Southern Literary Statement: I was born in South Georgia and grew up in North Florida twenty miles from the Georgia State Line. My childhood revolved around church twice on Sundays and a prayer meeting on Wednesday nights. We’d make a 10-mile trip into town for groceries on Saturday afternoons. Memories include tobacco-picking, cane-grindings, and riding my horse Duke through pig-trails in the woods. When I was eight, the preacher immersed me in Holy Baptism in the Suwanee River, where I hoped a water moccasin wouldn’t bite my bare feet. When I was eighteen, I left the farm and never looked back. Decades later, I am still trying to make sense of my quirky, whacky roots.
I Believe in Elvis
“Oh my God. I can’t believe I’m really here.” Our RV travels had finally landed us at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion. The sprawling tourist complex included his airplane, several museums, restaurants, gift shops, and an on-site Sirius Radio Station. My mind exploded with childhood memories, and poor Michael was the lone recipient of my gushing thoughts. I didn’t care that the temperature approached a hundred and the humidity index was close behind. My heart pitter-patted and my spirits soared. “I usually hate tourist attractions but I love it here. Why is this so different?”
“It’s because you’re at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee,” my sometimes-astute husband answered. “Let’s get out of the sun.” Michael steered me towards an open-air café with ceiling fans spinning on the highest speed. “I’ll get us some water.”
When Michael returned with two sweating bottles of Dasani, I continued my stream-of-consciousness blurting. “Remember Elvis’s All Shook Up? I must have been nine or ten when the record came out.”
“It sure feels good to sit down for a few minutes.” My husband and I were obviously not on the same page. I felt like I’d burst out of my skin, and Michael acted as if he were somehow indulging me by coming to some hokey attraction.
“I bought the record in Savannah. We’d gone there to visit my grandmother. I could hardly wait to get home and play it fifty times. Riding home, I put the record on the shelf behind the backseat, not realizing it’d be in the sun. By the time we got home, it had warped and was totally ruined. I cried and cried.”
“I don’t get it,” Michael said. “I liked Elvis as a kid, but I never went bat-shit over him the way girls did. I just liked his music.”
“Don’t know that I’d call it bat-shit—that sounds pretty crude—but I sure had a crush on him. Used to fantasize that someday I’d meet him, that maybe he’d fall in love with me.” I laughed. “Then he up and died.” I’d been devastated when Elvis passed away in 1977. It hadn’t mattered that I was twenty-nine-years old at the time. I’d reacted like a star-struck teeny-bopper.
* * *
Life in the South during the fifties and sixties revolved around school and church for isolated farm families like mine. Our Southern Baptist church subscribed to a hellfire and damnation religion. A large, bellowing preacher delivered the sermons, and he scared the be-Jesus out of little girls like me. School, in contrast, was a safe zone, one where I excelled and never had any reason to cower.
“Rock and roll is the Devil’s work.” Preacher Leroy screamed to the small congregation that Sunday night. “The Devil is strong, but our Lord is stronger.”
I scrunched down next to Mamma on the hard pew, trying to listen. I knew I’d fall asleep if he didn’t end soon.
“Elvis Presley is an agent of the Devil.” I perked up at the mention of Elvis—I’d heard him on the radio and really liked his music.
Finally, Preacher Leroy slowed down, softened his voice, and started closing his sermon. “We must protect our children from the Devil and this sinful rock and roll music. We must keep our children pure and good, like God wants them to be.”
Miz Bernice, the church’s pianist, eased herself up to the piano and started playing Rock of Ages softly in the background. Preacher Leroy slipped around to the front of the pulpit for the Invocation, inviting sinners to walk down the aisle to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. Although I loved Rock of Ages, I wished Miz Bernice had chosen a livelier song to play. The foot-stomping, hand-clapping, body-swaying gospel music was the thing I loved best about the church.
* * *
Preacher Leroy’s tirade against Elvis Presley and rock and roll continued for years. In the beginning, I worried that Daddy, a deacon in the church, would take the preacher’s words literally and throw away my Elvis records. I spent time rehearsing what I’d do if that happened. Maybe run away from home? Tell him he wasn’t my real father and that I hated him? I couldn’t image life without Elvis’s music in it.
Preacher Leroy found more ammunition for his rock music diatribe in 1964 when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. My family had huddled around our new RCA black-and-white television set that Sunday night to see what all the fuss was about. Even Daddy sat mesmerized. I’d pretty much stopped worrying about his reaction to the preacher’s condemnation of rock and roll. I suspected Daddy’s tolerance had to do with Mamma’s moderating influence. While she’d never talk to me about it, I knew Mamma had her own problems with both Daddy and with the church. Whatever the reasons, I was glad my parents let me keep my rock and roll records.
