Her name was Elvirah, but she told me to call her “Peaches,” and so I did without thinking.
At that time,sitting in the cold metal chairs listening to the choir director’s angry voice demanding that we sing like saints, I had no idea she was trying cover herself up, to erase the fact that her name wasn’t like Sam, or Susan, or Debby, and that her skin stood out in our congregation like Jesus on the cross.
Her family came to our church when I was 11, and on that day they were given a Christian welcome by our minister and the entire Sunday congregation. After the service, in the parlors, we were one family, standing together holding plates of cookies, eager to draw our new lambs into the fold. People smiled and greeted and laughed and even touched her parents on the arm, pulling them in. I had no idea that something wasn’t right. The glow of Christian Fellowship spread over us all.
Peaches and I spent that whole coffee hour together, and after that, we were always together on Sundays. In time, the welcome wore off, like the diction in the youth choir, slipping away at the end of the song, muddling the words and the meaning. Peaches’ family sat alone in a pew with wide spaces of red velvet cushions empty on either side, and the rest of the congregation squeezed together on other pews. My father led us to our usual spot in the balcony, and I didn’t question why her family sat alone in the midst of our Holy Spirit.
At Sunday evening youth group, the children’s pastor read the Bible passage quickly as usual, and herded us to the Christian Fun Activity of the week. Peaches and I stood alone, waiting. I was always picked last for teams, like at school, but after Peaches arrived, I realized that my “last” was entirely different from the “last” where everyone put Peaches.
In Mr. Biser’s choir practice, I finally had a friend. We were petrified as Mr. Biser sat at the shiny black piano in the front of our lines of chairs, his voice demanding, “MAJOR, or MINOR!” while we waited for our turn to answer. He slammed his fat fingers into the white keys then stared at each of us, waiting, a forever frown on his face. I didn’t understand then what he was talking about, and dreaded the muffled laughter after my quaking voice questioned ,“Minor? Uhh, major?” and then back again as Mr.Biser shook his head in disgust. I couldn’t even guess right half the time. But Peaches never laughed at me, not once. She would reach over and grab my hand just before it was my turn, and she would squeeze the whole time when the choirmaster’s loud voice demanded something from me that I had no clue how to give.
I think Peaches tried to give me the answers in her measured pressure on my hand, but I was too nervous to understand what she was telling me. It wasn’t a mystery to her like it was to me. And even though Peaches answered him quietly and correctly each time, Mr. Biser never looked pleased that she got it right. He just moved on to the next choir member without a nod or a lift in his perpetual angry frown.
Before Peaches and her family came to East Congregational Church, I went to the service on Sunday mornings, and to Sunday school and choir practice after that. Then I went to the Sunday evening youth group. I was a faithful Christian, like everyone else. I used to look forward to the moment in the morning service where the minister would say, “And we will excuse the children now to go to their Sunday school classes.” We would all thankfully shake the sleep from our eyes and head out to the back of the sanctuary, up the old stairs, and into the classrooms.
I liked talking about David and Goliath, about Samson and the Tower of Babel. I imagined Jesus in his dusty sandals, saving us all on a street covered with long green fronds where camels walked. I loved the choir robes, the sound of our voices filling the top of the beautiful sanctuary that my Sunday school teacher told me was designed to look like praying hands. I liked going to youth group a bit less, though I still went. No one really talked to me there, but they weren’t mean. They said hi when I walked into the room, and then tolerated me. They let me play the games they did, so I thought this was very Christian of them. After all, even Jesus held his arms open for the lepers. I was taught that He loved all of the little children.
But when Peaches and I became inseparable, I realized that it wasn’t normal for Christians with their praying hands and Jesus-filled hearts to accept everyone. And that I was ignored because I was inconsequential before she arrived. But my friendship with Peaches moved me out of the sanctuary into a place where we stood alone, among something much darker and more elusive than the sounds of the chords on the church piano. What was playing then was a hymn about God, where the words and the music no longer went together. A congregation singing in discord, proclaiming that when Jesus held his arms out wide for the masses, his reach did not really include people like Peaches and her family. His reach did not include me any longer.
At youth group one evening, after Peaches had been with us for a few weeks, they picked me. The blond twins, the popular boys with the alligator shirts with the collars perched high to their ears, asked me to be on their team. They asked me first, before the other kids were grouped up, and I felt the warmth of God and the church and the whole world fill me as I walked over to them and stood within the fold for the first time. I was so busy trying to think of what to say that I didn’t notice Peaches standing alone. The two groups laughed themselves into the game quickly, and I was buried happily in their midst. The youth minister, busy with his game preparations, his head in a giant bag of ropes and noodles and other Fun Christian Activities, didn’t notice a thing.
The next week, I couldn’t find Peaches. The whole family just disappeared, vanished. Looking back, I’m sure Peaches and her family understood what I hadn’t. They had to see what I was allowed to close my eyes to. I see now that even I, an outlier in the group, had the hope of one day being a part of the congregation. This privilege not extended to Peaches and her family.
When I no longer felt Peaches’ friendly squeeze on my hand during choir practice, the world that I thought I knew began to peel away. I wondered why I never took a seat on those empty red cushions next to her family. I heard the sound of my silence. I heard the sound of my part in giving them a wide berth. I realized only then that I had never bothered to get her phone number or her address. I didn’t even know where she lived. When I asked about them in the parlors of Christian Faith and Fellowship, people just smiled and said, “I don’t know, honey,” and, “I guess they moved.” They patted my head., told me not to worry about it, told me to get another cookie and another cup of punch. I saw the veiled relief behind their eyes as they turned to greet the other worshippers streaming into the Christian social hour.
I saw other things then in the beautiful layer of my choir robe and the magical sound of singing in the sanctuary. I saw ugly things, like young white Christians avoiding a black girl, and the youth minister acting as if nothing were wrong. I saw that empty velvet cushion stretching out all around their family, and the polite blankness that looked through them inside what I thought was God’s sanctuary. And I saw myself, standing in my choir robes amidst the others, climbing the risers just to belong, so much so that I was willing to leave Peaches behind.
I left the choir, left the youth group, and finally, after so many fights with my parents, left the church. For too long, I had stayed in that icy metal chair, wondering what our choirmaster meant when he growled and demanded, “MAJOR, or MINOR?!” I had longed for understanding, to get it right just once and finally to be accepted.
I see now what it was all about, what Mr. Biser was asking of all of us so long ago. It was the sound of piano chords being struck. The light sound of promise and privilege in one hand, and the melancholy of something dark and ugly and final in the other.
We had to choose, no matter which hymn filled the sanctuary.
Ann Fisher lives and writes in Vermont, where she facilitates two writers workshops in Addison County. She is a reader for the Mud Season Review, out of Burlington, VT. She has two published pieces, one in ZigZagLitMag, and one upcoming piece in the Spring publication of the Heartwood Literary Magazine.