I’m sad to say my Grandfather, Reverend William Childress, passed away today. It’s hard to say exactly how much of an influence my Paw was on my life: when I was younger, there was no one in the world more important in my eyes, and even into adulthood he’s been a watermark for me. I’ve learned everything I know about being a good man from his example, and I miss him deeply already. This afternoon has been a flood of remembering our time together.
I recalled this rushed short story I had scribbled out a few years ago. It’s still very unfinished and breathless, but it feels like tonight is the night to post it here, warts and all.
“Aaron, will you lead us in prayer?” I could sense the pride in my grandfather’s question, and I knew the satisfaction he’d get in watching me bow my head with three generations of family surrounding.
My legs dangled from the chair, only a few inches of space between scuffed sneakers and the worn warped hardwood of the dining room floor, a room full of the smell of cornbread and linens and the anticipation of forks and knives and the clatter of plates and the sound of ball bearings twisting in the spin of the Lazy Susan.
But for now the room was silent in waiting. It was a simple task, something I could recite as effortlessly as the Lord’s Prayer — words that tumbled from my lips as they had since I was old enough to recreate them. I closed my eyes nightly in my bed at home, spilling that God was great and God was good while my eyes grew accustomed to the dark. I held hands with my parents at the table and uttered to heaven in a breathless cadence over the sound of the Channel 9 news. But here, in this room, there was no beginning to my prayer — no sucking in of breath before the capital letters, no first thanks or simple summary, no name for God.
The stillness split with a weathered voice: “Heavenly Father…”
The manse echoed with the humid stress of August and the sound of prayer. My mother’s quiet face was cast downward as the preacher’s daughter should do; my great-uncle clutched the frame of the kitchen door, and my grandfather delivered the words in a patient baritone, worn and familiar.
This voice was one I heard only in prayer or pulpit — half-sung in waltz time, like an orator reading slowly from the pages of a book too delicate to open completely. It was a sound passed down through four generations of Presbyterian ministers, generations who had built the barn in the Johnny field, this old house, and seven stone churches in the Virginia mountains.
The foundation was settled against a slab of Virginia mountain stone. It was the same stone that my great grandfather had helped pull from the ground to build church houses. I found it hard to imagine there was even sediment between the foundation and the bedrock.
Later, once the plates were clean, I slipped out the screen door and crossed through the rusted barbed-wire behind the pump house, prying apart the burnt orange wire with my clean thumbs. I wandered into the brush, away from the house, through thickets of brambles that snagged my shoelaces and scratched at my jeans. And I considered how I should have begun the prayer: how many seconds of silence were enough, how much sound to make as I parted my dry lips, what to give thanks for.
Nested among the pines I found my great-grandfather’s vineyard, a solitary Muscadine coiled between two wooden crosses. It was entangled intricately amongst itself, forming sinew around a skeleton of taut silver wire, the scent of wine heavy in the underbrush. I crawled into it, and I picked through listlessly as the fruit stained my fingers.
And I brushed the soil away to find the root. It’s veins were spread wide and thin under the soil. There were decades under my fingernails as I realized the intricate span of the vine around me; years spent clutching permanence, covering the first lengths and turning once again towards the elusive sunlight that scattered into shadows through the canopy.
Looking back, I think of names, how there is no name for the smell of that vine, no name for the quiet hum in its shelter — and I recognize that I still have no name for the mystery of God that feels big enough.
As the summer evening settled into the valley, my father smoked a cigarette in the stale northern shadow of the house, and my grandfather – still silent in prayer – watched me from the weathered stone porch.
Love you, Paw.