When I was growing up, Sunday mornings always found me out of bed by eight. The scent and sizzle of bacon and eggs frying on the stove wafted through the house, gently waking my senses first. I would lie there with my eyes closed, absorbing everything that meant Sunday morning to me: warm sheets beneath me, a blanket that I had pulled up to my neck in the middle of the night, Jonathan’s favorite cartoon characters singing along with the white ball as it bounced over the words, and Daddy humming an incomprehensible tune while shaving in the hallway bathroom (though I never could understand why somebody who rarely saw the church’s interior would get up so early on a Sunday). Still, Daddy’s scrambling right along with us was a part of the routine. If nothing else, he would help Jonathan get his tie on right.
“Shondra!” Momma called from the kitchen, “Get a move on!”
I poked my head out from under the covers and answered, “Yes, ma’am,” in that high-pitched “I’m up” tone. Just one more minute. Then I began to think about my new white socks and my dress or the way Momma had rolled my hair the night before. I reasoned with myself, willing my feet to swing out and meet the cool rush of air on the other side of that bedspread.
I made my first stop at the mirror, unfastened one of the pink hair rollers, and watched my bangs spring out of the foam. A smile spread across my face at the sight of that spiral curl. I pulled it down until it met my nose. My hair still smelled like Royal Crown grease and the smoke that embedded itself in each shaft during the pressing process. If I’d held my head perfectly still the night before, I wouldn’t have any burns behind my ears or at my temples. If I’d jumped at the sound of the hot comb frying what Momma claimed was “only grease,” I might have the marks to show for it.
Momma took a break from cooking breakfast to come in and check on me. She wore a brown fleece robe with pink house shoes, but I had lived the routine enough to know that she already had on her girdle and white stockings underneath. She’d brushed her hair back, but there was no bun at the nape. Only a few bobby pins to hold the mass down. She would be wearing a hat that covered her entire head this morning. Probably the white one with sequins and feathers all over it.
“Turn ’round here. I’m gonna let your slip down a little more. I believe that hem on your white dress is pretty low.” She stood behind me and adjusted the straps on my slip such that it fell another inch or two. “There you go. Let me see you.”
I turned to face her, all smiles. The bags puffed up beneath her eyes as she pushed her cheeks toward a wide smile of her own. “Look at my baby. You’re the prettiest little girl in the whole wide world.”
“Really, Momma?” I asked.
“No doubt about it. God blessed me with a pretty, smart, wonderful little girl.” She planted a soft kiss on my forehead and stood at arm’s length to look at me again. “Won’t be long before those little boys at church start takin’ a liking to you, you know.”
“I don’t like boys.” I wrinkled my nose and bared my teeth. I didn’t like it when she teased me about boys. Especially not since I’d started getting that tickly, peculiar sensation in my stomach every time I saw people kiss on television.
She gave me a glance that said, “you-just-wait-and-see.” Then she left my room, half singing and half moaning one of her favorite congregational hymns: “Servin’ the Lord Will Pay Off After While.” I wished that she would come back and do something—anything—in my room. I wanted to smell her powder, hear her sing, and feel the warmth in her notes surround me like a tattered family quilt passed down through generations. Worn to threads in some spots, but worth its original weight in gold.
“Now may the grace and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ rest, rule, and abide in us all until we meet again. Let the church sing, Aaaa-men.” Pastor Simmons dismissed the congregation of True Way Church of God in Christ, and a bustle of conversation began. Sisters and Mothers, clad in a colorful array of tailored suits with fancy hats and sparkling jewelry, hugged each other and planted soft, saintly kisses on each other’s cheeks. Mother Frances hugged me and told me what a wonderful job I was doing with the children, as she always did when I saw her. “You keep up the good work, baby. God’s got a blessing for you.”
I kissed her soft, wrinkled cheek and replied, “Thank you, Mother Frances.”
“How’s your mother?” she asked. Mother Frances was part of the underground reporting agency my mother used to keep tabs on me at True Way—I was sure of it.
“Oh, she’s doing fine.”
“Tell her I said hi.”
The men, what few there were, exchanged handshakes and visual inspections on their way to the vestibule. Younger children, who rarely got the chance to beat on the drums, ran to the drummer’s empty seat to beat out a few loud clashes before the organist shooed them away. The cheerful hum of church folk idly socializing filled the sanctuary but quickly succumbed to Deacon Bradbury’s it’s-time-to-go signal of dimming the lights.
I grabbed my tote bag filled with pencils, pens, and paper, and rushed over to talk with Sister Charles. I found her just past the swinging doors of the sanctuary at the water fountain. She was bent over, Bible in left hand and the bag from our denomination’s annual women’s convention slung over her right shoulder.
“Hello, Sister Charles.” I tapped her as she swallowed her last gulp.
