Menu

Essay

I RECALL THE FACE OF A BOY wearing a blue sweatshirt, and I want to tell him that I’ve fallen in love and that I saw a fox midday like a flare, that I saw a black bear in the laurel just this evening and that the roar of life is in me. And I want to describe—though I’m not sure how to describe it yet—the way a woman’s lover stands on the stoop, smoking a cigarette that he’s rolled with borrowed papers, waiting for her to pull up in the car, and the way he will say nothing in particular to her, and then enfold her. I have things to tell this boy in a blue hooded sweatshirt, and he has things to tell me. When I look at the boy’s face through the lens of memory, I nearly weep for him as though it is the first day of my life and I want it to be the first day of his.

I met the boy at a week-long summer camp in late July, the summer before I started high school. But I didn’t meet him in person. He was the star of a film shown to us by the Kentucky Mountain Bible College group from Asbury. They showed it in the chapel on the last day of church camp—I don’t remember the name of the boy or the name of the film. It had a seventies luster and the boy had dark hair and dark eyes. The film flickered up from a clacking projector onto a white screen that they’d pulled down over the wall-sized Jesus, painted there as a shepherd with a flock of adoring sheep gathered at the hem of his white robe. I remember only one clip: the boy was shivering in his sweatshirt as he walked toward a plane on a runway. The plane appeared full and ready for takeoff but it was waiting on him. Behind him, his family stood weeping, not wanting him to go. I didn’t see the boy’s face for some time, only the faces of his family, especially his mother’s as she reached toward her son but was held back by some men who remain vague in my mind. The voiceover told us that the boy was about to leave his family behind for good—the boy knew Jesus, the voiceover said, but his family didn’t because he’d never shared the gospel message with them, and now he was leaving them for heaven because it was time. And we kids sat on the edge of our chapel pews as the boy kept walking, but when he reached the steps to board the plane, he stopped and turned, and we saw his face.

He looked, then, like a boy I would maybe want to go swimming with. He looked reckless, but hurt. His eyes stayed locked with his mom’s until he finally boarded. None of us campers had ever been on a plane, but we could feel it take off and we were each rent in two. After the film, though we couldn’t explain it really, we were all caught up in tears and making promises, listing names in our ocean-scene journals: Christie, Summer, Aunt Kathy, Eric. We’d make sure we’d tell them the gospel about Jesus. The filmmakers and the Asbury group had succeeded to some degree, for they’d meant to embolden us into missionaries, into those who would recruit for the next world though our feet were barely wet with this one.

I wasn’t clear about the symbolism of the plane (nor am I now)—I was uncertain whether the boy was supposed to be dying and then going to heaven on the plane, or whether it was the Last Day, which we’d learned about, and the second coming of Christ and all that, a time of last chances when every man, woman and child would stand at the threshold of eternity and be judged. What did clearly register with me, then and now, was the departure of the boy from this world, and the fact that the departure was somehow caused by belief in the resurrection of Jesus, his defeat of death and sin on the cross, and the resulting gift of eternal life. But what has remained most vivid in my memory is the boy’s face.

What was the boy weeping for? The mysterious thing about an illustration like this film is that, in tugging at our imaginations for the purpose of teaching us a doctrine, the illustration still takes on a life of its own in each mind, in whatever way each peculiar imagination plays within it. So, as a young girl of fourteen—though I did realize that the film’s voiceover was chastising the black-haired boy as a warning to us, was saying that he had essentially failed in his great calling to bring his family into the fold of sheep who huddle at Jesus’s garment hem, and was admonishing us to do better—though I realized this, what I saw on the boy’s face was resistance to the leaving, and my imagination stole away with this resistance. In his face I saw love for his mother, yes, but also more: I saw the sting of a baseball caught barehanded, a mitt lent to a smaller kid; in his eyes I saw a study of his hand on his knee beside a shy girl’s hand on her knee, his hand flush with hers; I judged that the boy’s hair had not been washed and so he was not prepared to go anywhere and didn’t want to go; I felt that he was about my age, a year older, maybe, like a brother; I understood that he had started to see himself as beautiful, no longer reserving such a word for only the girls he’d wave to, but finding deep water in his own dark eyes, and he wondered about whose image he was made in. And then I surmised that he was not leaving at all, but being taken—feet light and unplanted, vulnerable—and new compounded fears struck me. This was a camp for mostly poor kids, and I suppose I was relatively poor, by some standards, and I was better prepared for the afterlife than I was for starting high school in the fall, with my canvas shoes and hand-me-down jeans. But at the thought of being taken like the boy in blue, away on a jet plane, for good, I was newly afraid of losing the small life I was living. I was afraid of failing in my duties. I was afraid, most of all, of my own resistance to going when the time came.

