Simple Gifts [previously published in élan Magazine]
This is how it often was, a car full of elbows and feet, slapping hands, brother teasing, sisters hitting and yelling, father cussing, mother admonishing, hound dog yodeling, camping gear clanging, rooftop tarp flapping, the steady tap-tap-tap of tires on concrete, wind in my face.
Sometimes I’d stick my tongue out until it was all dried up from the streaking air tide. Being a kid, I didn’t think about the dead bugs, dirt and whatnot that was also sailing in the bluster to be sucked into my tunneling mouth. That was way before antiseptic mouth rinses and hand sterilizers, it was just life.
I was always happy when we were on the move, and my parents must have felt the same because we took a lot of camping trips and each night we’d sing around the campfire: Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, Down By the Old Mill Stream. My father taught us all the old songs and he had such a beautiful booming voice that folks at neighboring campsites would ask if they could join us.
Gregarious to the very core, my father always said yes, and songs went on long into the night after I'd gone to sleep in the tent I shared with my sisters, the rock my father had rolled away from the fire and wrapped in newspaper to place at the foot of my sleeping bag warm even at dawn when I awoke to the smell of bacon frying on the Coleman stove and heard my parents talking quietly outside the tent.
That feeling of belonging to my life is exquisitely expressed in the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” which concluded every concert by the Virginia Women’s Chorus when my girls were at UVA.
'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free
'Tis a gift to come down to where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Sweet enchanting voices would start out like a hum, swelling and soon soaring, filling the gorgeous rafters of the chapel with otherworldly song, reaching out and drawing us in, then receding, soothing, calming us down only to fill us again as heavenly harmonies started over in a different octave, four times or five, bringing tears to our eyes, tears of remembrance for pasts we hadn’t known, and places we may have seen only in dreams; tears of happiness for all the songs we'd ever sung with all the people we have loved.