On Easter, the sun always rose bright and shining. Sister Patton was always the first to arrive at the church. She was a compact, chunky woman, her skin the color of mocha. Her tongue was sharp, yet soft. Childless, she always folded a few dollars into the letters she wrote in shaky scrawl to the college kids, but we joked that she expected great acknowledgement of her generosity. She raised the loveliest flowers in Louisville's West End, and our synonym for spring was the big back yard that she tended with the aid of sweet, docile Brother Patton and that perfumed the whole of Ormsby Street.
Sister Wilkins arrived next. Her hands, toil-toughened but shapely, were encased prettily in short white gloves. She was the mother of eight and worked hard to help support them. But her difficult days were sweetened by the joy of her church and the hopes she nurtured for her children.
My own mother always rose bright and shining as the sun. Easter Saturday meant cooking ham and greens, dyeing eggs, buying bonnets and inviting stray family members for dinner. She seemed an eternal spring of love and selflessness. Before entering church she adjusted the brim of her hat--no big, floppy bonnet here--over her steel-gray hair and tucked her gloves into the creases of her fingers.
We young people loved these women and others like them, many of whom worked as domestics. But we were beginning to question what seemed the conservatism of the religion they had raised us in. We praised their courageous past struggle, but we were afire with future possibilities.
The time was just before the fires in the streets of the mid-'60s, but we read Langston Hughes' "Christ in Alabama," a poem of irony inspired by the thought of how Christ, with no human father, would be accepted were he born in the South of a black mother. It ended:
Most Holy Bastard
Of the bleeding mouth
On the Cross of the South!
Our mothers were as stunned at using such words to describe Christ as were the white Southerners who had heard Hughes read the poem many years before. They preferred Hughes' poem "The Negro Mother," with lines that read:
God put a dream like steel in my soul
Now, through my children, I'm reaching my goal
Now, through my children, young and free
I realize the blessings denied to me . . . .
Now it is Easter, 1983. I expect the sun to come up bright and shining tomorrow, though somewhat dimmed because two-thirds of the players in that Easter past are dead.
Although their long, dark climb fuels us all today, it's difficult to recapture the love and perplexity with which I left these mothers some 20 years ago. There has been a break in the chain. I bolted from that religious tradition that in my mind placed undue emphasis on the hereafter and not enough on the hereandnow. I understood that the church was the center of social and cultural as well as religious life for these mothers. I rejected the rigidity of such an organized religion for myself but not belief in a higher power.
The chain is even weaker with my own children. Our fiercely argued compromise for them was a liberal religion with freedom of beliefs. They don't reel off de rigueur verses and books of the Bible. But life doesn't go backward or linger with the past, and I hope that in their loss of rote they have gained a newer perspective.
Still, I have my hopes for them like the mothers of old. I want their life to include spiritual as well as intellectual and emotional growth, and I want their search to end with finding God within themselves, which really is not so far from what the mothers of old believed. We all wish our children to develop into mature people who influence the world, create love and expand the meaning of humankind.
In "The Color Purple," Alice Walker has a nonconformist character named Shug, who says it all: "The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it . . . . God ain't a he or a she, but a It . . . . I believe God is everything . . . . Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you've found it."