While rock and roll was my favorite, that gospel music on Sunday nights moved me. Miz Bernice had become my heroine and role model. I’d have sold my soul to the Devil to play the piano like she did.
“Can I take piano lessons? Please?” My begging started at age ten. Peggy Sue, Preacher Leroy’s niece, had started lessons a year earlier and could now play a couple of simple hymns for Sunday School. I was jealous—I wanted to play the piano at church, too. Before long, Mamma found an old upright piano for $75 and hired Miz Bernice to teach me how to play it.
“Oh, thank you, thank you.” I promised to practice hard. What I promised myself, however, was that I’d outshine Peggy Sue. I wanted the grownups, especially Miz Bernice, to give me the same smiling approval they gave to Peggy Sue.
* * *
Somewhere in all that body-bumping, hip-grinding, pelvic-thrusting rock and roll, a yearning arose in my sinful self that didn’t feel spiritual. While Miz Bernice’s music touched my soul, Elvis’s music awakened sensations in my body, feelings I didn’t understand. I don’t know what was going on in Peggy Sue’s life—I knew she wasn’t listening to Elvis Presley—but she and I discovered boys at about the same time. And we both zeroed in on Junior Webb, the cutest of the boys in the church. We both wanted him for our boyfriend.
I thought Junior was mine until a surprise altercation in the church parking lot after services one Sunday morning. “What do you mean he’s your boyfriend now?” I raised my voice to Peggy Sue in disbelief, attracting attention from several nearby church members.
She smiled, handing me the note Junior had passed to her on the back pew just minutes earlier. Seems she’d sent him a note asking if he’d be her boyfriend, and he’d answered yes. I screamed my rage and barely stopped myself from clawing out her eyeballs.
Word of our fight got back to Preacher Leroy. The sermon that night was about the ‘sin’ that happened on the church grounds that morning.
“Repent!” Preacher Leroy’s voice boomed through the small church sanctuary. His hands clenched the pulpit, sweat glistened on his forehead, and spittle flew from his mouth.
“Says right here in Luke 5:32, ‘I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’.” His eyes scanned the congregation as if daring anyone to question. “Something happened this morning on our church grounds.”
Oh, no. I scrunched down on the back pew. Somebody had told him. My friend Sandra, sitting beside me, elbowed my ribs and whispered, “You’re in big trouble.”
Sermons generally lasted about thirty minutes—Preacher Leroy had already preached forty. I tried to tune him out, especially when he started saying even children could burn in hell. I couldn’t ignore him though, since I knew he was talking about me.
“In Job 11:14, God said, ‘If iniquity be in thine hand, put it far away, and let not wickedness dwell in thy tabernacles.’” Preacher Leroy lowered his voice, a signal he was winding down. Miz Bernice eased her way up to the piano. The Invocation was about to begin.
My palms oozed sweat, my heart hammered, my breath caught in my throat. I am not going to cry. Not in front of all these people.
“Tonight, I’m asking anyone who sinned to come down here before God and this congregation and say, ‘I’m sorry’.” The preacher’s eyes crawled across the congregation.
Miz Bernice began playing Amazing Grace softly so everyone could hear the preacher’s words over the music. She hadn’t finished the first verse before Peggy Sue, her body wracked in sobs, stumbled to the altar. Preacher Leroy smiled down at her, patted her shoulder like she was a baby, and turned her to face the congregation. In a quieter voice, he said, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us.”
Peggy Sue’s snuffles subsided, and with her Uncle Leroy’s arm around her shoulder, a smile emerged. Her expression grew triumphant when her eyes locked on me in the back of the church.
Verse two, verse three—Miz Bernice continued to play. People squirmed in their seats.
Preacher Leroy’s piercing eyes found me and bored in. Everyone turned in their seats to see who he’d zeroed in on. Mamma and Daddy turned, expressions of surprise on their faces.
I slouched deeper in the pew, wishing I could disappear, those Amazing Grace words racing through my head. Was I a wretch? Lost? Would walking down the aisle make me forgive Peggy Sue? I wasn’t about to take back what I’d called her, not after what she called me.
As Miz Bernice continued playing, Preacher Leroy issued his final call, this one leaving no doubt what he wanted. “Geraldine Almand, please come down to the altar.”
I sat there so still I could’ve been dead. I glared at the preacher, not believing he’d called my name out loud like that. I wondered if God was watching, and what He’d be thinking about all this. Daddy stood up and turned toward me, sending a look saying I’d better get my butt up there to the altar.
Seeing no way out, I jerked up, so angry I could spit nails. As I stomped down the aisle, I prayed tears wouldn’t dribble down my cheeks. ‘I will not cry’ became my marching mantra. I planted myself at Preacher Leroy’s side, opposite Peggy Sue.
