Love Did Not Make Me, but I Am a Fulfillment of It
The First Exodus Holiness Church, one of Savannah’s strangest places of worship, cannot tell visitors of Jesus this morning in its usual fashion. On this day, its old mouth is parched as the mood to profess the gospels as sermon has not struck. Today is for Jesus, as always, but Jesus must play second fiddle to someone else. His message and glory simply weaves its way into the ongoing procession, rather than stand alone as sermon and song on this special celebration of the newly dead. Although from the denizens’ soggy faces, one would think etiquette were merely to weep, as if faith revealed hell fire burns for this pathetic child, blissfully laid up in her beautiful coffin. The burial commences for one of First Exodus’s founding members, Gertrude Josephine Lulabell, who everybody called “Lulu” since she was a small child.
Lulu’s twelve year old granddaughter Caroline sits in the front row besides her grandfather, Rodger. She clutches one of his hands and wipes away the warm tears that fall onto her right leg from Rodger’s chin. He cries like any man married for 30 years, suddenly met with loss: hidden and graceful, a swan bowing its neck at the side of its still companion. The salt and peppered haired gentleman grinds his teeth back and forth, chewing the last words he wishes to yell out to his late wife. His world lively shrieks like an orchestra of cicadas hiding amongst moss covered trees. He answers his granddaughter’s consoling grip with a soft curl of his worn calloused hands. Caroline wipes her irritated eyes. They are red, but tears refuse to fall. She drags her nails along her thigh, a desperate act to inspire suffering. Everyone else weeps gorgeous tears of genuine anguish, but still her tears refuse to fall. Caroline is an outcast. She is unable to even draw upon the emotions of those weeping all around her. Her capacity for empathy is all, but empty at this moment. The weeping of the church family makes up a wall, graffitied by two terrifying phrases: “We loved Lulu more than you”, and “Your tearless face tells of an unholy spirit.”
Caroline is afraid, but still she does not cry for her grandmother. She does not cry for her dear Lulu, though she loves her so very much. Off comes her black sequined hat as she slowly frees her fingers of her grandfather’s soft grip. “Caroline, where are you going?” asks Rodger as she leaps from the harlot lipped cushion of the whiskey hue pew. As she walked around the other side of the pew, she replies, “Granddaddy, I got to use the bathroom. I’ll be back before we go on down to the graveyard.” She enters the center aisle as Rodger scoots down the pew and whispers, “If we already outside, just go on back to the cemetery, alright? Stay on the path Caroline, I mean it. You understand? This ain’t no day for playin’ and I don’t feel like washin no damn clothes when we get on to that house. I don’t want to have to beat your behind today because you got all dirty, ya hear me? Granddaddy don’t feel like that today, baby.” Caroline looks over her shoulder, nodding her head and quietly saying, “Yes sir.”
As she walks past the other pews, she quickens her pace so as not to fall into the muck of the mournful. The small church is uncharacteristically full today, making the possibility all too real. Caroline slowly approaches the double doors, over which a clock and one of six paintings of Jesus hangs. She looks at the clock as she pushes one of the doors open. It was 11:00 AM and the picture of Jesus above it looks even more mournful than usual, as if he too will free up tears from his beautiful flat blue eyes for slumbering Lulu. She approaches the ladies bathroom, and as she puts a hand on the door handle, she hesitates. Her hand waits just above the handle as the door opens and her eyes meet those of an old woman. It is old Ms. Freda, one of Lulu’s sisters of the spirit, Sunday school passenger, and confidant. Ms. Freda’s eyes are blazing and a tear clings to one of her stray chin hairs, like a drop of gathering rainwater ready to fall from overhanging roof shingles. Ms. Freda asks Caroline for a hug, as is the custom of those who offer solace while simultaneously seeking the same. Ms. Freda begins speaking softly to the child as she falls deeper and deeper into her bosom, “Poor baby. Ohh child, God blessed Mrs. Lulu. The church prayed so hard for her to get up out that hospital, but God saw fit to take her to the kingdom, be the will of the lord. She was an angel baby, a real beautiful angel of God. I know’d I did right when I came to the church Mrs. Lulu started. Here is the truth, thank you Jesus. Thank you my master for seeing fit that I make it here this morning, after carrying me for such a long way.” As Ms. Freda opens her arms and turns towards the double doors, she points her bony index finger at Caroline, “God is going to fix it for ya, Caroline. God is going to fix it for ya. Ya come from godly folks, so if ya do right, he’ll fix it. He’ll fix it.”
