My First Memory: A Hand Me Down Tale
I remember the feel of the microphone in my hand. The slick cool feel of the handle. The long fat black cord wrapped through the fingers of my left hand as I bring the mic to my face. I tentatively raise the mic against my lips and begin in a whisper, “This little light of mine.” I raise my eyes slightly to look at the crowd gathered. They are all staring directly at me, wide-eyed, and waiting. I venture on, “I’m going to let it shine.” I sneak a glance to my left and see my Dad smiling proudly from his oversized chair on the platform.
I can feel it. The power of the moment. The sheer ability to hold an audience hostage with a sleek microphone and a few words. The butterflies are still present but are flying from my throat as I continue to sing. “This little light of mine.” I raise my face to look straight on at the crowd; searching their faces for, what? Instinctively, I know I need to keep them with me, hanging on my every phrase. I raise my voice a bit, shocked at how steady and strong it sounds. I spot my Mom, sitting on the edge of her seat with my big sister by her side. She isn’t smiling. She looks nervous, scared, in fact. Why is she so scared, I wonder.
I begin to sway a bit from side to side as I slowly gain confidence – like The Little Train that Could, I’m steadily making my way up the hill of terror. I raise my hand over the mic and belt out, “Hide it under a bushel? NO!” and throw my arm out to the side. The little old lady in the front row begins to chuckle. “I’m gonna let it shine,” I boldly pronounce. I repeat the same gesture as I repeat the phrase. This time I see my Mom crack a smile, look around and shake her head. She seems to be enjoying my performance. I’m really feeling myself now.
I scan the room, looking for signs of disinterest. Have I lost anyone? What about the old bald man holding bulletins by the back door? Or that little kid who’s peeking over the top of the wooden pew? Nope. Good, they are still with me. Still hanging on every phrase and gesture. I realize I’m no longer nervously turning the black mic cord in my fingers. I’ve dropped it and am keeping rhythm tapping my hand on the side of my thigh. I feel the scratchiness of the lace of my dress hem. I glance out at my sister wearing her matching dress Mom made us by hand. She looks bored. I take it up a notch trying to get her attention, trying to please her with my performance. “Don’t let Satan blow it out” and I blow directly into the mic – that got her.
I’m nearing the end of the song. I don’t want this moment to end. I don’t want to let it go – the looks of approval, of love, of laughter, and delight. I want to hold this moment, these people captive forever – with me. It’s not the singing I love. It’s not the music that has me enamored at this moment, it’s not even the words. No. It’s the power. The thrill of having a group of people listen to me. It’s the sheer excitement of being seen. Standing alone and commanding the room. I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to let this moment go.
I can feel my father coming near me, slowly walking as people clap. I stand stock-still with the mic to my side. I feel the pleasure and pain of the end. It’s time to return to my seat. To join my mother and sister and quietly listen to my father’s sermon with the rest of the congregation. I feel the weight of my father’s hand on my shoulder as I look up at him with my big blue eyes. As he confidently stands next to me he reminds me of a soldier, looking out over the field of battle with an intense and determined gaze. And at that moment, I understand. I understand he too knows the power of standing alone on a stage with just a microphone and words. How with the turn of a phrase, a small gesture, and a bit of charisma, you can hold a crowd in the palm of your hand. He too understands that with the right mix of melody and music, with the subtle yet profound change in tone, tenor, and tempo you can have them eating up whatever it is you are laying down.
It’s funny this is my first memory. My very first recollection of my life – standing next to the pulpit in a tiny old church in Taylorsville, KY singing “This Little Light of Mine.” I can still smell the mixture of moisture in the air and Old English on the wooden pews. The green carpet with the center aisle worn thin from years of people making their way to the altar. The white walls with wood trim led to the cathedral ceiling. It’s all so very vivid – as if I could reach out and touch it with my hand. Such a small space even from my eyes as a small child.
Some say it’s in my genes. I come from a long line of pastors, preachers, and proclaimers. My family tree is covered with the lives of people who could hold a congregation captive with “The Word.” My mom says that it was at this moment she knew I would follow in their footsteps. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. I think she just likes to think it’s true – that at the tender age of three she could envision the woman I would someday become. I believe she wanted and still wants it to be true – for her daughter to be a prolific preacher and pastor. And I suppose I was…for a time.
This is my first memory and the first of what I call my hand-me-downs. My father’s hand on my shoulder handing down the family business. Handing down the knowledge of the power of a microphone and words. Handing down his charisma, craft, and his Church. He handed me a great deal that day, surely more than my little three-year-old mind could imagine. I’m still trying to unpack it all – the suitcase of goods that have been handed down to me over the last 50 years. The items for wear that have been given to me from my family, my religion, my culture, my peers. Hand me downs. We all have them. We are all handed down ideals and identities, biases and beliefs, constraints, and communities that shape and form who we are.
Stay tuned for more of my hand-me-down tale. My 50-year journey of deciding what fits, what feels comfortable, and what needs to be tossed.