It’s true that the scene of departure in the film inspired a missionary spirit in us, somewhat, but it also moved us to these fears and to mourning—that is to say, it was the last day of our week together and we sat in the chapel at Aldersgate Camp in Cranesville, just a few miles out of Terra Alta where we had watched the Independence Day parade a few weeks earlier, and this chapel was lit like a lonely wick in the palpable dark of the West Virginia mountains. And it was a day among the first days of our chance at living and loving and we wanted no part of a resurrected afterlife just yet. We wanted to smack up against the world first, though we had no words for that. We had only the words of hymns by John and Charles Wesley and the praise choruses taught to us by the Asbury group and the Hedrick sisters who shared the stage with them. And we had the King James Bible, the verses we engraved on wood with wood burners and carved with rotary tools. It would take us a long time to get our own words for it. Maybe that’s what I’m still doing here as I sit and peer for a time at this boy in blue, his dark hair mussed and his face frozen in my memory, wet with crying. I try to see him more clearly in this present good mixture of light and rain today, to say what can be said about our young lives on that last day, and what might be said about the resurrection on that Last Day.

§

I loved Aldersgate Evangelical Camp. I started going the summer I was eight years old, first to primary camp, then to intermediate the next few summers, then finally to senior camp, the week reserved for middle school and high school kids. On the last day of a week of camp, we came out clinging to each other, regarding one another with a felt weight of importance—farm kids mostly, who gulped back some fear in the face of the big world and in the more immediate faces of town kids in Kingwood who would be our schoolmates in the fall.

On the last night, a younger one among us at the campfire ring looked up and asked, Will my heart turn black again? And an older one, a junior counselor, said nothing, just put an arm around the younger one, not sure how long the heart can stay clean (it was something she would pray over). Then—I sat beside them and watched—the fear of the blackness washed over the counselor and made her hold the younger one with both arms, both their faces lit up by flames. The chill was starting in our hands and feet; Cranesville is so high in the mountains that the nights in late July can get cold enough for frost. We had all put on sweatshirts or tied them around our waists on the way to the campfire ring. And it was a solid darkness at the camp, with one far-reaching light up near the dining hall (though it was not far-reaching enough, and many of us tripped in the dark going to the bathhouse at night). There were also tiny porch lights at the front doors of the cabins, but they couldn’t reach down to the campfire ring either. The darkness swallowed us. In the Bible, there was a verse in the fifth chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians which I pondered later for its mystery and its evocation of those dark mountains: For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Bible scholars have said Paul meant that we suffer in this mortal body, this tent, but, even so, we do not long to be disembodied but to have a resurrected body which God will give us—as though that explains it. The flames of the campfire ring, the consuming fire with its spark-ash flakes that spit upward, was all the light we had, except for a few small flashlights. But that was at the very end of the day. Much came before that.

§

It cost us each five dollars for a week at camp in Cranesville. There were two cabins: the boys’ cabin large enough to house some classrooms; the girls’ cabin with its drop-ceiling left unfinished, one large room with the beams still bare so we girls could swing from bunk to bunk. The camp had a standing odor of wet towels, mildewy from being crumpled in corners by campers late for breakfast line-up when, even as older kids, we put our noses into the wet-haired heads in line in front of us. The tribe with the straightest line got to go first into the dining hall of long tables with folding chairs. Corile Wilhelm—wife to Reverend Berlin Wilhelm who ran the camp—had the bowls of oatmeal and the plates of toast ready for us in the centers of the tables—the same number of pieces of toast as there were folding chairs.

I lined up behind Clarissa, and early in the week I tried to determine her shampoo, Pert Plus or Prell, its scent masked by the moldy smell that comes from using the same towel too many times. But late in the week the bath house reservoir ran dry and towels stayed crumpled like shed snakeskins, or like bodies after the rapture of the saints. Most of us, including me, weren’t yet in high school, but some were and those went in the car with Paige up the road to a parsonage where they could wash.