Caroline nods her head obediently and accompanies the gesture with a quick and quiet “Yes mam” as she returns her hand to the handle. Ms. Freda pushes on one of the double doors and returns to the ceremony at hand. For a brief moment Caroline hears the music playing. She lifts her hand off the bathroom handle, steps towards the double doors, but decides not to and frantically heads for the exit before another person interrupts her. She exits from the red carpeted space and closes the door behind her, exchanging the artificial softness for the comfort of the green perfectly manicured lawn. Caroline looks back over her left shoulder at the church her grandmother helped build, with its stained glass windows, white exterior paint, 2 × 4 cross with purple veil standing amongst the azaleas, and the stately magnolia tree with branches too high up for climbing. Some big white petals lay at the feet of the tree, slightly dusted with golden powder.
She looks at the cross atop the roof and remembers throwing stones up near it to claim another child’s “abandoned” toy as her own. Back then, Caroline wanted the toy so desperately, if only to have fished it from its disuse in a place as exotic as the top of the church roof, somewhere she would never in her lifetime go. Caroline often in her younger years experienced this fervor to lay claim to objects that she understood as “abandoned”, finding toys lodged in the cinder block wall that formed a portion of Lulu’s so called backyard fence: one third cinder block wall, one third actual fencing, and one third sheet metal fusion, stuck in the ground haphazardly. Instead of pursuing toys abandoned in the dark though, she decided to pursue this one atop the family church, bathed in the summer sun. Lulu took offence to Caroline’s actions of course. She caught Caroline and scolded her about throwing stones at the house of the lord, like she had no sense. Caroline tried to explain that a toy was stuck on the roof, but Lulu wouldn’t pay her no mind, not truly.
“Child, be blessed that I caught you in time or you might’ve gotten a curse from the lord? Is that what you want Caroline, a curse from the lord?”, said Lulu with the extended finger of her right hand waving in Caroline’s face like a dog’s tail and the other hand placed on her hip like the handle of a fine ceramic tea cup. “No mam, I don’t want no curse, but Grandma what about the toy? It’s just sitting up there and some other kid is gonna get it”, retorted Caroline still completely enveloped by the curious object of temptation. Lulu responded with a crushing air of finality toward the issue, “Good.” Caroline looked for that toy week after week, knowing she wasn’t allowed to fish it down, and sure enough it finally disappeared along with the stones that were thrown up to dislodge it. Her disappointment in failing to capture her prey increased her anxious longing for the silly thing. She searched on the other side of the Church just in case God somehow wanted to reward her thwarted efforts, but to no avail. Truly the toy was gone, and one of the more interesting adventures of Caroline’s church life came to a close, with neither reward nor destruction to shortly linger upon.
Lost in her memories, the wind blows her hair across her face and a single strand into the crevice of her slightly opened lips. She slowly eases herself upon the grass, avoiding stains on her stockings. Caroline digs her fingers into the green, grasping blades occasionally, and then letting them scatter once she found a passing breeze. She closes her eyes and lets the sunshine make the momentary blackness become a warm red orange blur with amorphous blobs of blue and green. Eyes are sealed shut, and yet colors flow in the absence of sight. Her consenting to the invading darkness still could not find it. Pitch black refused to greet her in the day. It refused to linger with her as a comforting enigma. In contempt of the substance she longed to cultivate, Venus trap eyelids vibrated in irritation and opened in anger.
Caroline rises to her feet, shortly paces back and forth, and then finally settles on peeping through the kitchen window at the back of the church, taken by boredom in her inability to play and her inability to mourn. A beloved expectation of the south— reception of every southern funeral or wedding holds a lavish feast: fried chicken, collard greens, red rice, string beans, etc. Throughout Lulu’s life and often all at once she was a: cook, saint, nurse, accountant, gardener, chauffer, paralegal, and maid. She was going to get a feast no doubt about it, but Caroline could not revel in the foods Lulu inspired in her passing. The curtains and refrigerator obscured the view of the table. Only a single pecan pie could be seen and Caroline did not favor such a decadent confection. No. If it should be pie, let it be pumpkin pie that one could heat up in the microwave and then top with a cool dollop of vanilla ice-cream. Pecans were delicious to Caroline, but only when gathered by old women in brown paper bags as they fiddle about in their yards. Pecan trees are scattered throughout Savannah like dandelion seeds made mobile with the wind and so are the old women willing to gather them in brown bags as gifts bequeathed to strangers and loved ones alike.
