I TOOK THE LONG WAY to church, and because it was Thanksgiving, my neighborhood was as still as an artist's landscape. It was when it was hushed that the area we called California in Louisville, Ky., was most appealing. When the red brick apartments across the way from our white clapboard house were throbbing with young children and their parents, the best of life was as strong as the sun, even when the moon was out.
But Thanksgiving morning was like Sunday morning, and the people were all inside, cooking or donning their Sunday best. The old ladies would wear hats and the young girls would wear thin stockings, as if one generation stressed heads and the other emphasized legs.
The church was but a short distance from where I lived -- so the roundabout route took me in the opposite direction. At Prentice street, there was a store with a cleaners in the back. In front, some hearty purple flowers were blooming in a barrel. Darting back two blocks to Gallagher, I stopped to watch a drunk, oblivious to November's slackening chill and warming sun, slumped near the back of the beer joint.
Even going as far as Hale Street, I couldn't find any of my friends, and everything looked deserted, so there was nothing left to do but go to church. Youngs Chapel African Methodist Episcopal sat on the corner, as little and as unpresuming as the people who worked and prayed and paid there. I went through the doors and sat down among a sea of hats so colorful that they looked like bobbing swimmers in the surf.
My father sat in the pulpit in his best robe, his eyes moist as the choir squeaked through "Come Ye Thankful People." They always squeaked on anthems.
I held the bulletin and a pen in my hand, ready to sketch out my boredom if things became dull. But Brother Smith's intonations to the Maker, his voice dropping to a whisper and billowing to a bellow, made such interesting praying that I finally gave up all idea of drawing and gave the unfolding drama my full attention.
My father took his text from the 100th Psalm and though he was a reserved speaker, I waited for him to get happy, for then his voice could clap like thunder. When he had thanked the missionaries for the baskets they had given to the needy to assure that all had a hearty dinner, and had shaken everybody's hand, he would invite the older people who didn't have any place to go to come eat with his already ample family. This gift to them from my father was at the expense of us kids. "Why'd he have to invite all those ol' people? All those dishes!" I'd exclaim.
My mother had the dinner ready. It was always ready when church was over. She'd cooked since dawn and the the day before. So she brought in the turkey and ham, and my older sister brought in the greens and green beans and homemade rolls and my father carved with pre-liberation authority. My mother beamed as the guests pounced upon their plates, heaping sweet butter on delicate rolls.
They consumed conversation as they did calories, drinking in questions, swallowing exclamations, passing the answers. My father discussed the new church he wanted to build and this perked my brother's lagging interest. My father was still Big Man to us. My mother was smiling, and all the cares and lines were gone, seemingly consumed as easily as her banana cake. Where was that look on busy evenings when strains and cares pressed?
When the old ladies had patted full bellies, they retreated to the parlor and their talk turned to death and illness and births and eternity. And we children clattered dishes in the kitchen, catching snatches of those wise yet simple, worldly yet homely sentiments that were our roots. They vascillated from profound reminiscences ("My father's character was shaped by the soil he tilled") to trite commentary ("Where did Sister Bishop get that hat?") and they drowned intermittently in tears and laughter.
When it was time for them to go, we would endure their myriad pecks on the cheeks, dodging lest they touch our lips. My job was to walk Sister Gresham down to Garland Street where I stood on the corner until I saw her turn to wave at her walk.
Not long ago, I walked back to retrace those steps of a childhood Thanksgiving. Though the years have all but erased the entire cast of characters, I remembered them all quite distinctly.
But as I walked toward St. Catherine Street, my eyes became riveted to an unaccustomed emptiness. A blank spot marred the landscape. That vacuum wasn't there when I last walked the trails of my youth.
I had almost reached the alley and I could see the old church standing on the corner, not the little brick one anymore, but a bigger one as plump and commanding as a holiday bird. Arriving there breathlessly, I saw the blank spot at full view. It was where my clapboard house once stood.
The house had been leveled to make a parking lot for the people when they came to pray.