It is part of the task of being a Christian to bear witness to what Christ has done in our lives. Every Christian is an epiphany, you might say. Some (All Saints) the Church recognizes as major canonical epiphanies, others (All Souls) are minor, almost accidental epiphanies, most of whom aren’t even aware of how helpful their example has been to those who knew them.
On this All Souls Day, I was thinking of my grandmother and grandfather. In fact, it was while thinking of my visits with Howard Thurman that I was reminded of them, because many years ago I wrote a poem that was, in part, about my grandmother. But it was mostly about an old black man I had known as a child. I presented the poem to Howard Thurman on one of my visits with him with some trepidation, for in the poem I used the word nigger, in keeping with the casual racism of the world in which I was raised. I was greatly relieved when Dr. Thurman read the poem and said: “It had to be said that way.”
So here is my All Souls Day tribute to a man I barely knew and a grandmother who left an indelible imprint on me, in gratitude for the example they gave me.
JAKELate tonight or at the crack of dawn tomorrow, before Liz and I leave for the hospital, I will post another poem, likewise written many years ago, about my grandfather.
He left Niggertown like it was Kingdom come
To make a living doing what needed done.
Before he knocked on doors, he took his hat
In those enormous hands, then turned and spat
Tobacco hard at yet another gutter.
Said: “Hello Miss Dixie” . . . my grandmother . . .
“Jake,” from behind the old screen door,
“It’s the yard needs mowing and a chore
Or two after that: cut the honeysuckle vine;
Lose your temper on it, Jake, and if there’s time
Trim the hedge, and keep this child outdoors,
He loves to watch, while I sweep and mop the floors.”
And so I’d spend an occasional summer day
Being Jake’s best friend who’d overheard hearsay
Yet knew that he was really brown, not black,
And good and kind and had a Negro knack
For fixing everything that needed fixed.
I never knew I loved him; I was six,
But hope he knew, though he’s been dead these many years,
What it meant when he took out those shears
To cut the hedge and gave me a man to see,
And let me run to fetch the ice and tea,
Sit next to him, and while he’d slowly quench
His measure of his worth: his thirst, I’d inch
A little closer: “It’s hot Jake, huh?” I’d say.
He’d mumble: “God made it that-a’way;
It’s up to us to love the way it’s made;
He’ll give us a little tea and ice and shade.”
And when the tea was gone, I’d grab the rake,
Helping out again my old friend Jake.
I guess I was too busy to notice when
Months passed, Jake didn’t come round again.
Grandmother Dixie O’Connor went away a died,
And some of those tears I finally cried
Were for the quiet old occasional friend
Who took Miss Dixie’s place now and then:
He had even let me wear his smelly hat,
And though he rarely talked, I remember that
He’d pat me on the head and almost smile,
As to say: “Not now, I’ll tell you afterwhile.”
One summer he came to call me by my name.
I leapt alive the way the preachers claim
You’re supposed to do when, despite the Fall,
God’s big enough to love you after all.
Please keep Liz in your prayers.