Church Sunday. You can buy the audio file here:
Church Sunday. You can buy the audio file here:
By Bronwyn Chester in the Montréal Gazette
“Church Sunday” is a more resolved story. A young girl in Toronto accompanies her Granny, visiting from St. Vincent, to church and learns what it means to give. The old woman “hated the Methodist church, it made her fall asleep. She said there were too many white people and she couldn’t stand the organ music that was played with more than one mistake.”
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I held my Granny’s hand as we walked down the street to the church on the last Sunday. We were on a northbound Toronto street heading uphill to an eastbound avenue. The bakery behind us was masking the smell of garbage as we passed by the stuffed green and black bags balanced on the curb. Sweat spotted my temples. It was hot for an August morning before global warming. Ever since Granny had come from St.Vincent & the Grenadines, It was like she had brought the heat with her. I couldn’t remember a hotter summer. She was panting with every step. She never wanted to admit that the walk to the church was hard for her, so she complained about everything else instead.
“All this hardness does hurt me feet,” she said, pounding a foot on the concrete like I didn’t know that it was hard.
“Do you want to walk on the grass?”
“Da grass kills bugs,” she said pointing to the pesticide sign. “Me nah want me feet pun dat.”
I sighed. “Do you want me to carry you?”
“I too fat. You would die from me weight.”
Granny laughed softly at her comment. We were at the candy store on the top of the hill, where the long-leg man once lived. The man owned a store on the first floor of his house and he had one leg longer than the other. He said it was because he had “one foot in the grave.” My bike gang and I used to hang outside of his store and he would chase us away, telling us we were bad for business. I never really understood that because we were usually the only ones who ever came into the store. We thought for sure he was rich from the profit of selling Popeye cigarettes 20 cents more than anybody else. But, the store was empty now, so I bought my candy from across the street. The building was waiting for a new owner, and I just hoped whoever it was would treat the neighbourhood kids better.
This being Granny’s fourth Sunday in Toronto, it was only the fourth time I saw Granny wearing a dress where the colours were not faded. The lace-trimmed neckline was scooped low enough to see her gold cross pendant. This Sunday, Granny’s dress was in yellow and kept her bosom in place. She wore her shined white shoes which she worked to keep clean by sidestepping a few pothole puddles from last night’s rain. She had a white handbag to match, and in her other hand was her Holy Bible with its black cover and words in gold.
Granny’s hair was free from the green and gold scarf she usually wore and was pressed and curled up at the ends. The only everyday-thing that Granny wore on Sundays was her knee-highs, the same brown ones she wore every day, no matter how hot it was.
“Ya legs just can’t be naked, gal,” she told me as she insisted I wear stockings.
An hour after Granny arrived; she spent 10 minutes giving me and my mother the mangoes and pomegranates she had smuggled through customs. She also asked me about school, although I wasn’t even in school. Then she spent 50 minutes filling my mother in on all the gossip on every Vincentian my mother did and didn’t know. With her last word on whether or not my Auntie Pansy was going crazy because she kept her Christmas tree up all year. Granny congratulated my mother on divorcing my father and asked where the church was. I had stopped going to church years ago, but I went on holidays with my mother.
My mother sent Granny to our Easter and Christmas church, a Methodist one which we needed to take a “nasty bus” as Granny called it. Sunday was the only day my mother got to sleep more than four hours, so she forced me to go with Granny. Now I was stuck with this Sunday chore.
Granny hated the Methodist church, it made her fall asleep. She said there were too many white people and she couldn’t stand organ music that was played with more than one mistake. The Monday after that first Sunday, when the sun was burning at the top of the sky, she said she was going for a walk. She didn’t come back till the moon was up. But, she found a Black Baptist church which was walking distance from my mother’s house.
“We naw need to step on dat nasty bus, Susan,” she said.
She grinned, but her plate wasn’t in so I could see her tongue through the spaces in her teeth.