“Hi, Sister Smith.” She wiped the stray drops from her lips and then pulled me into a hearty hug. “How did Alvin do in tutoring tonight?”
“That’s what I came over to tell you—he worked so hard! I have never seen anyone put so much effort into learning fractions in all of my life,” I laughed. Alvin, who was standing at her side, put his head down and smiled. Sister Charles’s face lit up, her oily, smooth complexion catching every bit of light that bounced off it. I got the feeling that this was the first piece of good news Sister Charles had heard about her Alvin in a long time.
“Did he really?”
I placed my left hand on Alvin’s shoulder, animating my words with my right hand. “Alvin, you can do anything you put your mind to. But you cannot give up when things get hard.”
“I’m so glad you all started this Wednesday night tutoring before service here at the church. I can’t afford any of those fancy tutoring centers right now.” Sister Charles shook her head and smacked her lips. “Besides, you all are doing a better job here than anybody who’s ever worked with Alvin. I didn’t see Brother Jenkins tonight. Isn’t he the one who usually tutors Alvin?”
“Yes, but Brother and Sister Jenkins just had a new baby, so Brother Jenkins has taken some overtime at his job. Looks like it’s going to be just me for now,” I admitted. I curled my lips in and let out a heavy sigh. At the rate the tutoring program at our church was growing, I knew that I would soon be overwhelmed with struggling students.
“Well, I’ll see you next time, Alvin. Keep me in your prayers.”
“And you do the same.” Sister Charles smiled back. “Have a blessed evening.”
I walked out of the church and into the blanket of night interrupted only by the two street lamps recently added to our church’s parking lot. Those things cost an arm and a leg, I’d heard, but came with the price of progress. True Way was growing each week as people sought out what older saints called “the old way.”
I knew that sanctified path well. I understood the dos and don’ts: do raise your index finger if you need to walk in church; don’t sit with your legs crossed knee over knee—cross at the ankle. The traditions and idiosyncrasies of the Church of God in Christ, whether founded or flippant, had been instilled in me from childhood. As I walked to my car with my black skirt brushing my ankles, I was ever thankful to have been raised in somebody’s church; with faith, and love and a quick pinch from an usher for passing notes during the sermon.
I noticed Brother Paul Pruitt’s red BMW parked next to my Honda in the lot. I hurried to unarm my car, hoping to get inside, buckle up, and drive off so that he and I wouldn’t have to cross paths. I didn’t have anything against Brother Pruitt. He was the “okay” kind. He had a lot going for him—he was active in the church, mentored young boys, had a good job, had a good attitude, held the door open for women, and so on. But he just didn’t make my heart go do any flips. Not at all. And although True Way COGIC was filled with single black women, nobody was knocking on his door so far as I knew.
Mother Moore, however, believed that Brother Pruitt was “sweet” on me. She’d pulled me aside a few Sundays ago after church and whispered into my ear with her rickety voice, “I think he’s got his eye on you.” That was all I needed to know. I figured I’d just steer clear of him until whatever it was that Mother Moore saw brewing in him faded away. I didn’t want any ill feelings between us. And I didn’t want him wasting any time pursuing me, missing out on his Miss Right.
His headlights blinked on and off. Now I’ve got to speak. I casually looked back over my shoulder and said good night to Paul as we both opened our car doors. We spoke our last words over the roof of his car.
“How did the tutoring go tonight?” he asked.
“It went very well.” I put my foot inside my car.
“That’s great! Keep up the good work!” Then he nodded, got into his car, closed the door, and started his engine.
Mental note: Mother Moore is not the authority on sweets.
Coming home that night, I kicked off my low-heeled shoes at the doorstep and dropped my bags on the leopard-print chaise—the finishing touch that made my living room look like something straight out of Africa. Miniature giraffes, elephants, and cheetahs lined the mantel, adding to the overall safari motif in my formal living room. Candles filled the room with strawberries, despite the label’s warnings that I shouldn’t burn them in my absence.
In the kitchen, I emptied the dishwasher and loaded in my breakfast dishes: a bowl, a cup, and a spoon. It would be a while before the dishwasher filled up again.
There was a peaceful silence about my home—except for the swish of my pantyhose as I walked through, picking up things that were haphazardly misplaced during my morning rush out of the house. Everything was just as it was when I left: toiletries strewn across my bathroom counter, the ironing board standing in the hallway, and the windbreaker that I’d quickly traded for a leather coat upon opening my front door at six a.m. and meeting Jack Frost face to face. It was still early November, but it’s hard to tell the season by a calendar in Texas.
