Sunday, November 12, 2006

Saying Grace

There are cadences of the voice that I can mimic but not duplicate, and one of them is the sound of my great grandfather saying grace. He ran a chain of grocery stores in the Twenties and Thirties, so his table was abundant even in difficult times. He knew of his fortune and expressed his gratitude mainly at suppertime, when he asked those gathered to bow their heads in prayer.

I knew him much later in life, when his fortunes had not exactly turned, but at least abated. Danville, Virginia was not the same town in 1975 that it had been in 1920, and from the looks of things it had hardly been a metropolis even at the height of its long tobacco boom. The old house smelled of smoke, but not whiskey (unlike the home of my grandfather, where bourbon was drunk in copious quantities starting around breakfast). It scared me, that home. It had stern Victorian turns, stairs that were forbidden to me, twisted, aggressive lamps. I tended to sink myself into a large chair and watch the football on the occasions we visited, which were not many.

One of the reasons my grandfather was an alcoholic (I suspect) was that his father was a zealot of temperance. My great grandfather's face was as foreboding as his abode, and his God was a vengeful one who did not suffer the little children much latitude. By the time I encountered him age had desiccated him, leaving him with little of his earlier brimstone. He made clear, however, that he was a force in the world because he was on the side of the righteous, and that those who would be righteous (or those, like me, who didn't know good from evil) would do well to do what he said.

Yet, when we bowed our heads in prayer, this awesome God softened, as if He, too, could smell the mashed potatoes and gravy, the black-eyed peas, the butter in the biscuits. "Lord, we thank You for the bounty we are about to receive," (a pause for breath – my great grandfather was a conductor of words). "We ask that you bless this food to our bodies, oh Lord, that we may do Your work, and that Your divine grace may fulfill us all the day long." Nobody talks like this. It was as captivating to me as any record. I could even hear the capital letters. "Bless our families oh Lord and keep them safe in their travels," (me! I got that he was talking about me) "and guide them in their lives as You guide us now."

A convention has developed in my family, for even today when we say the blessing we follow the form dictated by my great grandfather, that at this juncture in the prayer some pro forma mention be made of the less fortunate. I cannot now say if that was a later emendation or if it was in the original text. My great grandfather pulled around the corner and quoth: "In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen," and the rest of us amened in unison.

I think even then I was suspicious of God, or at least of invoking the name. He was an instrument of shame, and the effect on my grandfather (forever ashamed of himself, apologetic, secretive, and inadequate before the menacing deacon) only became clear to me later in life. But the artfulness of language still resonates with me, as do the smells of ham and cigarettes, the sonority of Virginia accents, and the chords of voices joined in grace.

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