Some girls wore bandanas. I wore my unwashed hair in a low pony tail, and a blond boy named Jason Skipper flicked it as he lined up behind me. He put his toes right up against my heels and made me feel warm, and I stood that way on the morning of the last day, nosing my way into Clarissa’s long dirty braid in front of me.

 §

Classes in the rooms of the boys’ cabin lasted the rest of the morning until tribal meeting. Though we were a bit old for it, one of the counselors from the Bible college in Asbury led us in a craft with half-burnt matches. Most of us glued together a cross with no Christ (leaving him gone, raised up). We studied the Book of Revelation, the twelve foundations of heaven laid for each of the twelve disciples, each one a precious stone: jasper, sapphire, emerald, sardonyx, sardius, beryl, topaz, and so on. All of us girls, but few boys, wrote the names of the stones down in our journals with oceans on their covers, or lilies, or kittens with bubble letters crooning Purrfect.

I thought the Asbury counselor was pretty, with skin much smoother than my random acne would permit. But I remember her acting too old for her lovely young face, in her long matronly skirt and no earrings. She seemed to have passed from childhood straight to old age, and as I think of her now, I think of the part of her that had been lost in that passage. I was, at fourteen, getting ready to leave my child body which I knew to be as mighty and obstinate and unsupple as a hardwood tree. But I did not want to leave it behind in exchange for a body hidden by a matronly skirt. The tug was toward something else, something that was veiled for me then, but it surely had to do with the way I swelled up with heat when Jason Skipper stood near. And even at fourteen, even then, maybe that tug also got me considering a new meaning of the resurrection that was preached to us, since resurrection seemed to involve leaving a place behind, a place you may or may not have come to love.

§

Just before line-up for lunch, we assembled in a chapel with a cement floor and narrow green pews designed for bodies smaller than ours. A white podium stood at the front, before the wall-size Jesus painted in acrylic among his flock. Lois Hedrick and the Asbury singers led us a cappella or with guitar, often in a round, groups divided according to tribe—Joseph, Benjamin, Reuben, or Judah, named for the sons of Jacob in the Bible.

On the last day, I arrived early for music with Autumn, Clarissa’s sister, and she told me that she and Ben Grose would be writing letters to one another after camp. That painting of Jesus loomed before us as she giggled a bit, but his eyes weren’t watching over us, as eyes in a wall painting often do. In fact, Christ seemed much too preoccupied with the sheep to fool with us. I wanted to share some news of my own with Autumn, and I considered telling her about my matchstick cross-with-no-Christ that I’d made that morning, since she had been in a different craft class. But that wasn’t as compelling as her news, so I inquired further into how Ben had asked for her address. He’d asked after their tribal meeting in the woods—they were both in the tribe of Reuben—with his hands in his pockets, the way all the Grose boys stood while they talked, sons of a potato farmer.

I consider the matchstick cross now, as well as the huge acrylic Jesus on the chapel wall, and I notice that the painters of that particular painting hadn’t depicted him raised-up or crowned. They hadn’t painted the slit where his feet had disappeared up through the clouds, but they’d painted him against a backdrop of cheesy-green pasture grass, among sheep, dressed in a silly white bed-sheet tunic, with his hands pushed out to the touchable world of briars and lamb snouts, wet with steam most likely. Still, people called him the Risen Lord, the Resurrected. He was with God, they said, among the angels, from the beginning, and then up there again in that throne at the end, but what interrupted that enthroned state was a passage through here. Passing over grass and gravel places with their soft and hard surfaces, and touching them.

What to make of it? And why make anything of it at all? Why give it so many words here when there are plenty of other points to argue and tasks to finish? I suppose because of the roar of life and the inevitable emptiness that answers back to it from the grave. And maybe because I feel a strange grief sometimes just from sitting close to someone I love, like I did last Sunday in church, our bodies flush in a pew. Because throughout the hymn we were singing—the sturdy measures of “Blessed Assurance”a shriveled older woman peered unthinkingly at my face from her choir seat in the front of the church.

