This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine all around. I sang in a small, self-conscious voice, head down, mumbling the words into my chest. There was no choir at the eight o’clock service, making me aware of my own voice; too high and off key. The church was cold and dark except for the flickering of candles. Will, Miles and I sat in the back left, in case the boys couldn’t sit still and we had to leave early. There were empty seats all around. I shivered inside my coat.
“Why is it dark, Mommy?” Will asked.
“I don’t know, baby. Shhhh,” I said. I hadn’t been to church in so long, I wasn’t sure if the church was dark on purpose. I looked around to see if other people looked worried. Like flight attendants on a bumpy flight, they kept their faces calm.
“Come on, you know this song,” I said to Will, giving him a nudge in the back.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine all around, we sang together. As we finished the song the Reverend walked slowly to the middle of the church and apologized for the dark and the cold.
“There’s been some kind of power outage since early this morning,” he said. And just then, the lights blinked on like magic.
“Mom, the lights are on!” Will said. There was an audible sigh of relief and some laughter. The heater hummed as warmth filled the air. I took off our coats and leaned back expectantly in the pew.
* * *
The morning sun was bright as we emerged from the church and the boys blinked, holding their arms against their eyes. They broke away from me, jumping and itching with energy, and skipped toward the car. I took my time, not rushing them. They had been good and I was feeling generous and proud, like I was a good mother. I buckled them in, kissing them and making promises of mini-moon pies from Harris Teeter for dessert that night. As we drove over the James Island connector, the sun shimmered across the water like Christmas lights. Sailboats were tucked neatly into slips at the city marina, their tall, white masts pointing at the sky like picket fence posts stretched across the sea. Will and Miles sat in the back, their small bodies tucked into their carseats. Will squinted in the sunlight and reached for his sunglasses. His face was serious in the rear view mirror.
“You two okay?” I asked. I’d decided to take the boys to church one Sunday each month. My husband and I were married in Grace church, the boys were baptized in Grace, and both were now going to preschool there. My parents were members and served on different church boards. Women I knew volunteered in the nursery and for coffee hour. I used to go to Sunday services before I had the boys. Then I had children and lost my momentum.
“Where does God live, Mommy?” Will asked. I took a deep breath, thinking about how to explain my foggy concept of heaven to a four-year-old.
“Hmmmm,” I started. “Well, God watches over us to keep us safe and healthy and happy.” I knew it was a weak answer. Will was quiet.
“Why were we singing the song about the light, and then the lights came on?” he asked. I sighed, feeling inept.
“Because when you love God, you have a light inside you,” I said. I looked in the rearview mirror. He seemed satisfied.
My own religious education had been sporadic. I grew up in an isolated community at the bottom of Mt. Ascutney in Vermont. My parents were hippies; we lived in the woods, didn’t eat meat and went to Quaker meetings. For a while. Then my parents joined the United Methodist church and suddenly Sunday mornings were about “shoulds”: Dad telling me with a stern face that”should” be getting dressed and I “should” put away my book.
The church was next door to my elementary school, where Lisa and Tiffany compiled a list of our classmates who “hated Amy Stockwell,” and it was small, dark and cold. My parents sang in the six person choir every Sunday, so my sister and I had to sit in a pew by ourselves or go downstairs to the dingy basement with its folding chairs and card tables for “Sunday school.” The year that Dad made us participate in the Christmas pageant, greasy-haired Mary and her brother Robert, who were rumored to engage in incestuous acts, got the good parts. I was stuck being a wise man. When we were older, Dad said we could decide for ourselves about attending church, and I decided not to go. After my parents’ divorce, Dad became disillusioned with organized religion, offered my sister and I some pot, and began to meditate at home.
“Did you like church today, Will?” I asked.
“Yeah, church was great,” he said. I wondered if he was old enough to say things because he wanted to make me happy. I wasn’t sure why it was important for me that the boys went to church at all.
When I moved to the South after college, going to church became cool. Where you went to church was as much an indication of your social standing as your membership to the Junior League or the “Charitable Society” of Charleston. Southern churches were towering structures with floor to ceiling stained glass windows, overflowing designer bouquets of deep blues, dark pinks and bright white flowers. Pews were packed with worshipers wearing coats and ties, dresses and hats with high heels and pantyhose. I sat in the packed pews with my mom and stepdad, feeling underdressed, stumbling over the hymns. I watched the people in the congregation with a writer’s greedy eye, following the bowing of the heads, the kneeling on the crocheted benches. I read the words from the prayer book that I heard behind me, next to me, and in front of me, until I could say them without looking. Until I felt less like an imposter. Eventually, I started going to church without Mom and Charley. I started listening to the sermon and one time, I was sure it was directed at me. I took to repeating the words from that sermon in my head as I ran.
“You are not alone, you are not alone,” I’d chant. And it made me feel better. I wondered if my mom and dad had been trying to feel a part of something, trying to feel not alone when they went to Quaker meetings, sang for the United Methodist church, smoked pot and, finally, chose to be alone instead of together.
The muted, golden-green marsh grass spread out beneath the bridge as the water disappeared in the distance.
“God lives in my heart, Mommy,” Will said. I looked at him, sitting there all serious in his church clothes and dark glasses, his small feet not yet touching the floor. I wondered where he’d come up with the idea.
“Mom,” Will asked, “can we get popsicles at the store?”
“Sure,” I said. And I laughed.
I reached for my boys as we walked toward the store. Their hands were warm and held mine tight, and I was a giant tree, rooted to the ground by their love.