I haven’t taken part in many weddings in my life, and none at all in recent years, so when my friend Laura asked me to read the Eighty-Fourth Psalm at her wedding last Saturday, I juggled my holiday plans and found a way to get myself to the church on time.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Laura is a writer who’s been living in Washington, D.C., for the past few years, but like me, she was born and raised in a small Missouri town, and when it came time for her to marry, she chose to tie the knot at home. It’s a four-hour drive from her town to mine, a bit too long to be casually undertaken in winter weather. Fortunately, she scheduled her wedding on the same day I was planning to go home for Christmas, so instead of driving straight from St. Louis to Smalltown, U.S.A., as I normally do, I picked up a rental car at the airport, drove to the church, got Laura married off, turned around, and headed for home.
A small-town church wedding is a thing unto itself, especially if you were to compare it to the last wedding I attended, a catered affair held in the banquet room of a fancy Westchester County restaurant and presided over by a wisecracking rabbi. Small-town men of the cloth are rarely heard to crack wise at weddings, nor does the food served at the wedding dinners over which they preside typically run to the overelaborate. Laura’s menu, for instance, consisted of baked ham and hashbrown casserole, served up piping hot in the fellowship hall of the First Christian Church of Columbia, Missouri. I can’t tell you how many meals I’ve eaten in such halls over the years, none of them fancy and all of them good, though this would be the first one I’d been served while listening to the sounds of a local DJ who specialized in such Fifties standards as Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Not exactly the sort of thing you expect to hear in a fellowship hall, I thought with a smile as I sipped my non-alcoholic punch.
The sanctuary of the church was bedecked with poinsettas and lit by candles, and every pew as far as my dazzled eye could see was jammed full of people who acted as though they knew one another, which they probably did. Having changed hurriedly into my travel-crumpled suit in the men’s room, I waited for my cue in the vestibule, eavesdropping on the family and friends of the bride and groom and delighting in snatches of the kind of talk you rarely hear at a Westchester County wedding (“So how do you like my new suit, honey? Didn’t I tell you I was gonna buy me a suit for the wedding?”). Then I took my place by the pulpit and watched Laura walk down the aisle, and at the appointed moment I stood and spoke the ancient words she had asked me to read, not daring to catch her eye for fear of choking up:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young–a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
I sat down again to watch my beloved friend embark on her new life. She looked flushed and radiant and determined, and I, perhaps not surprisingly, found myself tugged between hope for her future and curiosity about my own. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is uncomfortable for me at best, and I’d been at loose emotional ends for the past couple of weeks. (You know your emotions are up in the air when every piece of music you hear, good and bad alike, makes you cry.) Now I was sitting in a place redolent of my long-ago youth, at once utterly alien and utterly familiar, feeling not unlike the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, who wandered through her palace at midnight, stopping all the clocks, trying to turn her back on time.
I will…I will…you may kiss the bride. A kilted bagpiper stationed in the balcony struck up the Ode to Joy, Laura and her Ben marched back down the aisle, and a few minutes later I was dishing up hashbrown casserole and wondering whether I’d be able to make it all the way to Smalltown, U.S.A., before bedtime. I’d warned my mother that I’d probably spend the night in a motel just south of St. Louis, but the clock on the wall of the fellowship hall told me that I could be home by midnight, weather and coincidence permitting, so I kissed the bride and her sisters, got in my car, and drove around town until I found an exit to the highway, alone with my double-edged memories.
To the solitary stranger, the highways of Missouri are flat and harsh-looking in wintertime. Only the traveler for whom they point toward home can find anything like beauty in mile upon mile of leafless trees and drab brown fields. To me they are as lovely as a Corot–but only when the sun lights up the vast blue dome of sky. At night you can see nothing but the thin ribbon of road and the cold silver stars hanging above the plains, and you switch on the radio half from boredom and half from fear of the dark. I skated impatiently across the dial, finding nothing but slick-sounding FM stations whose music seemed untouched by human hands. I pushed a different button, and out of the misty static of the AM band came a sound so recognizable that I stopped breathing for one astonished moment. It was the voice of Porter Wagoner, introducing a commercial for Martha White Flour. I had accidentally tuned in WSM in Nashville, and now I was listening to the Grand Ole Opry, wafted on the frigid night air all the way from Opryland, U.S.A., to the waiting radio of a rental car headed east on I-70 for St. Louis and points beyond.
Next to nothing had changed about the Opry since I’d last heard it: Porter Wagoner soon gave way to Whispering Bill Anderson, who in turn introduced Del McCoury, the dean of bluegrass, who sang “Blue Christmas” in the high, hacksaw tenor he had honed during his years on the road with Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. I remembered with perfect clarity how it felt to sit in the balcony of the Ryman Auditorium when I was sixteen years old, looking down on the distant stage that all the greats of country music had trod. Once my mother and her father had listened to the Opry every Saturday night, and for a brief moment my teenaged self had actually dreamed of playing there.
Life had carried me far away from that dream, just as the Opry itself had moved from the penny-plain Ryman to an expensive new home on the outskirts of town. Even Martha White Flour, the cheerful-voiced announcer proclaimed, had a Web site now. Change and decay in all around I see? No, not really. Porter Wagoner and Whispering Bill, after all, were still singing of lost love in the weather-whacked voices I had known as a boy, and their mournful laments were somehow transformed into tidings of comfort and joy as I rolled through the night. Thirty years had slipped away since I’d packed my bags and gone forth to find my place in the world, yet I was coming home again to the same house on the same street in the same town in the same corner of Missouri, listening to the same music. Am I, then, the same person? I asked myself. And does it matter if I’m not?
As I pulled off I-70 to steer around St. Louis, I took my cell phone out of my shoulder bag and called my mother. “I’m making pretty good time,” I told her, “so I think I’ll come all the way home tonight. Don’t stay up for me–I won’t get in until half past midnight–but leave the porch light on.”
“I will,” she said. “Pull off if you get sleepy, all right? Do you promise?”
“I will, Mom,” I said. “I promise.”
Two hours later I eased into the driveway of her house, unlocked the back door as quietly as I could, and tiptoed down the hall to my old bedroom, dragging my battered suitcases behind me. Whoever I am, I’m home again, I told myself as I pushed open the door and saw the homemade redwood bookshelf and the faded portrait of Abraham Lincoln that has hung by the door to the bathroom for as long as I can remember. I crawled into bed, pulled the covers up to my chin, listened for the freight-train whistles keening halfway across town, and slowly drifted off to sleep, a worn-out, middle-aged sparrow come home to rest.