As I study on it, the resurrection seems to be more than going to heaven when you die, transported like a jet passenger. I do believe in it, make of that what you will. But I do. I’ve seen too many fearless faces not to. Yet I am not sure how something like the resurrection takes effect, how it might swallow you up in its life while you sting with youth and while you live in mortal cracking bones. But I imagine it like this sometimes: you look at your life and see it as the paltry thing that it is and then you lean back into it, as a kid leans into a bed of moss, and you’re freed from something. You claim nothing, you leave no trace, you are only left with a trace of everything, you have memorized nameless birds’ underbellies, you are no longer a martyr or a crusader or anyone of much importance, just a bum with a hammer, fixing loose railings now and then.

Or like this: you are in love, and you feel it in body, though your body, like many others, is blasted, your feet swollen with bad cholesterol. There will be a time when you will break apart and unenlist yourself from the world; you’ll quit the urge to yelp with rage at a low branch snagging locks of hair loose from tidy clips (you’ll not mind the mess, the need for prettiness burning less hotly in your blood); you’ll quit calling from the kitchen, quit limping from the bed. Your lover will call for you at the first light of morning, missing you, filled up with you like a deep well with water, and the fullness will contain sadness but also much more than sadness.

But I didn’t think on these things then. I wondered instead, as the other campers trickled in and then Lois and the Asbury folks with their song sheets, what Ben and Autumn would write to each other, how they would begin their letters and how they would end them and whether they’d be able to say it all in between. Would they struggle to find words to talk about how they loved Aldersgate, how we all loved it—even with the strictness of the counselors and the way they could make us feel so scared and ashamed—how it’s given us riches, scarred and chipped ones, but riches all the same?

Or would the two grow out of it and grow more interested in cars and in the brand names of jeans and in making something of themselves?

§

After lunch, there was a way in which the last day mounted to softball and kickball and then descended into quiet hour when we each lay in our bunks and prayed or brushed our hair or thought about the way one of the boys brushed by us at second base. We turned reflective, and we turned our faces toward evening, almost reverently, so to be sure to remember it.

Besides Ben Grose, Jason Skipper was the boy whom all the girls loved and whom, on the last day, only Sarah got. There were signs of her claim on him in the middle of the week when she tied his sweatshirt round her waist, wore it when it rained (the rain filled the reservoir a bit and so a few of us got to wash in the bath house; I was one of the few, and afterward I added a smear from Crystal’s bottle of Beautiful because I thought nothing in the world smelled as good as that perfume, and I thought maybe Jason would agree, despite Sarah’s own Heavenly Scent body spray that she misted on thick).

A slate-rock stage stood beside the fence that divided the camp from a field that grazed someone’s cattle, and here we had our vespers before supper, led by each tribe in its turn, near sundown, toward the hillside where the other campers sat, some sitting close to one another. That summer I was in the tribe of Benjamin, and that evening, though some of us may have been too old for it, I led us in a song with hand motions.

Most of the songs were the same from year to year, from intermediate into senior camp, with a few new ones thrown in by the Asbury team. Perhaps, intentionally or not, they kept the songs the same to keep us young and childish, for it might have been that they knew how hard the world would be for us in time. They wished to keep us from the sadness, for they knew that some day the world would deliver an unbelievable grief. In many ways, we were about to start life, with its abiding shadow of death, with its sadness. And I wanted it. I want it still. But how to tell them, through the songs and the handclaps, that we wanted the sadness?

After the last line-up and a supper of ravioli and white bread, we all dressed up for the evening chapel service. Back in the girls’ cabin, Paige stopped me with my hand on the screen door latch because I had put a loose-fitting white sweater over my dress. She was a kind older counselor who seemed different from women like Corile or the Asbury singers. The homemade dress I wore had capped sleeves and a fitted bodice, yoked at the waist. It was pretty with pastels like an Easter dress. Paige saw me pull the baggy cardigan close to me and said I didn’t have to cover up like I didn’t want to look like a woman. I felt the dress on my skin, on my body. I’d washed before the reservoir had emptied again. I blushed at her but I slid the sweater off my shoulders and cradled it in a rumpled ball with my jean purse, and I pushed the screen door latch open.