“The bus isn’t that bad, Granny,” I said.
“Too many white people.”
Granny just wasn’t used to white people like I was. Granny had been to every Caribbean country, to Brazil, Panama, and she had even been to Ghana, but this was her first time in a country north of the equator. My mother had lived in Canada for over 20 years, and even she still wasn’t used to white people. She always complained about them at work. About how they would ask her stupid questions about the food she brought for lunch, and about her hair.
Now Granny was here to help my mother complain about white people. Granny had been diagnosed with breast cancer before I even understood what it was. In June, her doctors removed a breast six days before her 75th birthday. My mother sent her a card with an airline ticket in it.
The Baptist church on Davenport was brown brick with three floors under a black roof. Like every Sunday, we saw a black woman standing outside the door. She only had one leg, her right one, and she had a crutch under her left arm. I occasionally sneaked some looks at her; I didn’t want her to think I was staring. She had a red scarf wrapped around her head, and tufts of kinky hair sticking out. As we approached I stared at her right ear. It was the only part of her skin which was white. On our first church Sunday I asked Granny why the woman’s ear was like that.
“That show how these white people here are just hole’ in her by de ear,” she said.
I laughed and asked my mother when we got home.
“Must be some kind of burn or something or frostbite. That kind of thing can take the colour right out of you,” my mother said.
The woman with the crutch had a blue furry coat on, and the fur was wearing away at her elbows. I wondered why she wasn’t fainting from the heat. Her face was dry. Her cheeks were plump and the skin looked grey and cracked. Her cheeks were so high on her face that her eyes seemed to squint as if they were trying to see over them. The coat hung to her waist and a white skirt blew around her leg from the breeze. It was sheer and I could see her red underwear and the stump of her left leg. Her foot was bare and her toes curled and bent against the concrete. On the ground by her foot were pink stains and a Popsicle stick. The ants were crawling onto her toes, but she didn’t seem to mind it.
“Honey, how ya feeling?” Granny asked the woman.
I pulled at Granny’s arm, hoping she would walk past the woman, ignoring her. Granny’s the first person who I had ever seen talking to a street person. The woman smiled at Granny without showing her teeth. She held out her hand to us, her eyes fixed on our shoes. Granny opened her purse and gave the woman $5.00. She had given the woman $10.00 last week.
“Sorry, I don’t have a lickle bit more today, sweetheart.”
The woman closed her hand around the five and kept staring at the ground.
The woman said nothing; she didn’t even look at Granny. I pressed Granny’s hand and pulled her through the church doors, relieved to get away from her.
“Granny you shouldn’t give people like that so much of your money,” I said once we were behind the church doors. “You just don’t know what they’ll do with it.”
Every other time I said that to Granny she just ignored me. That day she told me that she should take me back to St. Vincent with her. There was no way I would allow that to happen. I had been to St.Vincent before, and it was hot and boring, and even their big city called Kingstown was rural.
Granny and I found a pew near the front. She needed to get up close to see. The church was packed. Those Sundays were among the few times in my life when I saw so many black people all in the same place. I was in awe.
When the choir and band started, there was hardly enough room to dance in the pew. I didn’t mind so much going to this church because of the choir and the band. Every church song was uplifted with the pounding of a piano, a few saxophone solos and a drum beat. The choir would do `Four Tops’ moves to the music, raising their hands when they sang “up” and hugging themselves when they sang “Jesus loves me, this I know”. That band played the songs of God so well, every butt got out of its seat and wiggled to the beat. Granny shook her butt and her yellow dress just shimmied. She raised her arms up to her bosom and she clapped so hard the wind from her hands made the feather on her hat wave. Granny’s voice was so good; she should have been in the choir. When she sang, her top lip would curl, looking like it was trying to reach her nose, but it never did. Her lip curled like that when she smiled too. My lip curls like that too when I smile. I don’t really like to dance in public, but even I shook my shoulders and shuffled my feet a bit.
When the music stopped it was time for the preacher to speak. He waited for everybody to catch their breath. When he started, he spoke louder than the music, to keep people awake I figured. Occasionally Granny would scream “Amen” to things the preacher said or stand-up and yell “Yesuh.” Other older men and women would do this too. When the preacher read from the scriptures, Granny opened up her Holy Bible, extending it to me so we could follow along together. I pretended to follow, but I just stared at the page and yawned. Once my yawning started, it wouldn’t stop. Granny stared at the preacher like he was Moses walking on water. It was the look in her eyes that made me not tell her that I smelled liquor on the preacher’s breath when he kissed me on the cheek when I first met him.
After the service, Granny said goodbye to the preacher. Walking out of the church always seemed difficult for her, but this time was worse. She dragged her feet, still singing the church songs softly to herself. The walk back was faster going downhill. We crossed the street and came to the shortcut leading to the block of townhouses where I lived. Granny stopped walking.
“I don’t have me Bible.”
I looked at her, all over her. “Are you sure? Check your purse.”
“I know I don’t have me Bible,” she said without checking her purse. “I must have left it at de church.”
I didn’t want to go all the way back there, especially with how slow Granny walked. Also, I couldn’t wait to get home. I was breathing heat.
“Lawd, Richard done give me dat Bible. I can’t lose it.”
Richard was my grandfather who I had never even met. He died two years before I was born.
“Okay, Granny, just go home,” I said and turned around. “I’ll run back and get it for you.”
I was already running when I heard her thanking me. Once I reached the candy store, I was panting out so much hot air I stopped. I got to the church doors so quick it surprised me. I had never realized how close the church was without walking with Granny. I could hear singing inside and guessed it was the choir practicing. I didn’t want to disturb them so I tried to enter quietly.
I noticed then how big the room was without all those people in it. When I glanced on the small stage where the choir was, nobody was there. But in a front pew, I saw the back of the woman with the crutch.
“Jesus loves me, this I know . . . ” she sang.
One hand was grasped around the crutch, and the other was suspended in the air, the fingers wiggling double time to her singing.
“. . .cuz the Bible tells me so. . .”
She shook her hips, leaning on the crutch. She would occasionally stick out her bum and shake it.
I didn’t know what to do. I tried to look around to see if I saw the Bible anywhere near, but I knew I might have to come right behind the woman to get it. I thought about coming back, but I didn’t want Granny’s Bible to get stolen. Who would take a Bible in a church, I asked myself. I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe somebody could.
I kept taking a few steps forward, then stopping, hoping the woman wouldn’t turn around. The closer I got to her, the more my stomach was knotting. I didn’t want to see her. I was halfway there, wondering whether I should just wait outside until I saw her leave. She stopped dancing and turned around.
I looked past her.
“I’m sorry,” I said, darting my eyes to her. “My Granny forgot something.”
I wanted to dash to find the Bible, get it and just run away. The woman shifted her weight on the crutch and bent forward. She was trying to pick up something from the seat in front of her. It was the Bible. It took a while for her to grasp the book without dropping it. She held it out to me.
I came close enough to smell the scent of the streets from her. I felt a sickness in my throat. I held my breath and grabbed the book from her. I darted my eyes to her, her eyes were squinty, but I knew she was staring at me.
Then she held out her hand.
I didn’t have a purse or any pockets. I didn’t have anything to give her.
“I’m sorry,” I said and I ran out of the church.
I didn’t care that the sweat stung my eyes as I ran home. I approached the house and saw Granny out on the veranda, sitting on a mahogany chair.
“Why you crying, gal,”
“I’m not,” I said wiping my face.
“Something did trouble ya.”
She wouldn’t let me go inside until I told her. I sat in a lawn chair with purple and green stripes. I had the Holy Bible in my hand. When I finished telling her, she took the Bible from me and held it in the air, shaking it.
“You should have given her de Bible,” she said.