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Archive for the ‘Biographical Essay’ Category

Farm House

 

by C.A. Hutchinson, 1999

Out of my window at the church, I can see cotton fields. School children run between my office and the sight, but there they are. Actual cotton fields, white unto harvest. This astounds me. I once interviewed in Vermont at an old red brick church, called by that very name in fact. Instead of a pastor=s chair up front, it had three overstuffed Victorian couches faded with age. But what I really remember was the smell. The smell of cows and what cows leave behind. They came right up to the brick walls of the church. I wondered what it would be like to have to preach over the noise and smell of those cows. But I can only wonder, for cotton offers no noise, and to my knowledge, no distinct smell either. What it offers is a culture, a culture once at war with that same small town in Vermont.

On our dining room wall hangs a painting. It portrays a white clapboard Congregational church, box-like in shape, and typical in its rows of regular rectangular windows. It could be set in any New England town square, except for the gray mass of tangled Spanish moss which hangs from the looming trees around, framing the church in its Southern setting, a study in paradox. Which is, I suppose, why I like the painting so much, for it is a metaphor of my own life. It is in fact the Congregational Church of Midway, Georgia, established by New England puritans who emigrated first to Dorchester, South Carolina in the late 1600s, and then to Midway the century after that. It supplied Georgia with some its finest statesmen, soldiers, and preachers. The singular impact of this little church is incalculable. It now lies empty.