With nothing of her interest in view, Caroline walks along the sidewalk across from the church windows. She looks at the small parking lot attached to the church. Rodger drove in Lulu’s van rather than the old dark gun smoke gray car he usually leaves the house in, with its oh so distinctive rust, right above one of the back tires. He bought it for one of his sons, but when the boy, now a man, no longer needed to drive the old clunker, preferring a nice white truck, his daddy drove it back from the countryside along those empty dirt roads, over the Savannah River Bridge. Caroline walks over to the van, until she hears something slowly walking up the street. She looks and sees a dog of medium height and short black fur. It looks like the dog one of Lulu’s sons kept when she was younger. The dog looks at her and she freezes to avoid gaining more attention. It stares at her with its large brown eyes and hanging tongue. Caroline’s brow furrows with suspicion and anxiety. Her slight phobia of dogs starts to rise to the surface of her thoughts. She whispers to herself wisdoms she heard when she was very young, “Don’t run. It’ll chase what runs.” Instead of running she sings a song with the words of one of her prayers. She sings of angels, rain, and darkness and she sings of blessings, serpents, and God. The dog lingers, listening to the singing statue until a squirrel runs and a hunt begins in the distance before both are gone.
Caroline wanders back onto the grass and stands outside lost, forgetting how time did not stand still and her flimsy excuse’s expiration came with the meeting of a wandering dog. Rodger will be angry, if he was even paying attention to her long absence. His swaddling by his own sorrow and the woeful cries of Lulu’s mourners were probably enough of a distraction for him. When she reflects on this thought, she once again begins to muse on her status as an outcast.
Although Caroline is a nice enough child, she has no friends. Her classmates speak to her daily in school: in the lunchroom, on the playground, in the hallway, during class. She laughs and plays, but as the school day ends, so do all her conversations. All that is left to her is a solitary walk to her # 247 school bus in silence. She sits in a seat desperately waiting for conversation only to find disappointment in the awkward quietness of siting alone and finally wanders home in isolation as other children in the neighborhood go out and play amongst their friends. No one ever asks to come over to her house and play video games. Caroline is never invited to sleep overs. No one celebrates her birthday, except for her family. Caroline is not so vocal so as to even inspire enemies against her. She is neither fortunate enough to be a center of attention nor unfortunate enough to earn the mockery of her peers. She simply possesses no one to linger on, but herself. All of her thoughts and resentments flower in her bones. They bloom in reflection of a despair nurtured by loneliness.
She had no friends in her family. None of them chose to push into her closed off world. Family members who serve as friends are rare because it asks for a relationship to teeter between choice and obligatory affection. True friendship lives and breathes through the power of choice between equals while familial love tends to be a harsher sort of tether between individuals who might view each other in quite a range.
Caroline would have sought out Lulu for her friendship, but Lulu would never see herself as an equal of Caroline’s. She would never stoop so low as to speak her feelings to a child, no matter how shallow. All that flowed from Lulu were soft-handed commands inspired by an obligatory love, but love it was, full and deep. Lulu beat Caroline out of obligation, beating the poor child according to the traditions of her own classic upbringing. First she beat Caroline with the palm of her hand, then a slim branch from any nearby tree, then the leather strap of Lulu’s purse, finally retired with the adoption of the thick plastic spoon and inevitably replaced by the great southern staple, the strap of a good leather belt. She chastised Caroline out of obligation. Her sermons fell on the child’s ears like rain warmed by the midday sun. She was the punishing mother figure. Rodger disciplined from time to time, but because Caroline was not a boy child, he left that role, that tiring burden, to his wife. She dealt punishment in the spirit of her mother and her mother’s mother, beating Caroline excessively only when the child would not submit. Those were the moments when Lulu would swing her belt until her fury was sated and her breath all, but spent. And as Lulu let her belt dance with popcorn snaps, certain adages generated that she would reveal over and over, as if they happen to be forgettable, and they never were, “There ain’t nothing wrong with beating a child, as long as it comes from a place of love. Children must learn the lesson of the Lord; all evils are seen, and all evils eventually punished, for that is the will of the ever loving Almighty.”
After the beatings though, Lulu always hugged Caroline into her chest so that her mighty heartbeat offered tranquility to Caroline’s turbulent mind. She soothed her wounded ego with words of kindness and forgiveness. Lulu was known for nursing the sweet in the sour. It was this instinct that made her the archetypal helpmate. Lulu sympathetically nursed all those in her care back to health every time they were ailing, despite whatever wrongs they might have done to her. Pepto-Bismol (That Pink Stuff), Robitussin (‘Tussin), Blue-Star Ointment (Ringworm Cream), Vicks Vapor Rub (That Smelly Rub That Clears Your Nose Up), Alka-Seltzer (That Fizzin’ Tablet), were always available in the cabinet of Lulu’s upstairs bathroom. Only bandages, ancient toothbrushes, and the smallest fragments of emergency soap, sat in the downstairs bathroom cabinet. Lulu was the master of the healing aids, and it always fell on her to dispense them to the bedridden, grown folks and childrens alike. She worked herself to the bone taking care of others, yet the bitterness of her patients’ abuse or their utter disregard of her never worked itself into a poison. She turned the bitter into the sweet through the grace of the Lord.