“Okay, girls. Tell the church what happened this morning. We’re going to stay here until this is settled.”
“It’s her fault!” I blurted. “She stole my boyfriend, and she called me a bad name.”
“But . . . but, Uncle, she called me a whore.” Peggy Sue must have put sugar in her voice it sounded so syrupy. “But she started it—she called me a pros… prosli…pros-cli-a-tude first,” I said. I wasn’t about to admit I’d not known what the word meant, until I’d looked it up in the dictionary and practiced saying it. I wanted to convey the injustice of what had happened. “Junior was my boyfriend.” I hoped I wouldn’t cry before I finished my say. “She passed him a note, and then he was her boyfriend. That’s not right.” My voice quivered. My eyes locked onto my enemy’s. I was so mad I could burst. I knew I’d scored a point though. Preacher Leroy didn’t let Peggy Sue have boyfriends, and I’d just ratted her out. I stood tall, my head high, my chest inflated in righteous indignation.
“Now girls,” Preacher Leroy sounded surprised. “You’re both too young to be having boyfriends. What are you, Geraldine? About ten now?”
“Yes, Sir.” I tried to sound meek and respectful.
“We’ll hash this out later, but right now, I want you both to tell God and this church you’re sorry. Calling ugly names is very un-Christian.”
Peggy Sue and I glowered at each other. Finally, her expression softened and ‘I’m sorry’ whispered from her mouth. I puckered my lips, scowled, and took a deep breath. With as much scorn as I could muster, I spat out ‘sorry’ and sent a geyser of saliva in Peggy Sue’s direction.
I could tell neither Daddy nor Preacher Leroy was particularly impressed with my apology. I didn’t care. When the service ended, I bolted to the car, buried myself in the back seat, and burst out crying.
Within a couple of weeks, Peggy Sue and I were best friends again, the spat over Junior forgotten. Whispering secrets, giggling, and having sleep-overs were far more fun than having Junior as a boyfriend.
Although the friendship with Peggy Sue survived, I’m afraid my relationship with God and the church suffered. I couldn’t have found the words back then, but what Preacher Leroy did that night just didn’t feel right. I was trying hard to be a good girl, and having the preacher call me out in front of the entire church for saying one bad word seemed unfair. Amazing Grace, as promised in the song, eluded me that night and would continue to do so.
* * *
I fulfilled my promise to myself to outshine Peggy Sue on the piano. I practiced hard, and within a year alternated with Peggy Sue as Sunday School pianist. A year after that, Peggy Sue stopped taking lessons after the preacher promoted me to church pianist. I’d bested her, at last.
Miz Bernice decided I needed to study under a better piano teacher and told Mamma to take me to Mr. Whitlock, the only conservatory-trained teacher in the county. I hated leaving Miz Bernice, but no matter how hard I practiced, I couldn’t play gospel music like she did. She’d taught me how to embellish with a few trills and riffs, to go up and down by octaves, and to even transpose into different keys. But she’d not been able to make my hands capture the soulful abandon that oozed from her fingertips.
Mr. Whitlock introduced me to classical music. And for a while, I forgot about both gospel music and rock and roll. I loved the classical composers—Bach was my favorite. The mathematical precision of a fugue or a two-part invention satisfied in a different way from those old Gospel songs. Bach triggered a quiet thrill, an exquisite, elevating euphoria that contrasted dramatically with the rousing, foot-stomping passion of gospel. But then, I’d go back to Miz Bernice’s gospel music and feel it was the pure essence of God—primitive, powerful, raw. At other times, Mr. Whitlock’s classical pieces seemed to arouse primordial feelings that took me to places too deep for words.
* * *
My relationships with God, Preacher Leroy, and the Baptist church remained tenuous, at best. Adolescence arrived, and with it my rebellion slept, crept, and then leapt. I said to Daddy at the supper table one evening, “I don’t want to play the piano at church anymore. I want to be a concert pianist when I grow up. Mr. Whitlock thinks I’m good enough.”
Daddy didn’t say anything for a long time. “We’ll see,” he said, after what felt like an interminable silence. Mamma didn’t say a word.
About a week later, Daddy turned to me at the supper table. “You want to be a concert pianist, but you don’t want to play in church anymore?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“You like those piano lessons I pay for every week, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, with as much respect as I could muster. We were poor, and I knew the lessons were expensive.
“Well, if you want to keep taking those lessons, then you need to keep playing the piano in church.” He went back to eating his supper.
I sat there making rows of green peas with my fork. When my anger finally erupted, I bolted from the table, ran to my room, and slammed the door behind me.
The next day I told Daddy I’d do it. I continued as church pianist for two more years before he finally let me quit. I never asked what made him change his mind.
