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How Sweet the Sound

I'D gone "over home," as they say in Savannah, referring to a visit to any place called home that is away from town and above sea level. If you go visit your mama in Charleston, Macon, Atlanta, or Columbia, it's still "over home." At my mama's house in the country, I'd picked up pecans, thin-hulled Stuarts, and discovered some scuppernongs. I'd eaten those sweet grapes with their thick, bronze skins until my lips itched, just the way I did as a child.

Mama came into the room where I was packing. "You sound just like your grandmama," she said.

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"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You ... singing those old hymns all the time. She used to do that too."

I promise you, I was totally unaware that I was singing at the time, much less that I was singing an old hymn.

Lead Kindly Light' was always one of her favorites," Mama said.

If someone had awakened me in the middle of the night and said, "Quick, what's the first line of 'Lead Kindly Light I would have been speechless if not songless.

Why always hymns, I wondered. I'm not the only person brought up in a Presbyterian household with a grandmother who sang. My brother doesn't do it. Of course, he can't carry a tune in a bucket so that could account for that, I suppose. But Huberta Marguerite, my grandmother, sang softly as she sewed or made pie crust. I've heard her whistle to the birds as she fed them. Wild birds flocked around her in the garden. She could talk to them, cheeping away as she fed them. I always wanted to do that but they would disappear as soon as I appeared, unable to share her magic.

Evidently I sing a lot and whistle, too.

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Not long ago, I was walking through Wright Square and paused to wait for the traffic to make the turn so I could cross York Street. An older lady looked at me as we waited. "That's one of my favorites, too," she said.


Amazing Grace.' I heard you whistling it as you came through the square. It takes me back."

It takes me back, too.

When I was a child, I had a friend named Obie Joyful. Obie loved everything with wings ... birds, planes, angels. I suppose Obie was what would have been called an idiot savant had he lived someplace other than rural Alabama. But in the part of the South where I grew up, Obie was simply called "afflicted." Obie had two special gifts: He could tell you the mileage of every car that ever came through town and stopped at the stoplight long enough for him to stick his head in the window and read the odometer , and he could sing like an angel. "Amazing Grace" was Obie's favorite hymn.

I remember once, when Obie and I were sitting at the table in my aunt's kitchen watching Polly, my aunt's cook, make biscuits for dinner.

When she'd put aside the biscuits for dinner, Polly made two big, fat "cathead" biscuits for Obie and me. We poked holes in the hot biscuits and filled them with butter and cane syrup, licking the sweet mixture off our fingers. Obie didn't talk much, and never while he was eating. When we finished this gourmet feast, Obie began to sing. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me...

From outside the kitchen window, the song of a mockingbird rose and fell with liquid grace, mingling with the song Obie sang, both songs rising into the summer air as sweetly as the scent of homemade bread. Polly listened with her eyes closed as Obie sang. And when he finished, she wiped the tears from her eyes with her apron. "Jesus loves that chile," she said, "to have given him a voice like that."

A friend who is a theologian has a theory about what he terms "holy coincidences," when one door opens and lights the way to another. Perhaps music, those "old hymns," makes that leap from one heart to another, and like a curve of gold, binds us even for a moment.

One dull, drear afternoon, I was sitting in my third-floor studio feeling sorry for myself. I'd just received that discouraging lump in a Manila envelope with my own return address in the corner that signaled a rejected manuscript. My telephone rang.

"Smith's has fresh crabmeat for sale," said my neighbor.

I looked outside. It was going to pour any minute.

"I don't think so," I said.

"It's claw meat," said Anna.

m on my way," I said.

In this coastal city, rain showers come and go as quickly as moods and when I reached the market it was raining hard. By the time I got inside, my umbrella had turned wrongside out in a gust of wind and I was soaked. I wondered why I'd thought the confounded crabmeat was worth the trouble.

Natually, while I was there I picked up a few other things; artichoke hearts for the crabmeat dish, fresh Vidalia onions, round and glossy as marbles, and catfood for Sister, my spoiled and beautiful cat. I wrote a check for my groceries and followed Arthur outside to the parking lot. The rain had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Arthur is an older black man who works at the market and spends his Sundays singing at local nursing homes. He has a good voice and sings hymns. As he came around to the pas senger side of the car, he began to sing. "Which side are you on? Which side are you on?"

I'd heard Arthur singing that particular song before, with its chorus of "Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen. so I began to sing with him. He lined the words for me, singing just a little bit ahead of me the way lining used to be done in poor black churches where there were not enough hymnals to serve the entire congregation. We finished, standing side by side in the rain-washed parking lot.

When I asked Arthur how he knew I could sing, he replied, "I hear you sing lots of times." Which meant of course that I'd been walking through the market singing without being aware that I was doing so.

"Oh, Arthur," I said, dismayed. "Do I?"

"You do," he said. "You sing those old hymns."

"Somebody's gonna lock me up one of these days," I muttered, getting into my car.

"Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen," Arthur sang as he walked back to the market.

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