I rotated the gold-toned faucets clockwise and felt my tensions ease at the sound of rushing water. I’d looked forward to this bath all day long. The midweek tutoring followed by regular service was wearing me out, especially on the nights when I had to work late because of some sporting event at the local middle school, where I served as vice principal. But it was well worth the sacrifice. The church kids’ grades were up, their parents were optimistic, church attendance was higher, and more children heard the gospel. Well, some of them didn’t have any other choice because they’d hitched a ride with someone who stayed through service, but that was all right. They were there, and I’d done my part to bring them to the Word.
I inched into the tub, controlling my reaction to the splendid heat that soothed me while stinging me simultaneously. Resting my head on the bathtub pillow, I closed my eyes and began thinking. My birthday was just around the corner. My soul could only look back in wonder at the years that had gone by. So many blessings and so much favor that I couldn’t even begin to explain. My mind began drifting down the path that only opens up in complete inner and outer silence. I was in my right mind. My soul was free. But I was alone.
Thirty had come and almost gone without so much as a little poof. Thirty-one wasn’t far away, which would make me officially in my thirties. Being in my thirties, I’d reasoned, was different from being thirty. Thirty said that I was still a little wet behind the ears, just getting over the twenties. But in my thirties was different. Somebody in the thirties could be anybody from a newlywed to a grandmother. On the upside of youth or the underside of senior citizenry. Either way, it was time to reevaluate some things; carefully consider how to expend my time and energy. I was too young to be worried about getting married, yet too old to take for granted that my body would cooperate fully with pregnancy. But me pregnant at my biological peak would have been a nightmare. At my biological child- bearing peak, I’d been running myself ragged, doing everything from “people pleasing” to conducting my very own search-and-rescue missions, looking for love in the most desperate dead-end relationships, abusing my body and my faith in the process.
Now, in my thirties and with roots that had grown deeper in the knowledge and wisdom of God, there was a part of me that had begun longing for companionship again. I’d been blessed with many accomplishments educationally and professionally, but I was quickly falling out of ladder-climbing mode. Rather, I wanted to enjoy the rung I was on—to live the thirties without chasing the forties. I wanted to rest in the fact that God was the head of my life, my constant source.
Stepping out of the tub and onto the cream-colored bathroom rug, I caught my reflection in the mirror and took a long look at my body. Is this what in the thirties looks like? Not bad. My light brown skin was still evenly toned and taut in most places. Breasts and behind still holding up strong. Stomach a little pudgy—nothing serious. Time had done a number on my hips, but the curves were a welcome change, adding femininity to the body once referred to as a “beanpole.”
Next I examined my face. I was truly blessed with clear, healthy skin. I didn’t wear makeup in high school or college, but after taking a professional job I decided to start wearing foundation, mascara, and lipstick. Every once in a while I did something with my eyes, but it never amounted to much behind the lenses of my glasses.
I got closer to the mirror, running my hands along my cheeks. That thirty-something face belonged to a single, African-American Christian woman. My eyebrows were perfectly arched, and all other facial hair had been removed. My thick lips took on a life of their own with their natural outline and plump staging. I studied the outline of my face: high cheekbones, dimples, clearly defined chin, and slightly widened nose. It all played together pretty well, if I may say so myself.
After getting into my nightclothes, I walked down the center hall of my home to the guest bedroom, better known as my prayer closet. Though the small room was furnished only with a desk, a mauve halogen lamp, a painting of a richly brown woman braiding a young girl’s hair, and a daybed, it was completely filled with the soft reign of peace. Peace that settled on my mind like several feet of snow, insulating me from the noise of life. I reserved this space, kept it free of clutter, for simple reasons. There, as I knelt down by the side of the daybed and folded my hands in prayer, I could feel His presence, as though He had been anticipating this time alone as much as I had. We had both been awaiting the time to sit down and talk, commune about the day. A time to receive instruction, chastening, share a word or a laugh.
Father, I honor You for who You are. For being the sovereign Lord of my life. I ask your forgiveness for being impatient today with a few students and colleagues. I thank You for covering me when I’m wrong and extending Your grace and mercy in every area of my life. And I thank You for leaving Your Spirit as a constant friend. Now, Father, I pray that You would help me to rest in where I am right now. Humph, I’m in my thirties, Father, help me to trust in You all the more. My time on earth seems even more precious now. I thank and praise You for being at the center of my life. Now, as I prepare to study Your Word, show me what You want me to know. Speak to my heart and help me to be not only a hearer but also a doer of Your Word. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Through divine planning, in the midst of my simmering anticipation, I could only laugh at where God placed me in my week’s devotional study on that night, right at Matthew 6:34: Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Thank You, Father. You always know.
I finished up my devotional time with a journal entry, making note of this special verse that seemed to have been written just for me tonight. As I placed my journal into the old cedar desk and twisted the gold, ribbed knob to extinguish the lamp, my thoughts reconciled themselves, lined up with the Word, lulled me into a drowsiness that I knew would bring about a good night’s rest.
Copyright © 2004 by Michelle Stimpson