Caroline snaps out of her wandering thoughts with the touch of small droplets of rain. The sun still shines, but a light midday shower begins to fall. The shower is warmed by the sun and it feels like tears, but not salty. God gives his tears for Lulu. Caroline retreats under the roof of the church. She begins to sing to herself once again. The song is different every time she chooses to open her lips. The world forces the words of her songs down her throat and she pulls them out from the very bottom of her depths. She sings of moonlight in the middle of the day, and doves carrying olive branches. The black dog returns without his distraction. He wanders slowly through the warm rain that falls. He is baptized. He is baptized in God’s tears. His face seems indifferent to the rain. A wide tongue pokes in and out and his nostrils flare from time to time. Caroline unknowingly wonders out loud, “Is that dog tasting the rain?” When the girl speaks the dog looks at her, deep into her somewhat wet face. For a moment, the dog stops poking his tongue in an out. His mouth closes almost entirely. Caroline becomes uneasy. She suddenly yells out, “What do you want dog?” The dog merely stares. He stares at Caroline intensely and then ignores her.
Caroline looks at the sky to see if it remained bright. It was. Even as it began to rain harder, the clouds did not grow dark. They did not become the clouds of sleep that she remembered learning about with Lulu. When she was younger, Lulu would always tell her that it is best to sleep when it is storming because that was God saying to submit. Caroline seemingly always proved obstinate to this observation. She was the only one in the house who seemed adamant about making it through stormy weather awake. Lulu would say, “Don’t touch that TV baby, its storming out there” when Caroline didn’t understand that they had to contain themselves before the terror and mercy of God’s storming.
Caroline would always become anguished by the fact that she couldn’t watch anymore TV. Without TV, she had no way to entertain herself. There were never really any books around the house, except for dictionaries, encyclopedias, and old textbooks. Almost every child that had come up through this house had left some kind of school book behind for Rodger and Lulu to deal with. It was a gift, unwanted as it may be. Sometimes they would grow to serve new masters as years passed, but for Caroline this was no longer the case. The old textbooks were interesting before she entered into school, but once she became a student, in her mind a prisoner, she had no more affection to give towards them. They became objects of obligatory acknowledgement, rather than as the curiosities that Caroline knew them to be. It was in those books that she learned about dinosaurs, and butterflies, and the difference between the body of a boy and a girl.
Instead of seeking solace in the silence, Caroline would waste her time fiddling with things like a curious animal. She was driven to move about constantly to escape her boredom. Lulu would always eventually grow tired of the child’s incessant movements during storms. Rodger always fell asleep with the first drops of rain. He loved his sleep. He greatly appreciated how his body “magically” allowed him not to involve himself so deeply in the conflict that existed between Caroline and Lulu.
