By Christie Tate
Feature image: François-Auguste Ravier. Sunset over a Pond, c. 1880. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The first time I walked into Grandma’s church, I was a little girl in white Stride Rite leather sandals and a pale yellow dress with a sash. The First Baptist Church of Forreston, Texas. There was no parking lot, so Grandma, like a dozen others, steered her big blue Chevy off the road into the grass in front of the sign welcoming all worshippers.
The white clapboard building looked like the school-church from Little House on the Prairie. Simple wooden porch with four steps. Plain white steeple. Two long skinny windows. Our regular church in Dallas was three times larger, had bells that chimed every hour, and its thick walls held colorful stained glass depicting Jesus carrying the cross, falling, dying.
My older brother and I trailed behind Grandma, who hung her big leather purse in the crook of one arm and used the other to grip the wooden rail to steady her arthritic knees. My brother and I jockeyed to sit next to her because we wanted to plumb her treasure-filled purse. Doublemint gum. A map of the highways crisscrossing the Texas plains. A keychain with a long plastic placard with her name blazed across it. Virginia. Same as the state. I liked to run my finger along the raised white letters.
Before we opened the door, we could hear voices singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I shot a look at my brother. We were late—something we were never allowed to be on Sunday mornings with our parents at Holy Trinity. My brother shrugged. I grabbed Grandma’s free hand and let the rush of air and music pour over me as she opened the door and led us to the back row.
After the song, the preacher, sweating through his brown coat and tie, directed everyone to Sunday school. He pointed to a hallway behind the pulpit where kids were supposed to go, but not me. I wasn’t letting go of Grandma’s hand.
Virginia was my grandmother with a body. She had arthritic knees and varicose veins that throbbed underneath her pantyhose from working retail since she left school in sixth grade. She had brown moles—each the size of a different coin—that I saw up close when she called me in to scrub her back while she sat in the bath singing “Jesus Loves Me.” She let me hold her hand as we walked through parking lots. She ate whatever kind of pie she wanted so long as the meringue was at least two inches high. Her favorite salad dressing was reheated bacon grease with fried onions, and her favorite food was black licorice, pronounced: Lick-wish. She described how it felt to have her knees aching after a day at the store and why she loved to stand barefoot in the grass while she watered the marigolds with the long green hose.
She was the only adult I knew who wrestled out loud with her body—its aging, aching, and fading pleasures. She was the only adult I knew who accepted mine for all its lumps and excesses.
I wanted to draw near to her God.
Grandma lived in a two-story yellow farm house next to a passel of barns and a three-story silo you could see from I-35 if you squinted really hard half a mile before the Forreston exit. When Dad steered the car onto the exit ramp, we were allowed to unbuckle and stand up in the back seat.
Forreston is halfway between Waco and Dallas, and Grandma’s house sat a quarter-mile off a road that didn’t have a name like Linden Lane or Preston Road. It was so far out in the country they just called it “Route 4.”
“You’re exactly the way Jesus wants you to be.” That’s what Grandma said to me over and over. When she tucked me in at night. When I woke up with bedhead and sat down to bacon and Malt-O-Meal as the day’s light spread over the pasture. When she rested on the couch, watching The 700 Club.
When she said it I believed her.
There in the country, off the road with a number for a name, where there was only one streetlight other than the moon and the corn rustled out the window while we slept, a different God ruled than the one I knew back home. The God of my Grandma loved my soul despite my body that was already too big for the God at home to love. Dallas God spoke through my mother’s sighs when she stared at my limp hair that refused to hold a curl. Dallas God spoke through the nuns who commanded us to confess our sins—the lying, disobeying, and coveting—to the priest behind a curtain if we wanted to be forgiven. Dallas God spoke through my ballet teacher who was forever reminding me, “Suck in your stomach, for Heaven’s sake.”
As I curled into Grandma’s quilt and tucked my baby doll under my chin, I worshipped her God. Maybe he could save me.
Sunday morning smells woke me up. Bacon frying, bread turning to toast, and coffee scorching in the metal pot. Downstairs, morning sounds to match the smells: clinking glasses, tap water, something sizzling in a pan. I stretched spread-eagled on the pallet at the foot of Grandma’s bed. Before opening my eyes, I felt around for Blue Baby, whom I slept with every night, even though I was two years too old for a baby doll.
“Have you seen Blue Baby?” I asked my brother who stood in the kitchen blowing on the bacon strip he’d swiped from the pan.
I checked the porch. The car. The room we never went in called “the parlor.” Back upstairs, I combed through my dad’s and Aunt Samantha’s old rooms.
Without Blue Baby, I’d never sleep. I’d never be safe. Panic buzzed me around like a startled hornet. My heartbeat crashed under my ribs. Blue Baby. Blue Baby. Blue Baby.
