My oldest sister, Winifred, dressed me in my finest that morning, a white organdy dress with a blue satin sash that tied in the back. At three, almost four, I knew that this was going to be a special day. I didn’t understand Winifred’s lack of enthusiasm as she chided me for squirming while she made Shirley Temple style ringlets in my hair with a curling iron that she heated in the kitchen stove. I was too young to connect dressing up with long sermons and having to sit quietly for hours. I would learn the truth about Home-Comings at Central Methodist Church later on.
At the dinner-on-the-ground that day Momma sat me down in the grass with a plate full of fried chicken and my favorite treat, peanut butter and crackers, while she and the other women served the visiting preachers and special guests. My cousin, Junior, older and wiser than I at age six, was in charge of watching me. Actually, it was the other way around: I watched Junior. My Momma said sit, so I dared not get up. I watched Junior’s flitting back and forth across the church yard, sailing paper plates like Frisbees. Frisbees weren’t invented at that time, but when I see kids playing with them I am convinced that the concept was born in the mind of some boy at a Home-Coming Dinner-on-the-Ground.
I finished the food and began to entertain myself by picking the sunshine-colored flowers around me. I thought they were surely the most beautiful flowers in the whole world, little bits of the golden sun on that perfect, cloudless day. Soon Junior bounded back to me and informed me that they were “only dandelions.” He touched one to my chin and told me that he had put butter there. I didn’t know about that, but I did know that it felt cool and soft. Junior picked more from out of my reach and we enjoyed putting the “butter” (pollen) on each other’s face.
The game stopped when our mothers called to us. A crowd had gathered around a large wash tub one of the men had just brought. Junior shrieked “ice cream!” and ran ahead of me. The man was taking small cups of ice cream out of the tub, filled with ice, and passing them with little wooden spoons to the children. The adults laughed at our reactions to the enigmatic cold sweetness that hurt and delighted at the same time. And that was the way I was introduced to the most heavenly taste I had ever known. We didn’t have electricity or refrigeration in Flatridge then, so this was a rare treat indeed. Ice in June? Unbelievable!
After dinner we assembled back in the church building, which by now was hot and stuffy in spite of the fact that the windows were raised to the limits and all the ladies were using fans. The fans were common fixtures in all churches. They were supplied by the funeral establishments in Marion and Independence. I liked to look at the pictures on them, usually of Jesus and the children, or Jesus as the Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb in His arms.
I listened to the singing of the adults around me and wondered at the words they were saying:
I’m living on the mountain underneath the cloudless sky,
I’m drinking from the fountain that never shall run dry,
O yes, I’m feasting on the manna from a bountiful supply
For I am dwelling in Beulah Land.*
I thought they were singing about the dinner we had just enjoyed on the church yard in the clear sunshine, on a mountain side, but I couldn’t figure out why they called it Beulah’s land. Beulah lived up in the valley, and rarely ever came to church!
Later that afternoon a lady and her husband sang a duet. My mother allowed me to stand on the pew beside her so I could see better. The rather portly woman was wearing a purple dress and a wide brimmed white hat with bangles on it that bounced as she swayed with the rhythm. They were accompanied by a lady playing the pump organ. She was working hard, pushing the pedals with her feet as her hands pounded the keys. My attention moved back and forth between the action of both the women. I was totally engrossed by what I was seeing and hearing. I remember the song being produced with such gusto. It captured my imagination, although I had never actually seen a train or a railroad:
Life is like a mountain railroad,
With an engineer that’s brave;
You must make the run successful
From the cradle to the grave.
Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels,
Never falter, never quail,
Keep your hand upon the throttle
And your eye upon the rail.
Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us
Till we reach that blissful shore,
Where the angels wait to join us
In God’s praise forever more.**
So Heaven is more than this? I couldn’t imagine anything being better than sitting in a field of sunshine and golden flowers, or tasting the tantalizing cold sweetness of ice cream!
*The name, “Beulah,” which means “married,” is used in Isaiah 62:4 as a symbolic name to refer to Israel in a future time of restoration and prosperity. The hymn, “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” was written by C. Austin Miles in 1911 and included in the Cokesbury Hymnal, Nashville, Tennessee, 1938.
**”Life’s Railroad to Heaven,” was written by Charlie Tillman, c. 1930.