One rainy day Caroline and Lulu’s brooding antagonism boiled over the pot. “It’s boring Lulu”, said Caroline as she would pout, crossing her arms, left over right, sitting Indian style. Lulu tried her best to ignore how upset Caroline was. Storms caused her arthritis to act up so she was not the happiest person during the rainy days. She wasn’t angry. It would not be right to say she was weighed down by the heaviness of anger but she wasn’t joyful either. She lingered in a place of exhaustion during times like those. “Could you read me a story?” Caroline nagged and Lulu responded “This ain’t no library baby. What books ‘round here you want to be read? I can’t remember the last time I saw a children’s book in this house.” Caroline responded, “Lulu, you always got your bible and you always be tellin’ me I should read it more and more. Read me some bible stories. Read me the one about Moses and Egypt.” “Lord have mercy child, now I know you need to take yourself to sleep” said Lulu in irritation at Caroline’s request. “Why you say that Lulu?” said Caroline inquisitively as she plays with her small slender fingers. Lulu responded angrily, “The only reason you want the bible read is to entertain you when dey ain’t nothing left.” “No mam, that ain’t true. I like the story of Moses and the Israelites It’s one of my favorites”, says Caroline, offended by what she understands Lulu to be saying. Observing Caroline’s irritation, Lulu said, “I don’t doubt you when you say that Moses’ story from the bible is one of your favorites. But do you remember when I got you that child version of the bible last year, hm? I saw you read that once in a blue moon like you didn't like it and when I asked you about it one day, you said you lost it. Remember that?” Caroline responded in frustration, “That doesn't mean I didn't like it. I wasn't going to read it every day, but when I did read it, I enjoyed it, Lulu. And just because I lost something, does not mean I didn't care about it. I just lost it is all. I want to find it, but for now it’s lost. What else can I say?” As Lulu takes in the child’s words, she responds “ I still feel like you don’t appreciate the bible enough to understand that this book isn't just for reading, it’s to show your commitment and your faith, baby. You can’t just pick it up and put it down like it’s any other kind of book. These are God’s words in the good book. How fair is that to God for you to treat his words as if they were some kind of fairy tale to warm the heart? Mind yourself child. It is not wise to treat the Lord like he some kind of second class something or ‘nother. Now hush up this talkin’. You got my head gone to achin’. You ain’t want to listen to no bible story no how. Besides, we got to keep them lights off. I don’t need no lightning blowing them bulbs out ‘cause there ain’t nobody round to change them things less Samuel, David, or one of the other tall children be around ‘da house.”
As the sky cleared up and the rain quieted to nothing, Rodger opened the door furiously, saying, “Get yo’ ass up in this Church. Dammit girl. All I needed was for you to behave for one day. One day, dammit. Just one day. And you couldn't do that for a day, could ya? You couldn't just sit yo’ narrow ass in that seat until we got to the banquet hall? God have mercy on my soul.” Tears run down his face as he speaks out the violence in his mind. He can’t breathe calmly. His hands shake. Rodger yells again, “Get up God dammit. Get yo’ ass up so you can see Lulu’s face one more time. You at least owe her that, disappearing during her funeral. What’s wrong with you chil’? Get up. Get up. Get up. Get up God dammit. I won’t tell your ass again. I am too tired to do this. You not even my child, you my grandchild, you somebody else baby who couldn't be bothered to be your damn mama. You can’t let Lulu be put in that earth and not make your peace, child. It’ll haunt you all your days, ya hear me? Don’t take no curse down in yo’ soul, if you can avoid it. Get up and say your goodbyes.” Rodger snatches up the blank faced girl and drags her into the church. Everyone’s attention goes towards their performance. The little girl is led up to sleeping Lulu in her dark wood coffin. She looks so tired in her wooden box. She looks like her age leaped up on her all at once, like time was waiting for her to die and move forwards on her face. The funeral house did a good job dressing her up with all the effort she always put into her impeccable Sunday service outfits. Lulu had her gold lettered King James Bible held in both hands as they were positioned on her chest. Her favorite broach, a blue shelled beetle from her grandmother, was worn over her right breast rather than her strange way of wearing it on the left. She was perfection. She was a perfection she could only achieve in her demise, which was as much misfortune as it was blessing because she believed she had obtained the salvation of her eternal soul, something she prized above all other things admirably. She was going to go to her resting place with the God that made her and no one would dare say otherwise because if she couldn't make it with all of her praying, and duties, kindness, and obedience, then no one else had any chance to meet the strict deity either. Her faith in her salvation was also the church’s hope and faith returned.
Caroline looked into the face of her former caretaker. She looked to see if God would chastise her for thinking about what she was planning to do. Caroline bent over and gave Lulu a hug. As she did she whispered towards the beautiful corpse, “Lulu, you worked so hard to earn your place with God. In doing so, you did as you were told, “Hold on to your child like a loose garment.” Mother Stephenson taught you that you told me. You said it meant that to have faith and to keep faith, you must choose faith above all. You sacrificed more with your family, more with me, so that you could hold onto a God that never held you in its arms, or kissed your lips, or said, “I love you.” You did that for what you believed in, something that I want to have one day. But you hurt me. I am sure you hurt my mother too, maybe even more so than you hurt me. She ran away not because she couldn't be my mother, but because she couldn't be your daughter and hope to be any kind of mother to me. She ran away because of what you taught that stupid girl. For that I hate you, even as I love you, I hate you.” Caroline took the blue beetle broach and pocketed it. The casket was lifted by all of Lulu’s sons and some of the attending ushers, and as the procession exited the church in song, Caroline walked outside into the clear bright day. She saw the dog once more as they entered the cemetery. It carried half a squirrel in its mouth. There was very little blood covering its snout. The tail of the small creature was most intact while the rest of its body fairly crushed.