By Sean Dietrich
A few years ago. A secluded country highway. Lots of farms, silos and flat nothingness.
My wife was driving. We were on our way home. We’d been out of town for days. We’d stayed in cheap hotels, ate crummy food, we were wearing and re-wearing our clothes.
It was Easter Sunday morning. We were tired. We had almost forgotten it was a holiday because being on the road too long will do that to you.
That’s when we kept noticing all the country churches along the highway. At each one were swarms of automobiles in each parking lot. People in pastel colors.
My wife said, “Look at all the cars.”
And I felt very guilty. My wife and I were both raised under a strict religious regime. To forget Easter was like forgetting to buy your mother a greeting card for Billy Graham’s birthday.
So we pulled over at a church. The building sat next to a large soybean field. Church people were staring at our car.
“What’re we doing?” I asked my wife.
“Well, we can’t skip Easter,” she said.
“We look like two hobos,” I said. “I’m wearing a T-shirt, I probably smell bad.”
“We can’t skip Easter,” she pointed out again.
So we hiked up the steps into the little chapel. An elderly greeter adjusted his hearing aid and handed us a bulletin. He glanced at my wife’s ratty attire. T-shirt. Jeans. Flops.
By Southern Baptist Convention rules, this was grounds for public execution. I’ve lost many good friends whose bodies were never found when they appeared in church without cuff links.
We wandered toward a pew. We sat in the back. The lady next to me was elderly. She looked like every church woman you’ve ever known. Sky blue dress. White hair. I spoke to her to break the ice. She ignored me. I felt so ashamed.
Was it the way I smelled? Did I offend? I sniffed my armpits.
Truthfully, I would have rather been anywhere else than here. I was tired. I wanted to be home, sitting on my sofa, eating takeout ribs, watching TV. A cold beer wouldn’t have hurt.
When the sanctuary filled up – maybe thirty-five people total – we stood. We sang. I could feel everyone rubbernecking, looking at the young couple in T-shirts.
The old woman did not sing, nor did she look at me.
There was a big white screen behind the pulpit and a projector broadcasting the lyrics. There was a man on playing guitar with a headset mic, which was sort of bizarre. In my childhood, piano and organ ruled the world. There were no Garth Brooks microphones.
When the singing ended, the old woman sat down and got her purse ready. I knew what was coming next. The Offertory. This is the part of service where the most talented individual takes stage and sings their butt off. If they are good at what they do, God willing, parishioners will put an extra ten in the plate.
The ushers passed plates. I put in a few ones. My wife gave me an angry look that could have killed small woodland creatures. So I tossed in a twenty.
The young lady who sang was high school age. She performed sign language along with her music. It took me back to the times when I used to sing in church.
I grew up singing for offertories. I was painfully shy. I was a bad singer. I hated crowds. I was a perfect fit.
I would close my eyes when I sang. I had a little body quirk when I sang. My eyes would roll back into my head and my eyelids would open so that all you could see the whites of my eyes.
When this happened, my friends on the front pew would whisper things like: “Look! It’s the girl from the ‘Exorcist!’” And if any church ladies nearby heard this, these boys would disappear and never be seen again until their 45 birthday.
The girl singing was poised and beautiful. Her song was done so well that a few people stood when she hit the final chorus. One man in the front row stood and lifted both hands. We call these the Hallelujah Field Goal Hands.
When she finished, the applause lasted for maybe a full minute. Baptists support their own. The girl left the stage and sat next to the old lady. They held each other’s arms. I didn’t even pay attention to the sermon because I am a people-watcher, and these two fascinated me.
When service was over, the old woman stood onto shaky knees, the young singer held her for support. The lady began walking away and I stopped her. I just couldn’t let it go. So I wished the old woman a happy Easter.
The woman looked at me with a blank face. The young girl translated my words into sign language. The woman smiled big. She said to me in a loud voice, “HE IS RISEN!”
And I gave her the same Easter response I’ve been giving since I was a child. Then we hugged. It was like we’d known each other all our lives. She was so tiny. And I was so underdressed.
Afterward, my wife and I crawled into our vehicle. We didn’t say anything for a few minutes. We had that sort of glow you have when you win a baseball game, or when you see the Grand Canyon for the first time.
“Happy Easter,” my wife said to me.
“Yeah,” I said. “It sure was.”
Then my wife held my hand. With a gentle smile, she said, “I didn’t want to say this to you inside, but you smell like a billy goat.”
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Southern Living, Garden and Gun, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored nine books, and is the creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.