Hymns in a Woman’s Life
Among the first songs I remember hearing are the hymns my great-grandmother sang: “I’ll Fly Away,” “Do Lord,” “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.” Doubtless I had heard other hymns before these, and still others with greater frequency, but to this day when I think of hymns, it is my great-grandmother who comes to mind.
Her name was Elmay (pronounced “Elmy”). She lived in a holler in West Virginia, on land owned by the company for which my great-grandfather dug coal. We would see them twice, maybe three times, a year, once at their house on Thanksgiving, and at least once at my grandparents’ place in Nashville, where they visited for a couple of weeks each summer.
I was the first of the fourth generation of the family, and, being the oldest by several years, spent considerable time with my great-grandmother, much of it alone. I liked her. She was very short, and I suspect her height had much to do with my affection for her. Grownups were tall, which meant removed, but from an early age, she and I were within range.
Her blue eyes were big and blurry behind thick bifocals. Her hair, once blonde, had thinned and faded smoky white. She was the oldest woman I’d ever met, the oldest person alive for all I knew, but, in retrospect, she wasn’t so ancient. She’d had her children young, and they’d had their children young, and those kids, the first in the family to go to college (my mother among them), the first to never once step foot inside a coalmine, had had children, too. As a result, she’d become a great-grandmother while still in her eighth decade.
Mostly she sat in chairs, which is not to say she was idle. While the men hunted squirrels or stood around tailgates telling stories, she shucked corn, peeled potatoes, snapped beans, and stitched quilts. While she worked, between chatter about the weather and what I wanted to be when I grew up, she sang hymns.
In particular, she sang hymns about heaven. “I’ll fly away, O glory.” “There’s a land that is fairer than day.” “When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun.” Her voice was quiet. In a mountain accent, dulcet for all its strange diphthongs, she spoke, more than sang, the words. She had them from memory, which is to say by heart. At times they seemed almost as natural, as necessary, as breath.
Filled with glassy seas and golden shores and mansions outshining the sun, her hymns, it struck me even as a child, described places that were unfamiliar to her. She came from Appalachia, from hills and hollers, creeks and caves. The nearest sea was 400 miles away. The sky was just a wedge between two mountains. Even in summer, sunshine was scarce.
Like the land, she was well-acquainted with shadows. I had heard the stories. How every morning she’d send her husband down into the mountain darkness. How every second of every day she tried not to listen for the bell, the ringing of which meant the worst had happened, a collapse in the tunnel, an explosion in a shaft. In the evening she filled a wooden tub with well-water she’d heated over fire. From my great-grandfather’s hair, face, neck, and arms, she washed and washed the rank coaldust that never fully washed away.
She kept bees, kept chickens, kept hillside gardens, kept a good heart. It was a matter of survival. My grandfather was the oldest of six: five sons and a daughter. When weather or economics shuttered the colliery and the miners traveled north to find work in factories, my grandmother’s family (her future in-laws) dropped leftovers by the house anonymously, so worried were they that the children might starve.
What did hymns mean to my great-grandmother? How did they figure into her hard life? Was it nostalgia that endeared them to her memory? Was singing them just one of many mindless ways to while away the time?
In his essay “Hymns in a Man’s Life,” the British writer D.H. Lawrence confesses an abiding love of church songs. “They mean to me almost more than the finest poetry,” Lawrence writes, “and they have for me a more permanent value, somehow or other.” For Lawrence, a coal miner’s son who grew up attending a Congregationalist church but no longer counted himself among the believers, the power that hymns continued to exert over him was a source of surprise, even amusement.
In the end, it isn’t their faculty for inspiration, let alone their spiritual import, that make hymns indelible to Lawrence. It’s their capacity to generate what he calls “wonder.” The mere look and sound of certain words and phrases from the hymnbook—“sun of my soul,” “lake of Galilee,” “beauty of holiness”—fill Lawrence with a sense of absentminded awe. “I don’t know what the ‘beauty of holiness’ is exactly,” he writes. “But if you don’t think about it—and why should you?—it has a magic.”
I cannot say for sure, but for my great-grandmother, I think something like the opposite was true. It wasn’t mainly aesthetics, sentimentality, or wonder for wonder’s sake, that made hymns about heaven so dear to her. It was the hope they articulated, the future they described. It was their promise of a better life than the one she deserved or had endured. It was their assurance of a final judgment and of an eternal rest, one that she believed awaited her—as it awaited all those who’d placed their trust in Christ—on, as one of her favorite hymns put it, “the farther shore.”
The summer I turned eight years old, my family took a trip to Florida. We rented a passenger van and drove down from Tennessee. It was a big deal because my great-grandparents came with us. It was their first time seeing the ocean.
The morning after we arrived, my great-grandmother took me for a walk on the beach, and if I close my eyes, I can still picture her now.
She’s barefoot in the sand. Her pants are rolled. Her heavy arms are hanging by her side. The wind presses against her white hair. Through her glasses, thick as ever, she is gazing out at the expanse, at the water, at the sky, at all that blue.
She didn’t sing then. She was silent. It was as if, there at the edge of the land near the end of her life, she had stepped inside the hymns she’d carried with her, tuning her heart by them all the while and focusing her faith, which at that moment seemed very close to sight.