The other day I heard my father’s voice.
My father died in 2011. Hearing his voice again was an unexpected treat.
Now, before you start envisioning séances and magical meetings, let me explain.
I was searching for my father’s birthplace online. Crazy, I know. But I can never remember where he was born. I mean, it’s not like I was there. And he and his family moved around a bit. All I knew was West Virginia. Since West Virginia’s been much in the news of late, on account of a certain senator from that great state, I wanted to double check my father’s birthplace. I found it, Drennan, an unincorporated community in Nicholas County. It’s kind of smackdab in the middle of the state. In the process of seeking this information, though, I stumbled upon a website with a recording of my father’s voice. The recording dated from April 13, 1962 and he was delivering a chapel talk at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he was then an Assistant Professor of Missions. Curious, I clicked play.
And there he was.
It didn’t sound like him at first. His voice was reedier, more nasal. The longer I listened, though, the more he returned to me. The cadences, the rhythm, the dramatic pauses, that was the voice I used to thrill to hear when I was a little girl.
We glide over the hills. The old station wagon sails, and the late summer colors stream past green and gold. My father is on his way to give the Sunday sermon at the country church where he is the interim pastor. He lets my little brother and me join him. It is always fun. He tells us stories as we drive to Zebulon and then beyond. He makes us laugh. “Why looky the-ah, that fella forgot his yella tractor! It’s yella!” He says the words in what he assumes is imitation of President Kennedy. It’s 1962. “Yella,” my brother repeats, and we explode in gales of laughter. By the time we reach the church, we’re near hysteria. It’s hard to calm down.
My father’s sermon is on acceptance. On making a place for Jesus.
“Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Sitting quietly in the pew alongside some lady I do not know, my mind races out the stained-glass window and into the woods, the kind of woods where my father occasionally takes us for walks. The pine needles are soft and the air clean. Why can’t the Son of Man live there, I wonder. I bet the foxes wouldn’t mind.
Actually, I’ve never really seen a fox hole. It’s probably not very big. But even so, for the Son of Man, I’m sure the foxes would share.
My reveries are brought to a halt. The lady beside me is squeezing my knee. We are all standing for the benediction. My father offers a final prayer and then he strides down the aisle to the front of the church as the members of the congregation remain with heads bowed, singing.
“Blessed be the ties that bind, our hearts in Christian love.”
I peek as my father walks passed. He is tall and his gait is easy and sure.
“The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Aaaaameeen.”
The lady beside me holds me briefly in her arms and exclaims what a wonderful message my father had preached. I wonder if that furry thing around her neck is a fox! It has black beads for eyes and legs that dangle. I squirm furiously to free myself from her embrace. My brother and I rush outside to stand next to our father as he shakes the hands of the church members. Some stop to chat a bit. Some pat my brother on the head.
If the church were far from home my father would stay with one of the members for Sunday dinner. We were sure to have a glorious feast of good home cooking. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Often ham. Butter beans and okra. Homemade pickles—cucumber or watermelon rind. Everything would be fresh. Garden picked and farm raised.
The conversation would be polite and cordial until one man would challenge my father on his sermon.
“Brother Copeland,” he would start.
“Why do you reckon the Good Book tells us . . . ?”
And so would begin a discussion of doctrine that couldn’t possibly conclude in anything but a draw. The man who raised the question already had the answer firmly fastened in his mind. Even so, he was no match for Brother Copeland when it came to theological debates. My father was courteous but he wouldn’t back down from his convictions.
I liked watching my father discuss Christian doctrine.