A missionary had come with the Asbury group and given the chapel message without notes. Since it was the last night of camp, each of us girls had a cheap camera in a purse along with the lily- or kitten-cover journal. The missionary talked about his year in Africa, in Guinea-Bissau, and the way most of the missionaries got sick when they used an outhouse for the first time but how he, being from a poor farm town, was well-acquainted with that kind of toilet and could connect with the people in that regard, and he got some laughs since we were all familiar with outhouses, too, and could start to imagine ourselves with the African tribe, trying on a long bead necklace like the one the missionary wore over his tie. He spoke as though he’d memorized the words, wielding his right hand like a blade as he spoke. He broke into a sweat, despite the cool Cranesville night air, as he crescendoed to the altar call, a call to a life lived by the power of the resurrection, by the power of the resurrection of the Lord. He asked us to surrender everything to Jesus, and he asked Lois, Can we sing four-oh-six, “I Surrender All”? She led us with her watery voice, and we followed, many of us without needing to open the hymnal.

It was then, after this closing song, that the Asbury members (who were awkward enough in their own way and caught up as we all were) pulled down the white screen over Jesus’s acrylic face and shut off the overhead lights and started the film that featured the boy in the blue sweatshirt. And it was then—with the loamy scent of Jason Skipper tugging at me from two rows up—that I met the boy in blue and glimpsed in his face all that to which I was unable to give words. The day had been so full that, when I met the sudden resistance in him, I wept over it and my eyes burned.

He had been a poor disciple of the gospel, but I knew the boy had done the best he could. And though I was meant to see a rejection of this world in his face as he turned—a complete surrendering of it—I saw what I saw: a rejection of an otherworldliness. I felt strangely proud of him, comradely and sisterly, proud that he would not board the plane without looking back to show in his face something beyond the thin illustration that the film posed: a secret pact between him and me, with him glowing before he left, in the way that we can glow from even a mishandled fire, with him assuring me that the resurrection meant more than this being taken. I wanted him to stay so that we could work out our own words for the resurrection by practicing them as the world would change thereafter and as we would grow older and would move about in that world, soaked with its wet like white shirts in harsh bleach-water. The boy knew more about resurrection power than the filmmakers did, more than the missionary, more than any of us in that chapel, at least in the way I imagined him then.

I consider the boy’s glowing face now, and something of that secret pact remains. And I imagine resurrection again, like this: you spit up blood into paper towels and the doctors aren’t sure why, and that’s only part of what the years have given you, so you think, sure, you would love to come back in a brilliant new body—maybe, and maybe you will desire that even more fervently as the life roar becomes more and more muffled—but what is most remarkable to you, apart from the new body, is this thing that allows you to forgive your present body, to forgive your bitterness and forgive the dailiness of dying and your daily participation in it.

The Hedricks and the Asbury folks who wanted to protect us—and themselves—did so by trying to contain mystery within the walls of a tiny chapel surrounded by all that darkness. But some of us would start high school that next month, so maybe it was such that we in our limber bodies—which knew well a piece of land, the rise of the road, the path of a fox or a four-wheeler or, in the case of Ben and Autumn, a warm press of the hand—we would need to know how to live in the whorls of mystery outside of those walls, in the dark. To know a daily resurrection in the midst of things, through embarrassment or pain or disappointment, and not simply after it all passes—might not this belief have ached within the boy in blue?

But the film caught us up that night, and we listed the names of those to whom we’d tell its message, and since it was the last night of camp we dried our eyes and turned to the next page in our beloved ocean-scene journals to record each other’s addresses, promising to write late into the fall and winter. The film had started some of the boys talking again about what do to if the second coming of Christ happened while we were still living (we worried it would be soon); they made arrangements to meet during the great tribulation times. We’d meet at the camp, they said, and we’d call it the Afterglow since the darkness all around us would be great, and the battle of Armageddon would be stirring up before or after the rapture, we didn’t know. These were words from our studies in the Book of Revelation; they were words still without shape or shading in our minds. After the weight of the departure of the boy in the film, we were grateful for our own distracting fascination with the rapture. The idea of it gathered us up in a cloud that would soon enough deposit us back down on the mountain ground, as kids stung by the world as it was, by the days growing colder and by the beginning of high school.

§

But first, there was the campfire ring down the hill from the chapel, and on the last night, some of us walked down there with flashlights and some without, and those without held onto another’s sweatshirt sleeve.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest