors.
Lynn Casteel Harper
Copyright 2012 by CALYX, Inc., a non-profit corporation. No part of this publication may be copied or reproduced without written permission from CALYX.