In the tiny country church where I spent most of the first 22 years of my life — where I found the Lord at the age of 11; where, without fail, I had the lead role in every Christmas pageant; and where my daddy laid down the law in more ways than one — we sang hymns from a brown songbook and a green one that were filled with the haunting melodies that have penetrated the Appalachians for many decades.
I can close my eyes and still hear those mournful ballads like “Angel Band” or “Just As I Am.” With either my eyes closed or open, I can see the teary-eyed look in Daddy’s green eyes as he sat on the front pew and sang, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a heart-wrenching song written by Thomas Dorsey, a blues singer from Atlanta, who penned it after suffering the loss of his wife and son during childbirth. It was Daddy’s favorite song, so we sang it at his funeral.
One day a few years ago, I heard Darrell Waltrip, a NASCAR great and a longtime friend, singing that song in the kitchen when I was visiting him and Stevie. Darrell sings a lot. He loves music, especially country and gospel.
“That was my daddy’s favorite song,” I said quietly, softened by the memories it evoked.
He smiled and said, “It’s mine, too. My favorite hymn.”
So now, whenever I hear that song, I think first of Daddy and then of Darrell, and then I recall that it wasn’t just Daddy’s funeral where we sang that song. We sang at my brother’s and then at Mama’s six weeks later. The melody is woeful, but the words are full of promise and, even on a sad occasion, they are comforting.
In that little church of my childhood was a woman named Eunice Edge, who wasn’t a regular churchgoer but came plenty enough. She was — in the most amusing, likeable way — a character. She favored flowing dresses or skirts that she often paired with a long, well-worn cardigan and always with white bobby socks and loafers. She loved to let out big belly laughs while she slapping friends on the back with a powerful arm that would send a kid like me flying several feet forward. She and her husband, Bartow, had an old black pickup truck from the 1940s that hiccupped and jerked as Eunice, who always drove, put it into gear and took a nice roll down the long, steep driveway of the church.
And though I remember her vividly and fondly, what I remember most is Eunice’s favorite church song: “This World Is Not My Home.” Page 16 in the brown book. Whenever Eunice was at church, she would speak up in her long, country drawl and say, “Sing my song. ‘This World Is Not My Home,’ because it ain’t.”
That is the power of songs. They stick to the memory like a piece of chewing gum stuck to the underneath of a table. It would take some powerful doing to pull them away. They can take us back to a first date, a memorable prom or a raw emotion. Or a little white clapboard country church surrounded by piney woods and oak trees.
My husband hears me tell a story in which I mention a perennial funeral favorite of the Appalachians: “Precious Memories.” He had never heard it. When he asked for a good album of hymns he could download to his iPod, I suggested country singer Alan Jackson’s album. Every day as he dresses, I hear that album playing loudly, and now he sings along. He, who spent his childhood in Connecticut and most of his adult life in California, knows every word. More often than not, he comes down the stairs singing, “Precious Memories.”
And I realize it is, indeed, for now and forever, a most precious memory.