Church Sign

The Middle Distance 3.29.13: Anthems of the Resurrection

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by Sean Cayton

Last Sunday, Christian churches around the world remembered Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. Revelers along the road spread palm fronds and, according to the New Testament, many laid their coats on the road to make a path for this unlikely king who broke all the rules of protocol, hanging out with beggars and thieves and women. Less than a week later, he would drag a heavy wooden cross to the site of his own crucifixion.

I was raised in a Southern Baptist church on Bible drills and songs and keen attention to the pageantry of Holy Week. On Easter, the congregation was a field of pink and yellow hats and dresses, the choir quaking with magnificent anthems of the resurrection. On Good Friday, I fully expected the sun to go dark at 3 in the afternoon. On Palm Sunday, I was struck less by those palm fronds than the people who laid down their coats on the road, a gesture that puzzled me and engendered wonder.

Across town, literally on the other side of the tracks, my grandfather founded a church focused less on the pomp and pageantry of the Christian calendar and more on the teachings of Jesus, ministering to the poor and outcast. Most Sundays, and certainly Easter Sunday, we had a massive dinner at Granddaddy’s house after church. My mother and Great Aunt Ida bustled around the kitchen getting things ready while we waited for Granddaddy who visited the county jail after services each Sunday.

Aunt Ida filled her mismatched bowls and serving platters with ham and potato salad, green beans, homemade biscuits, and a quivering mound of jewel-toned Jello studded with fruit cocktail from a can. She was a tiny woman armed with a serving spoon ever aimed at your plate, insisting you needed more.

After Sunday dinner, we often loaded into the station wagon and made the hour-long drive across the Kentucky-Tennessee border to visit our other grandfather, who lived out in the country on a dirt road that marked the edge of the known world. On two-lane highways, we wound through the curves and hills, drunk with the combination of dinner settling in our stomachs and rolling motion, the incantation of black-and-white road signs: Do Not Pass. Pass With Care.

One Sunday afternoon we are nearly to the point in the highway where we turn off on the dirt road to our grandfather’s house with its raised porch and dusty yard and flurry of chickens. It is a chilly, wet day following a night of thunderstorms. We pass a side street with modest brick houses set on big square lots, and there in the middle of the street is what looks like a coat laid on the road. More than one of us yells at my father to stop. There’s something in the road, we tell him. It looks like a coat in the road. There are no other cars on this remote stretch, so my father turns around easily, palming the big steering wheel.

We turn onto the side street and as our steaming station wagon draws nearer, we can see that there is a person wrapped in this coat, with skin the dusty matte purple of plums. My father rolls down his window and lights a cigarette. He looks at the coat in the road and the person inside it and says: “Looks like a dead nigger to me.” What happens next is not clear but I believe he goes into a nearby house and calls the police. The person in the coat is not dead, it turns out, just unconscious.

Eventually we roll away and turn down the dirt road, gravel spitting out behind the back tires. We arrive at my grandfather’s house and are ushered in from the cold to the wavy heat of the coal fireplace. My sisters and brother and I stare into it, drawing as close to the flame as we can, while across the room our father tells the story of what we saw on the road as if it’s a funny story, but I know it is not. It is a horror story that I will keep secret and try to forget for the next 40 years until finally I get up the nerve to ask my sister if she remembers it.

“Oh my God, yes,” she says. A key turns, unlocking shame and fear, and I can see the woman inside the coat, dressed in her Sunday best, her pocketbook on her chest, just beyond the pale curve of dark memory.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

3 Responses to The Middle Distance 3/29/13: Anthems of the Resurrection

  1. rose enyeart says:

    Some things don’t erase.

  2. Jacy Doumas says:

    Kathryn Eastburn – thank you for sharing your writing, this poignant and painful memory and poetically reminding us to open the eyes of our hearts.

  3. Cate Noyes Boddington says:

    Brave and balanced story,Kathryn- the honor accorded to the” story” of a gentle, loving, fair man like Jesus versus the disgrace to a actual live woman of color- two stories of coats in the road…powerful and shocking.

News

AP
November 24, 2014 | NPR · Spiritual leaders are praying for calm, but preparing for everything, as they wait for a grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown.
 

AP
November 24, 2014 | NPR · The news comes as troops pull out of Afghanistan and begin a new offensive against the Islamic State. The New York Times cites officials saying that fight would “demand a different kind of focus.”
 

AP
November 24, 2014 | NPR · The two sides had set a deadline of today to hammer out a deal, curbing Iran’s nuclear programs. Instead, Western powers and Iran agreed to a second extension of talks.
 

Arts & Life

HBO
November 23, 2014 | NPR · Nash says it took her a long time to see her comedic side as a gift, but she finally embraced it. Now her role as Nurse DiDi in the HBO comedy series has opened the door to more serious opportunities.
 

Courtesy of Tony Little
November 23, 2014 | NPR · The muscle man with the ponytail was once on track to become Mr. America. But a car accident shattered Tony Little’s hopes of competing. Just when he hit rock bottom, he got a life-changing idea.
 

DreamWorks Animation
November 23, 2014 | NPR · Tom McGrath, an executive producer of Penguins of Madagascar who also co-directed the first three films in the franchise, says he came to voice the part of the penguin Skipper kind of by accident.
 

Music

Courtesy of the artist
November 24, 2014 | NPR · The Super Furry Animals frontman’s new multimedia project explores the improbable and fantastic history of his 18th-century ancestor, John Evans. Oh, and there are unicorns.
 

Courtesy of the artist
November 23, 2014 | NPR · Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward cover pop standards with the timeless impeccability for which they’re known. Once again, Ward hovers mostly in the background, leaving Deschanel to steal the playful show.
 

Courtesy of the artist
November 23, 2014 | NPR · Folk heroes Richard and Linda Thompson split up, creatively and romantically, in the early 1980s. Now their son Teddy has brought them together — along with other family members — for a new album.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab