What I see as a child on my way to church with my grandparents: dead barns, CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO faded into the gray wood. Also: Southern Indiana hills, knobs, knolls, ancient ripples where glaciers halted at the Ohio. What I see at my grandparentsâ€™ church: an Appalachian diaspora. Millions fled the mountains mid-century during the so-called Great Migration, headed northâ€”to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago, big industrial Midwest cities holding out the promise of employment. My grandpa, one among the millions, moved his family to Louisville, where he worked for General Electric until he retired. Now heâ€™s a preacher: Full Gospel.
Whole Appalachian suburbs dot the north, pockets of mountain folk finding each other far from home. The church voices of old people here: like banjos now as they praise the lord.
The church itself shinesâ€”a great geodesic dome Grandpa helped click together from a kit, piece by pieceâ€”skylights placed to catch the sun in shafts and beams that touch the sheen of his polished podium.
The congregation: serene old people bow their heads, quiet. But when Grandpa gets excited and the shafts of light scream, these old people get up, they dance, my grandma weeping, red-faced, waving her hand above her like a confused, grievous beauty queen. This is the most frightening thing Iâ€™ve ever seen.
When my brother Jonathan has a psychotic break at 14 years old, Grandma believes itâ€™s the devil inside him, demons in the rap music he listens to. She calls the devil Old Scratch, a mountain name. The congregation prays for him.
On holidays, grandpa says grace before we eat. We stand in a circle, hold hands, aunts and unclesâ€”alcoholics, drug addicts, long-lapsed Christiansâ€”my rough-and-tumble cousins putting on their straight pious faces, my mom cozy in her Touched-By-an-Angel theology, her Thomas-Kincaid-printed dreams.
My dad, who grew up in the city across the river, taught my brothers and me how to be ironic about God: being Catholic, this came easy to him. But his face in prayer is serious and quiet, too.
Grandpa begins grace with a deep bass Lord, and Grandma sprinkles a high lonesome Jesus here and there into the prayer: the name lisps, Jesus, a whisper, Jesus, the name on her teeth cutting through all irony. Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.
I learned quite young to make my brothers laugh by imitating Grandma. We played video games, and when I won, I whispered the same sincere Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Now during grace I look up at Jonathan, who is red-faced, eyes clenched tight.
When my cousin David dies, we try to make each other laugh. Itâ€™s our way of dealing with the death of someone so young. My aunt takes pills, my uncle starts drinking again, my mother makes food nobody eats.
And there at the funeral home, I say it, my father and brothers and me gathered in a small circle in the corner: Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Jonathan, who has been released from the hospital to attend the funeral, laughs loud and canâ€™t stop, a frenzied laughter, worried laughter, his eyes frightened and begging me. He clenches his fists, pounds his thighs.
When the others look at us, huddled in our safe corner, I put my hand on Jonathanâ€™s shoulder, think Iâ€™m sorry, say Shh, think, David, this isnâ€™t happiness, I swear, say Itâ€™s okay, think These are our tears.
Bio:Â J.D. Schraffenberger is the associate editor of the North American Review and an assistant professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is responsible for the book of poems Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan), and his other work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Mid-American Review, Natural Bridge, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. â€œFull Gospelâ€ previously appeared in Brevity and was reprinted in Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 1.