I’ve been terribly under the weather for the past week, so in addition to not getting a lot of writing done, I had only super random thoughts. I thought about doing a post on “What writers think about when they’re sick,” but I thought an excerpt from my memoir currently in progress, Daughter of the Most High, would be vastly more interesting. This is the first excerpt that I have shared outside of my classes at Gotham Writers Workshop. For the most part, I am writing the story using the voice of the age that I am at the time. Here, I am five, and the year is 1990/91. This scene takes place in Camden, New Jersey, where I was born and where my parents and I lived with my maternal grandmother (Nana) for a short while after we had moved back to NJ from Rhode Island. Enjoy!
One Sunday, when I was five, Mommy told me that I was going to church with Daddy that day. We didn’t normally go to church with Daddy. Sometimes, I went to the Catholic church around the corner with Nana, but she didn’t go all the time since she said she thought people were looking at her and thinking she was ugly. I knew Daddy’s church wasn’t like the Catholic church, but I couldn’t really remember his church in Rhode Island. Maybe it would be like Reverend Rueben’s church on Amen. Daddy went to the church on the corner, a half block from Nana’s house. It had one of those cross-shaped signs with the words “Jesus saves” going through the stakes. From my height, I always read it as “Jesus Aves,” and guessed that the intersection of Princess and Bradley Avenues were His.
I put on my white lacy party dress and buckled my black Mary Janes. Mommy brushed my hair into tiny ponytails and put barrettes at the ends. Nana went through some trash bags in the closet under the stairs. She pulled out a little white purse and gave it to me, along with a dollar. She said it was for the offering.
Daddy and me walked down to the church. We got there early. The service hadn’t started yet and only a few people were there. Daddy introduced me to a lady and told me to sit next to her. She was younger than I thought she would be, since I figured only old people got to church early. She had brown skin like me and more than one chin.
“You’re Brother Al’s baby!” she said. “You look just like him!”
I still didn’t believe people when they said that. How could a little girl look like an old man? I smiled at her like I did to everyone who said it.
Daddy went to the front of the church and sat behind the drum set, while two boys who looked the same age as Kimi picked up some other instruments. A tall lady came out and did the singing while they played the instruments. She held a microphone, but she didn’t need one at all. She was so loud, she hurt my ears. I covered them while I watched.
But it was exciting! The lady next to me clapped her hands, and it made the skin on her arms jump around. This wasn’t like when I went to the Catholic church with Nana. There wasn’t any clapping or happy music there. We just stood up and sat down when the nuns did. I clapped my hands, too, and swayed my head to the beat. It was almost like being on Amen! Daddy saw me and smiled. When they were done, he came over to me.
“And that was just rehearsal!” He said. “Wait for the service. It’s gonna be packed in here!”
I didn’t know what rehearsal meant. Before I could ask, someone called him away to help with something. He told me to sit still because the service would start soon. I sat back in my chair and waited for the seats to fill up. It would be exciting when more people came in. They would sing and clap, too, and it would be like a big show.
A few people came in. The pastor welcomed everyone, and Daddy and the boys played and the woman sang the same songs all over again. I clapped and looked around, wondering where all the people were. It wasn’t as fun the second time. Where were all the people Daddy said would be there? They never came.
When it was time for the offering, I opened my little purse. I wondered if I should keep the dollar. I could buy two whole candy bars with a dollar, a Snickers and a Hershey bar. And Pop-Pop would get me more candy, too. But what if Nana saw the candy and asked me where I got the money? The dollar was why gave me the purse. It was pretty with my dress and was like what one of the rich ladies on Dynasty would wear. I took the dollar out and threw it into the offering plate when it came to me.
The big lady told me that there was a service just for kids downstairs, in the cellar. If it was for church for kids, then Daddy would definitely want me to go, I thought. I put my purse on my shoulder and took her hand so she could lead me to it. The boys who played the instruments with Daddy were sitting at a long table with an older girl, but no one else was there. The big lady left me there and went back upstairs to the service.
I sat at the table. My Mary Janes dangled in the air since they couldn’t touch the floor yet. The girl helped us make a craft and helped us memorize a Bible verse. The craft didn’t even use glue or popsicle sticks. We just folded up paper. It was stupid. When we were done, we all went back upstairs.
“She’s Brother Al’s baby,” the big lady told the woman standing next to her when she saw me. “Doesn’t she look just like him?”
“Ohhh,” the woman smiled at me. “Yes, she does!”
I looked around for Daddy. When I saw him, I walked over to him and tapped his leg. Daddy introduced me to the pastor. I hid behind Daddy’s legs because I didn’t know the man, who was tall and very dark skinned. Daddy told me that he had to stay back, but I could go back to Nana’s house. I looked up at him.
“I can?” I said, confused. I got a spanking for going off the porch for Halloween without telling Mommy. I didn’t want to get another one for walking home without Daddy.
“Yeah,” Daddy said. “Just go straight there.” He laughed. “Nobody’s going to take you between here and there, like your mom thinks.”
I shrugged and said, “Okay,” like I didn’t believe him.
I walked out of the church, and down the street. I thought about how I didn’t want to go to that church again. No one came, and they sang the same songs over again, and the craft didn’t use glue. And I could get in trouble for walking home without Daddy.
At Nana’s house, the door was unlocked. I left myself in. Head down, I walked straight to the stairs without saying anything to Mommy and Nana, who were sitting in the living room.
“How was it, Netta?” Mommy asked.
I turned on the stair to face her direction. “Too stupid to be true,” I said.
I kept up the stairs to my room while Mommy and Nana burst into laughter. Mommy told Daddy what I said later, and he thought I meant it as a good thing. Will Smith used “stupid” to mean “cool” on The Fresh Prince sometimes, so I couldn’t completely blame him for getting confused.