London is a city of churches and my mother loved the church bells calling to one another over the rooftops. She said you could tell one church from another from the sound of the bells. The bells were that distinct, like human voices. The bells at Saint Paul’s overwhelmed her, just as the grandeur of the sanctuary overwhelmed her, having grown up in a small and modest Carolina church that had no bell at all. My mother was a grown woman before she fell in love with church bells, but I was born to them. Riding in my pram, I thought the tintinnabulation of the English air a natural kind of music. Even in America as a boy, I knew the hour was late not because the light had run out, but because bells rang from the Methodist church. Those Virginia bells weren’t like England’s consecrated bells that pealed in rounds and tolled for kings and queens. In fact, the Virginia bells weren’t bells at all, but a recording the Methodists broadcast through crackling loudspeakers. Still, the bells were lovely and hearing them I knew it was suppertime and that my mother was laying the table and that the bells would ring for fifteen minutes and I’d better hurry home and I’d leave my friends and walk through the autumn leaves in the dark. Our house faced the church. My high attic window framed the steeple and cross, silent at night and silhouetted against the black sky and blowing clouds, the haunted moon and lonely stars. Even now, at the end of a winter day in Chicago when I drive home in the dark to the suburbs, admonishing myself for all the wonderful things I did not tell my students about Shelley or Keats, my last turn is at an empty church, where bells ring eventide over the village and I slow down to listen.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.