Grandma wasn’t fond of my beloved doll—she liked pretty things. Clean things. Things that didn’t remind her of growing up poor in a small Texas town, working every day of her life from the age of twelve on. Blue Baby wasn’t easy to love. The white squares of her cornflower-blue gingham dress had faded to dingy gray. Her face bore dark smudges that wouldn’t come off. Worst of all, I’d worried away most of her hair except a tuft at the top that stuck straight up like my favorite Little Rascal. All around her scalp were holes where her silky brown hair should have been. Grandma would pick her up and turn her around slowly. “Don’t you want a brand- new baby doll? One with a clean dress and shiny hair?” My parents had already bought me a Madame Alexander doll with blonde curls and a pink pinafore, but I didn’t love her like I loved Blue Baby, who was with me when my dad started going to recovery meetings every night and when a little sister appeared in my mom’s arms. I couldn’t see Blue Baby’s baldness or her graying frock—I could only feel her steady comfort in my arms night after night.
“Check the burning can,” my brother whispered out of the side of his mouth like a double agent. From behind the bathroom door, Grandma sang a praise song I didn’t recognize. “Hurry.”
I lunged out the back door to the fenced-off area where three rusty cans stood behind a shed. When the cans were full, Grandma would strike a match and let the trash burn down to make room for the next day’s junk mail, coffee filters, and eggshells. There in the ashes lay Blue Baby, her head resting on the charred remains of the front page of The Waxahachie Daily Light, her arms outstretched like the crucified Savior. Streaks of dirt smudged her dress, and tiny bits of charred newspaper clung to her tufted hair. I grabbed my sweet companion by the arm. If I’d waited until the af- ternoon, she’d be nothing but ash and memory.
For years, I blamed my brother. He was the one who slipped Blue Baby from my arms while I slept. I couldn’t afford to let the truth—that he’d acted on Grandma’s command—settle anywhere near my heart. I needed her too much. Her body and her God.
One summer evening as the sun slid west across the field, I swung from the branch of the crab apple tree in the side yard of Grandma’s house. Just over the chain-link fence, several cows lounged beneath the shade of a Southern live oak. I was old enough to know the cows were more scared of me than I was of them and that a grandma who loved you might try to burn your baby doll. I swung my feet hard, back and forth, and as I let go of the stiff bark that pressed into my palms, I knew I would tell her. I wasn’t supposed to, of course. I was young enough to believe I was telling her something she didn’t already know.
I poked at my dinner, unable to eat. My belly quivered with each breath. I could hardly sit up because the words were choking me. I have no idea why I imagined it was my responsibility to mend the rift between these two adults. “Are you sick, child?” Grandma asked when she saw my still-full plate. She brought me a cold rag and some pink medicine. I shook my head. The hurt in my belly couldn’t be fixed with what she was offering. I started to cry. When she leaned her head in, I whispered, “My mother doesn’t like you.” Mom never came with us to visit—her lips pressed into a straight line when we mentioned the farm, and she never said anything at all—kind or unkind—about Grandma. I’d hardly ever seen them in the same room. We all pretended it was normal to pile into the car for a trip to the farm, waving to Mom, who stood on the porch while we drove away.
Grandma patted my head, and her voice shook. “Let’s pray to Jesus to heal all of our hearts.”
Grandma offered me the pocket New Testament with the green cover on the first day of my week-long visit during the summer I turned twelve. I thumbed through the thin pages that crackled when I turned them.
“Some of the words are printed in red,” I said.
“Those are Jesus’s words.”
For the next six days, I carried the little green book with me everywhere.
To the dress shop in town where she worked. To the Chinese restaurant where Grandma loved to eat eggrolls and orange chicken. To the creek bed where I hunted for fossils and arrowheads. Its square shape in my jeans pocket made me feel solid and attached.
The words printed on those almost see-through pages delighted my mouth. Ephesians. Galatians. Corinthians. I wanted to memorize a verse for my Grandma as a present. I hoped she’d be proud of me. But I also envisioned myself in competition with my cousins—Aunt Samantha’s kids who were growing up in a Baptist church and knew dozens of verses. I worried their shared religion bound them in a tight, warm circle that would never include me because I was Catholic.
On the way home from town the fifth night, I kept my eyes trained on the horizon, going over the words I’d memorized. As soon as I saw the silver chutes of the granary where we’d turn off Highway 77 toward the farm, I cleared my throat. “‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’ That’s Galatians. Chapter five.”
“Well, look at you,” she patted my leg. “Such a smart girl. Using the brains God gave you to memorize his words.”
On the last day of that visit, a Sunday, my throat swelled with the sadness of the upcoming goodbye. Before church, Grandma sang her way through rouging her cheeks and picking out a dress. What a friend we have in Jesus. All our sins and griefs to bear. I wouldn’t let myself cry. I didn’t want her to know that Jesus wasn’t carrying my grief.
“Don’t you look pretty,” she said to me, as she slipped on a pair of red espadrilles. 56 Christie Tate
I wanted to throw my arms around her legs and let out the sorrow of not being able to be with her all the time. Of not sharing the same reli- gion. Of living in Dallas, only an hour away but really so much farther. Of knowing only a single Bible verse, which I barely understood. Of not knowing which God belonged to me or how to reach hers when I went back home. Instead, I went to sit in the hot car and let the sweat drip down my back.
After church, she opened a drawer in the cabinet. “You better leave that Bible in here. I don’t want your mama to see it and get mad.”
I was an obedient kid who did whatever adults asked, and I wore a smile while doing it. But I couldn’t smile at Grandma. All I could do was pick up my green-covered New Testament, still warm from the weight of my needy hand, and place it in the drawer next to an old silver cake server and a crystal candy dish.
In the back seat of my dad’s car an hour later, I stared out the back window, keeping my eyes on the yellow farmhouse and the sand-colored silo until it was swallowed up by the horizon.
Senior year of high school, I traded all the Gods for a boyfriend. He was a transfer student from Long Island whose pastimes included shooting hoops, smoking pot, and kissing other girls. He was all the epiphany I needed. On the nights he chose me and my body, the whole universe burst into starlight. One March evening we rolled down the windows of his Honda Civic and headed south on I-35. The soles of my feet rested on the dashboard, and my right hand danced in the wind as we sped down the highway. Soon, the Dallas skyline winked at us in the rearview mirror. We had no plan. “Just keep driving,” I shouted over his classic rock. When the sign for Forreston rose above the dark plains, I pointed. “Exit here!”
We parked down the hill from Grandma’s house, where her kitchen lights shone from the road. My boyfriend asked if I wanted to drive up and say hello. I joked that we should knock on her sliding glass door and tell her we were “in the neighborhood.” But I wouldn’t let him turn up the dirt road that led to her house because of what we’d just done.
What would Grandma have made of his accent and his swagger?
A mile past her house, my boyfriend rolled down the window and threw the condom into the unplowed Texas soil.
The last time I saw Grandma she was a resident of Covenant Place, an assisted living home in Waxahachie, eleven miles north of the farm where she’d raised her children, buried her husband, and lived six decades of life. Her tidy room had everything she needed: bed, dresser, bathroom with handicapped rails, and shelves for pictures of her two children and six grandchildren. Above her bed was a giant oil painting of a soft-lit Jesus with blue eyes, long hair, and cream- colored robes. A three-foot, pre-lit fake Christmas tree stood in the corner.
I drove from Dallas to visit her during winter break. Her face was no longer full—illness had ravaged her teeth, her appetite, and most of the fat that made her so safe when I was a little girl battling my untamed appetites. Her sunken cheeks and bony arms announced the end was near. I was scared to touch her, to feel the bones of my Grandma who was shedding her body.
“Help me up. I want you to do my hair,” she said. I slid my hands under her arms and guided her too-light body to the chair that was still warm from my full-fat flesh. I pulled a plastic comb through her soft white hair, careful not to nick her tender scalp.
“Do you want some lipstick?” I asked. She pointed to her purse, still big, still leather, still full of treasures. Inside I found four tubes of Avon lipstick and picked the one with the cheeriest name: Ravishing Rose. As I daubed her lips, I told her about school in Chicago—how much I had to read for my classes and how bitter the wind was that leaped off the lake and scraped my cheeks.
“Do people in Chicago go to church on Sundays?” she asked.
“More than you’d think,” I said, though I didn’t know a soul who did. When it was time to leave, I felt that deep sadness gathering in my chest.
One of my tears dripped into her purse when I slid the lipstick back in. I sat next to her body, which, like her farm and the town she claimed for over sixty years, would be reduced to memory in a matter of months.
I took her hand in mine. Both of us kept our eyes on Jesus above her bed. There were so many right things to say. Like I remember. Thank you. I love you. I’m right here.
I had so many choices, but all that came out was, “I’m sorry.”
Child me, still swinging from the branch in her yard, meant I’m sorry I’m not Baptist and don’t know the words to the praise songs you love, and I’ve already forgotten the one Bible verse I memorized.
Adult me longed to say I’m sorry I outgrew my week-long visits to the farm and the Gods our family offered, including yours. I’m sorry you’re losing your body, and the farm was sold, and the town where you lived most of your life won’t be listed in the next census.
Neither of us said anything for a long time.
On the drive home, I flicked the headlights to bright and let them guide me through the inky evening. I thought of my Grandma’s body—the way it used to be, the way it was for most of my life. I thought of the farm with its brown dirt driveway and still-standing silo. The church with its simple wooden steeple. The faith that carried her all her life but kept slipping out from under me.
“One day I’ll buy the farm back,” I told the now-dark horizon. “One day I’ll have something to offer besides I’m sorry.” I pressed the gas and steered toward Dallas, trying to remember the first verse of “Amazing Grace,” or Galatians 5, or the promise that Jesus loved me.
Christie Tate is a Chicago essayist and author. Her debut memoir Group was published in fall 2020.
http://www.christietate.com / @christieotate