G.E. Wilkins


I was at Sherwood Baptist Church when I realized God didn’t exist. I was eight years old, and it was the summer that the AC went out. The air was hot and wet inside, and the women in big hats waved paper fans glued to popsicle sticks; all they did was spread the heat around. My mama was singing in the choir. The colored lights from the stained glass window illuminated her sweating face. I stood in the front row in my poufy dress and lace-trimmed white socks mimicking the worship around me – hands lifted, praises shouted – not fully understanding. Sister Eileen caught the Holy Ghost (for the third time that service) and was running around the wooden pews, and Brother Williams was banging his tambourine to the beat of the song. Every Sunday was the same. Sister Eileen would run around the building, Brother Williams would bang his tambourine, Mama would sing in the choir, I would sit in the front row. Nothing was real anymore, genuine anymore.


I used to be able to feel His presence when Mama sang. She stood a step ahead of the rest of the choir with the train of the white robe trailing the floor. Her doe-brown eyes looked at the beams of the ceiling, looked at God. She raised her black hands, rough and dry from work. And when she started to sing I could feel God there. My heart would beat in my ears and a chill would go down my spine, my arms, my stomach, and I would need to lift my hands towards heaven. It was involuntary. Like inhaling a big gulp of air after swimming underwater for a while. That was how I knew He was there. But I hadn’t been feeling that lately.


My mama had always been a praying woman. She prayed when she woke up before she ate, in the shower, on the walk to work, while scrubbing floors. I could always hear her deep, raspy voice speaking to God somewhere in the house. The day our daddy left she was at the altar till her knees ached, till the skin darkened. He still never came home. And the money never came. And she was still alone. And I still strayed. The prayers about me were the richest and most articulate. She took her time with those, calling up specific passages and referencing them to me. Proverbs 22:6 and Deuteronomy 11:9. She never gave up on me.


I was everything that my mama feared – promiscuous and curious. After Daddy left, she focused all of her attention and her hopes and her dreams on me. But I was always disappointing her – mouthing off in class and getting caught in my bedroom with boys and whatnot. It had finally caught up to me; when I told her I was pregnant, she was in the kitchen humming a hymn while washing dishes. I stood in the entryway a while watching her strong hands scrub the black cast iron pan. She was quite beautiful beneath the white light of the bulb. She licked her big purple lips as she hummed. I came up behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist. She patted my head, and I said I had to tell her something. “Hmmm?” she hummed. I breathed in her vanilla scent, buried my face in her shoulder. “Mama, I’m going to have a little girl.” She didn’t say anything for a while; she’d stopped scrubbing the pan. All the sounds were exemplified in the quiet – the running water, the buzzing heater. Then, like the first loud clap in a quiet room, her voice boomed and she started praying right then and there, didn’t even say anything to me. She left me for the church. I dropped down on the yellow linoleum floor and curled into a ball. I cried until my eyes were red and swollen until the sun had gone down. Then I packed a bag and grabbed the spare bills from the coffee tin, and was gone before she came back.


There were no Thanksgivings, no Christmases. She sent me cards in the mail sometimes, but I never responded. I never expected to see her again, but after about fifteen years I got a next of kin call from the hospital. My Mama had a hemorrhagic stroke that left her blind and weak. I drove to the hospital and saw her, small in that bed. Her skin was a pale black if that’s possible, and her hair was patchy. I saw the remnants of that broad, strong woman. The doctors said that she didn’t have much time left (she refused to have invasive surgery), maybe a few days. It was difficult to see her look so fragile.


I did all that I could do, what I knew she wanted me to do: I drove her from the hospital to the church. I guided her inside, her small body leaned against me, her wrinkled hands curled around my upper arm. She went up to the front of the church and I lit a candle for her. She was on her knees, and I knew it was painful. Her hands were lifted and her eyes, blinded from the stroke, looked up, looked up to where she thought God was.  For the first time in many years, I knelt down beside her. She didn’t face me; it was as if she always knew that this would happen, that I would end up next to her.


I prayed that she wouldn’t die, but she did. Her funeral was in her church. She had shrunk in her old age; her body was shriveled and curved inwards. I stood where she did so long ago, dressed in that familiar white robe, and I looked down at my daughter in the front row and at my mother in the casket. I sang the song that used to make me feel God; He was there that day.


G.E. Wilkins lives in Texas where she has recently graduated from university.

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