 

~~~~~

 

When I was a young lieutenant in the Army, one of my sergeants lived just down the road from the Midway church, that is until his house burned down. I still remember his kids being let off the school bus to the sight of their smoldering house, his little girl at first yelling, ACool!@ to impress her friends, and then bursting into tears. It was also while tooling around the Midway church graveyard that I met a man who invited me to the church that would eventually, after marriage and war, reverse the studied pilgrimage and sent me off to New England to myself prepare for the ministry.

I know this will sound strange, but New England has been to me something of a promised land. As a native born Southerner with traditional leanings, this sentiment expressed in the waning years of the twentieth century sounds something akin to heresy, I know. But there it is. What is more, I find myself ministering in a denomination directly descended from one once populated with unrepentant and unrebuked slave owners, a denomination whose de facto theological leader once described all abolitionists as “atheists, socialists, communists, red Republicans, (and) Jacobins.” Perhaps this is why I feel an unnatural sympathy with those whose only route to the promised land was by an Underground Railroad, for I too have felt the secret pull of New England on my soul as the place where I might find freedom and rest, my promised land.

My father was born and raised near old Dorchester, South Carolina, in the town of Summerville, so named because it was where the wealthy were able to escape to from Charleston, where I myself was born. My father was there stationed as a naval officer, an elite submariner, always to be pronounced correctly — emphasis on any but the first syllable. His ship was in fact a submarine tender, named the Hunley after the first submarine to ever a sink a ship, a Union vessel which was too busy blockading the rebel port to notice the Confederate sub sneak up with a mine attached to the end of a long pole on its bow. The pole was in fact not long enough, and down went the Hunley as well. That never happened to my father’s ship. He speaks in an accent unique to Summerville, instantly recognized the world over by those experienced in it, and downright confounding to all the rest. There are those who have thought that he was English, to which apart from being reared Episcopalian, my father bears no resemblance.

I, however, am of mixed race, for my father married a Connecticut Yankee whom he met at a dance while stationed in New London. His first words to her were to be careful not to eat too many peanuts, lest they give her the runs. They were engaged within two months. His parents agreed to it, seeing that her folks were originally from Richmond and Baltimore respectively, both fine Southern towns. My wife and I began our lives together later in a small Georgia town near the coast named Richmond Hill. The only thing Hill about it was that it was not under water. It was named that only because Henry Ford, who used to winter there, wanted it named that, and who could argue with that? Especially since not much money made it down those ways, not since the war. It was a few miles from Richmond Hill where Sherman=s army first made contact with the sea in the march named by that fact.

When I was little, during Sunday dinners in Summerville, we children were placed apart at a separate kids’ table on one side of my grandparents dining room. I remember once saying the word, “Sherman,” as loud as I could just to see the reaction. I remember something about utensils dropping along with the jaws, and receiving a lecture about what was and wasn’t proper language on the Lord’s Day. So even then, my mixed blood showed itself discontent with its Southern element alone, a hint of this unseemly longing for New England.

Or perhaps it is those summer months of my youth, when we would tumble out of our station wagon sleepy-eyed onto the fresh white pebbles of my grandfather=s driveway, fourteen car hours away from our home in the South. We would run into the kitchen shouting hello while looking for presents. My grandfather was nicknamed Bootie, after the nickname that he tried to pin on my older sister, on account of the baby shoes she wore. He kept a paddle above his workbench in the garage for spanking. It was nothing more than one of those ball-and-paddle toys except for the ball. Usually those balls just snapped off in mid-bounce, as I remember them, and thus, a new paddle. They were the equivalent of the missile submarines on which my father worked, more for deterrent than actual use, guarantors of the peace, at least we prayed so, for they looked like they would do a pretty number on our behinds.

We would eat from the endless bounty of butterfly pretzels my grandparents kept stored in glass vials on the counter, and then plunder their supply of sugar cubes whenever we could find them. We would put them straight in our mouths whole, sucking them into nothingness. Those sugar cubes were magic, you see, for these could not be found anywhere in our house down South. One time my younger cousin was not seen for hours but instead of eating sugar cubes, we finally discovered him in the dog kennel, sitting contentedly on the grooming table, having stuffed himself with all manner of dog biscuits. Red, green, brown and yellow crumbs littered his face. He was New England in the Fall.

All of this took place on my grandparents’ country property, where they lived in a white clapboarded farmhouse first built in 1742. There was a hole in one of the upstairs floorboards so deep and so mysterious that we once lost a toothbrush down it and never saw it again. Tumbling stone walls laced across the acres, through field and woods alike. We would adventure atop these walls, rocking back and forth upon the loose stones and scaring the wits out of one another whenever we caused a black snake to slither out. One time I found small old rusty nails and pieces of china within part of a wall, and I was sure I had discovered an actual Continental Army camp site, a tribute to those brave Yankee Doodles who had thrown tea into the sea and freed our country from the mean Lobsterbacks, all the while wondering why they thought their hat feathers were a kind of pasta. Other times we’d venture into the old barn with its mysterious black cats, and the weathered yellow cow skulls below. The dust itself in that place was mystery and history swirling around our cautious foot steps.

On occasion we’d visit for Christmas, and when snow graced the rolling fields around, it was as if the clouds of heaven itself had fallen as a blanket upon the earth. When we would awake and see the glistening magic outside, immediately we would whoop and run downstairs to don our snow suits kept for us there each year. They were thick and bulky and swished when you walked. Then we would carry our aluminum flying saucers and trek to the nearest hill and spend hours carving race paths into the snow. Only when enough snow had gotten underneath our scarves and mittens, and melted against our skin, soaking us, would we surrender to the elements and retreat back inside, craving cocoa. New England.

After a few years of living outside of Charleston, my father got transferred to Washington DC, where we moved into a suburban house where I spent the rest of my childhood years. I graduated high school and somehow got it into my head that I wanted to go to college in the South, where I reasoned I might find a more civil culture. The place I attended was considered one of the most prestigious in the South. There the future leaders of America smashed their BMWs into lampposts after drinking too hard because the several girls they had hit on all turned them down. Life alternated between dark, throbbing parties and classes where we were taught by the most respectable of authorities that there was no such thing as truth to pursue. I still remember the way my sneakers smacked down the dorm halls from the dried, sticky beer any given morning of the week. The Methodist chaplain whom the school kept on as a veneer of civilization called it a pagan place. Then again, the chapel over which he presided counted among its statued saints such heroes of the faith as Thomas Jefferson, whose belief in the Bible involved a generous use of scissors.

After college and before the Army, when I was laboring in the Southern summer to train my body for war, I visited some friends on the Massachusetts coast. There as I ran, my lungs filled with fresh New England air, and I ran not as a man afoot, but as a seagull, light as air, flying across the expanse of Kettle Cove. I ran through a small hamlet, past a gray, three-story building with a cafe. Though I did not know it in the least at the time, I was surveying the very place my wife and I would inhabit years later, the place where our daughter, named after my grandfather from Richmond, would first call home.

Some years passed before that, however, in our first home of Richmond Hill, down south, selected because it was near my first duty station, Ft. Stewart, eleventh on a list of ten preferences I had requested from the Army. When they sent me to war, two months after getting married, I longed for nothing more in the deserts of Babylon than to return home and make a quiet living in some small, green place. Though I could not yet articulate it, I was longing for New England. The war over, my duty done, our church sent us to seminary there, and it was there that our marriage finally discovered a home, a place to prosper. It found a home not only in the beauty and the weight of the place, but in a small, Congregational church on the edge of the world, a small Scandinavian fishing village called Lanesville. There zeal met authenticity, and precision met love.

It became my dream to stay in New England and find some poor, floundering Congregational church to pastor, one steeped in history, but slouched against modernity, and I would become its reformer, reviver, messiah. It was my dream. It was my idol. I did preach once in exactly one of those churches, founded in 1642 in the suburbs of Boston, and now sporting a huge, ornate sanctuary they had built in the late 1800s to sit over 1,500 people. It had a pulpit so high that it took two levels of stairs to reach it, and standing in it that morning made me almost dizzy from the heights I had ascended. The morning I preached, all of thirty people were left to worship. And they each sat in the different far reaches of the sanctuary, so that as I preached, it was as if I was addressing thirty different congregations. Which I was. That is largely the story of New England Congregationalism, and not even one of the sadder parts.

 

˜~~~~~

 

As for the Midway Congregational church in Georgia, they died out it seems for two distinct reasons. The first is that they planted a number of churches in the surrounding towns, all Presbyterian, as the antebellum spirit between the two groups was charitable, for they agreed in almost every detail of the faith. And there being no other Congregational churches in the region, it seemed most fitting that the daughter churches take a new name and flesh. The second reason seems to be that after Sherman’s army came through, there was not enough of an economy to sustain the town or church, and so family after family moved away, until finally, the building stood empty, a monument to its forbearers, North and South.

If one visits the old Midway church and takes careful observation of its pulpit design, the place where God=s redemptive Word was proclaimed each Lord=s Day, and then one happens to worship in the church where I currently serve as associate, one might notice the deliberate imitation between the pulpits, we trust in all respects. I am told that our church wanted to duplicate the Midway architecture whole, but were informed that such ancient architecture would never hold up today.

My wife and daughters and I went back to New England a couple of summers back, I thought for a vacation. I realize now that it was to say good-bye. Not good-bye to a region, nor a people, and certainly not to friends. But good-bye to a dream, an idol. Good-bye to a time which belongs in the past, if yet its legacy lives on, even now, even here, under the gray tangles of Southern trees.

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