By L. S. McKee
The first time I attended my father’s church, I was mortified, standing among my siblings, to realize we would be singing hymns without accompaniment: the sole piano player had defected to another church before my father’s arrival. With barely over a dozen members in the congregation, you couldn’t get away with mouthing the words. And trying to sing loudly enough to prove you have neither a heathen’s irreverence – though you are your very own, grown-up kind of heathen, singing out of respect for your parents’ belief – nor a tin ear while trying to keep your neighbors from hearing the cracks in your voice is akin be being strangled. Or slowly drowning. The necessary ratios of open throat to closed throat, of sound release to sound blockage, are tricky. Sure, it sounds pornographic, but anyone who has reluctantly joined in on the joys of communal singing knows it’s the truth. Your heart rate accelerates equally from oxygen deprivation as congregational stage fright. All this to say, trying to maintain privacy while singing in church is difficult enough without a conspicuously absent piano and twelve good country people singing acapella.
For the last year, I have officially been a preacher’s daughter. My father, first as “emergency clergy” and now as a local pastor, presides over a tiny country church tucked in the hills between I-81 and the airport. It was June and heat shimmered in the trees. I moved from Southern Appalachia seven years ago, and though I couldn’t wait to escape the region most of my life and took its beauty for granted, I now understand the way landscape etches itself to your bones, shapes the way you see every other place on earth. The Appalachian mountains, the oldest range in North America, are a kind of anti-sublime. They are beautiful, but they don’t necessarily intimidate or inspire awe. Here, mountains share space with the sky and yet shelter you from the horizon. I think it’s a unique characteristic of the region, one that most places can’t claim: the feeling that one is actually protected by the landscape.
When I attended my father’s church this summer, to my inordinate relief, the piano player inspired by the new leadership, had returned. My brother and I stood in the back row safely whispering the songs under the piano’s camouflage. We sang from a little relic of a hymnal.
The title and copyright pages have long been torn away. Most copies have lost both covers, though the one my brother pulled from the pew rack still clung to its front cover – a leather sheet stamped “Hymnal,” though we could barely read it, the letters rubbed down against decades of palms. Most of the songs claimed copyrights in the late teens and early twenties. If I had to guess, it was probably published around 1925. One of the hymnal’s most endearing characteristics, besides the aura of its tattered pages, is the folksy diction of its songs. That Sunday, we sang a little ditty called “Pow’r in the Blood.” The elided second syllable allows the word “power” to take on one helluva stress. Coupled with a strong East Tennessee accent and occurring over 30 times in a single hymn, it’s enough to shake the walls of any church.
After the service, my brother and I wandered outside, waiting for the monthly church board meeting to dismiss. We watched tractors pass, debated how to replicate the sound of “pow’r.” My brother concluded it would be spelled “paa-urr.” I, however, stumbled across this trick of linguistic brilliance: shape your mouth as if you were going to say “pore” and then say “pear.” The tunneling and stacking of vowels produces the exact tenor of the word. And a little bit of the sound of my home.
L. S. McKee grew up in Northeast Tennessee and now lives in San Francisco.
The Owls is a site for collaborative writing projects: Don't forget your mittens. Cross-posts from The Owls site appear here by the generosity of 3QD. Quarkers are welcome to visit two ongoing Owls projects, Stamps, featuring writing about places (each Monday), and Natural Histories, curated by Sean Hill and featuring writing about the body (each Wednesday). Recent posts by Yona Harvey, Stacie Cassarino, Nicky Beer, David Bernardy, Allen Gee, and others. Interested parties may subscribe to free updates from The Owls site via RSS here or by emailing owlsmag(at)gmail(dot)com, and put “Join” in the Subject line (we don't share or sell email addresses, of course).