"HeavenlyFatherwedohumblythankThee(breathe) forwhatwe'reabouttoreceive(breathe) forthenourishmentofourbodies(breathe)for Christ's sake Amen."
Daddy had recited this prayer so many times, the punctuation marks and capital letters had all worn away and the words had rearranged themselves to match Daddy's breathing patterns. When he was away from home, Mama designated one of us six kids to bless the table. Invariably, we phrased it with all Daddy's worn away edges, whatever our own natural rhythm might have been. I can't recite that blessing even now without doing it exactly the way Daddy did.
After Daddy said the magic words, each of us recited a Bible verse. Usually, everyone said the shortest one in the Bible: "Jesus wept." I never doubted the truth of Mama's warning that unblessed food would give us a stomachache. It was simple cause and effect: step out into traffic and get hit by a car. Skip the blessing and get a stomachache.
But even at dinner, I rarely said "Jesus wept." Instead, I would spend hours before dinner with the Bible, finding long, twisty verses full of archaic language. No one dared interrupt a recitation from the Bible, so I got to orate for as long as I liked. Often, I'd end my orations with a vocal flourish and a derisive "Jesus wept."
One Saturday morning, Daddy woke us at 6 a.m. with a drill sergeant's cold purpose, as had become his practice over the last few months. We girls were required to clean without ceasing until the late afternoon. He wouldn't even allow us to listen to the radio while we worked because "This ain't no party."
In the afternoon, he passed by on an inspection sweep, whistling "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." It was one of my favorite hymns, so I joined in. Briskly, he stuck his head in and informed me I was going to Hell.
I stopped mid-whistle.
He recited priggishly: "A whistling woman and a crowing hen both come to a bad end." His shrug said, "Sorry, not my rule."
"I thought hens had to crow," I said stupidly. He seemed so calm about my eternal damnation; I was more disturbed by his easy abandonment of me than anything else.
"Y'all don't never learn nothin' in the country," he answered. "Roosters. 'S roosters that crow. Males. Women got they jobs and men got they's. Decent women don't whistle. Just like they don't cut they hair ner wear pants ner answer back. 'S mannish. The Bible say."
This caught my fancy. More than a devoted reader, I loved indices, tables of contents, appendices, footnotes, almanacs, dictionaries--I adored fact checking. When ministers gave chapter and verse in church, I raced the old ladies to find it first.
Old Testament or New? I wondered. Knowing my Daddy, it had to be Old. So I asked him, "Where?"
His lips thinned. I was "quizzin'" him, calling him a fool. He turned on his heel and left.
We cleaned pretty much straight through until dinner with a lunch break only long enough for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was starved. My stomach rumbled and gurgled through Daddy's blessing. There was grape Kool-Aid, fried chicken, black-eyed peas with cornbread and fresh tomatoes, my favorite meal. More hungry than neurotic for once, I opted for simplicity. I lowered my standards and mumbled a fairly commonplace "Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." For the rest of the table, it was "Jesus wep's" all around. I won.
He flung the paper down so it landed just off to my side on the floor. The advertisement section opened to an ad featuring four women: three white, one black. The sister was right up front.
I looked at it for a nanosecond too long. I knew when I raised my head that Daddy would be staring me down. I said nothing, kept my face blank. Looking away might well be considered backtalking. I held my breath and held his gaze, trying to look as stupid as possible. Finally Mama cleared her throat and sent me upstairs to make sure there was toilet paper in the bathroom.
When I returned, Daddy looked calm. I sat silently for a minute, then resumed eating. Or tried to. My fork was gone. For a comically long time, I looked around for it on the floor even though I knew where it had to be: a million miles away. Neatly centered and squared with the far side of his plate.
For the rest of the meal, he never looked at me. He made chirpy small talk to which everyone responded with extreme caution. Across from him, Mama's eyes fixed somewhere through and beyond the window behind him. As each of my siblings made it furtively known that they wanted to leave, she nodded permission. Finally, just the three of us were left. Without one clever thought in my head, I did what I had to. I let the tears roll down my face.