During my senior year in high school, I traded four Elvis LPs for one soundtrack from The Sound of Music. After falling in love with classical music, I’d essentially put Elvis on the shelf behind the backseat in the car. At eighteen, I left the farm and never looked back. I forgot all about Preacher Leroy, Miz Bernice, and that soul-stirring Sunday night gospel music that had lifted me to such euphoria I could’ve spoken in tongues or handled serpents.
In college, my music passions drifted to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie—hippie, folk music rather than mainstream Elvis and pretentious Broadway tunes. I studied piano through my freshman year of college before admitting I preferred partying to spending all those hours in practice rooms on campus. In retrospect, I made a good decision. While I loved the fugues, mazurkas, and sonatas, I played like a technician, not an inspired musician. Somehow, the Spirit which had infused Miz Bernice’s piano playing never reached my tarnished core. Not with gospel music, not with classical music. Perhaps the Devil had taken my soul after all. Or maybe I just didn’t want to work that hard anymore.
* * *
“You need to join the Twenty-first Century,” Michael told me. “I’m putting Sirius Radio in your car.”
I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when my childhood rushed back to overwhelm me—a Sunday morning, South Village Drive, driving home from Lowe’s Garden Shop with new plants in the back of my car. I’d fumbled with the dial on my new SiriusXM Radio, and suddenly, Elvis Presley’s How Great Thou Art filled the car. I startled, and then turned the volume up. And up again. I sang along, and tears blurred my vision. The hymn ended, and without a moment’s pause, another began. I’d discovered Sunday Morning Gospel Time on Elvis Radio, Channel 19, broadcast live from Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.
I didn’t tell Michael that I’d discovered the Elvis station on Sirius Radio, or that I started deliberately running errands on Sunday mornings so I could listen to the weekly gospel program in the privacy of my car. It felt like a little dirty, illicit secret, like I was cheating on my husband. Listening to Elvis was an exquisitely pleasurable indulgence that awakened stirrings in every cell in my body. Again. And it made me want to visit Graceland.
When we bought the RV a few years later, I experienced an ‘aha’ moment. We could make a pilgrimage to Memphis to see this Elvis shrine. It’d be like going to Mecca. I could deal with my husband’s disdain—could already hear his surly comments about how mundane he’d find the entire experience. I didn’t care. Going to Graceland became something I had to do.
With the trip planned, I no longer hid my reawakened obsession over everything Elvis. I brought along my newly-purchased Elvis CDs for the RV, and I punched Channel 19 into my Sirius dial every time we got in the car. It felt good to go public with my new obsession. I likened it to coming out of the closet.
* * *
“They certainly know how to carry out a theme around here, don’t they?” Michael asked. His question was rhetorical. “There’s nothing around here that’s not Elvis for at least a five-mile radius.”
He was right. We were camping at the Graceland RV Park. The museums, the Sirius radio station, and Elvis’s airplane were all within a block. The mansion where Elvis had lived was a short shuttlebus ride away. Loudspeakers in every restaurant and parking lot blasted Elvis songs nonstop during the day and into the night. Our RV park featured a pink Cadillac shuttle service that took folks to and from a local Elvis-themed restaurant. Every gas station, grocery store, and gift shop around offered t-shirts, posters, and every Elvis souvenir imaginable. It was an overwhelming immersion into Elvis culture.
Graceland triggered a bombardment of memories, especially about the church and Preacher Leroy’s public humiliation of me as a child. The preacher had so terrorized me I remembered thinking I might be safer in the hands of the Devil than trying to follow his straight and narrow road to Heaven. Maybe I gave up on God—decided I couldn’t win, so why try. Elvis had filled me up when I’d been a child, and now Graceland filled me up as an adult. I felt like I’d found a long-lost, deeply-buried child, the one that used to be me.
I’d never admitted to pain over my childhood losses—community, church, spirituality, trust in adults, music, innocence, Elvis, God—not even to myself. Until now.
* * *
I complain sometimes about how rough travel is in our RV. If Michael fills his travel mug too full, coffee sloshes out when we hit bumps. Items left on the kitchen counter, like apples or the bottle opener, sometimes land in the sink or on the floor. Our garbage can spills over if we don’t wedge it in between the end of the bed and the wall. I have trouble reading because my iPad jiggles too much. Working on my laptop is impossible. The bouncing of our Class C motorhome is real, not just my imagination.
An incident happened about a year after our Graceland trip, and I now joke that Elvis might still be alive. We packed up from a campground in Nebraska one morning and headed off to Hot Springs, South Dakota, a hundred miles down the road. When we got there and walked around to unhitch the car, I found Michael’s Graceland coffee mug, coffee at the half-way mark, sitting on the back bumper of the RV. He’d forgotten and left in there during our packing at the last campground. Not a single drop had spilled.
If that doesn’t make me believe in God, it at least makes me believe in Elvis.