A creative writing communion reflection offered by Martha, one of our graduating fourth year students on University Sunday:
We Broke Bread Together
We broke bread together. Slumped on the slats in the middle of the boat, we passed a package of Saltine crackers around to scoop up uncooked Beanie Weenies from the cans balanced between our kneecaps. On one side sat the four grandkids: my sister Rebecca, me, and my cousins Joshua and Caleb, all of us puffed up by lifejackets that were orange at one time, back in the late sixties when my mother and her three brothers had first worn them to go fishing. Across from us Papaw slowly reeled in his fishing line, with chapped hands, his knuckles sequined with fish scales. It was late, sunset dribbling honey over the bay’s sleek black fins.
Usually us grandkids would love one another loudly; we once pretended to throw a circus on Gran and Papaw’s backyard swing set, and were known to slip sand fleas into each other’s bathing suits, squealing when we felt nettle-like legs scuttling across our bottoms. When we were on Papaw’s boat we were quiet, partly because we were tired from fishing all day, but mostly because he was so quiet. The evening was of few sounds: our lips smacking cold beans and crackers, burbling water shoes, the bay bumping the sides of the boat. The tin of Fisherman’s Friend mints in Papaw’s jeans pocket jingled like a teeny tambourine when he stood up to reel in a croaker. Then, we heard a reedy rasp from the catch as Papaw nudged out its hook. “Hear that?” Papaw spoke in his whispery way. “That’s why they call it a croaker.”
We broke bread together. Rocking back and forth on Gran and Papaw’s wooden porch swing, I shook the last Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pie out of its box and ripped off its wrapper with my teeth. Papaw rocked beside me, with my one-year-old cousin Sarah cuddling his chest. Beefsteak tomatoes from Papaw’s garden dotted the windowsill of the screen porch, their portly cheeks beginning to blister in the August sunshine. Bumblebees and ladybugs capered through cat-scratched slashes in the porch screen. Sarah slept with her cheek pillowing Papaw’s shoulder, her drool unspooling down his plaid sleeve. One of her teething toys, shaped like a duck, poked its beak out of Papaw’s shirt pocket. I tore my Oatmeal patty in half to share with him. He chewed slowly. I did the same. Time plodded as though through the beach soil in Papaw’s garden. Some wild calico cats played hide and seek in the boat parked in the driveway; a few lazed under the shade of the blueberry bushes and fig trees. A wisp of Sarah’s blonde hair bobbed along with the swing.
At one point, a dragonfly whirred too close to her ear. She stirred, started to whine. Papaw rubbed her back and began to sing. I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…He had been the choir director at the small Methodist church up the road for a long time, conducting an ensemble in which my grandmother, mother, and three uncles all sang. On the porch swing years later Papaw still sang in a dulcet tenor, though it was thinner, cracked a little more easily. And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known. I had sung hymns enough times with my mother while doing the dishes or pinning laundry to the clothesline to know all the words to many of them. This was one I treasured, singing it to myself often, carrying it around in my heart the way a child holds on to a beloved blanket. Papaw and I sang the words together as Sarah went back to sleep. He speaks and the sound of His voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing, and the melody that He gave to me, within my heart is ringing…
We broke bread together. Papaw pulled a checkered dishtowel off the top of a basket of biscuits Gran had just baked, letting their floury heat swirl free, into our faces, as we passed them around. We sat in motley beach chairs around a foldable table, on the front deck of a beach house Gran’s sister, my great Aunt Marilyn, had rented for a week vacation. We also passed around some puppy drum Caleb and Papaw had brought back from a morning trip out on the boat, their fins and tails now deep-fried and greasy. No one had much of an appetite, though. We had only recently found out that my great Uncle Harold’s liver cancer had metastasized; he only had three months to live. He stayed in his room while we ate dinner.
I never much liked my great Uncle Harold. Even before I knew he had battered my great Aunt Marilyn and brought prostitutes into their home at the beginning of their marriage, I did not like him. He had not had a drink in years by the time I came along, but he still had this air of drunkenness, loafing around while Marilyn cooked and tidied the house and upchucking homophobia and racism to pass the time. He had one of those handlebar mustaches with curlicue ends and his shirts were always unbuttoned, showing off the American eagle tattoo that spread its wings wide across his chest, though, in old age, the eagle’s flight had begun to sag.
We ate dinner with him still brooding in his room, and it felt like a rehearsal for his more enduring absence. The moon shone brightly over our heads. Gran pointed up at it and asked, “Isn’t that pretty?” It was a clear night, the moon’s markings bold. I told her I always thought of them as the moon’s birthmark. She told me she always thought of them as mountains, and I imagined mountains on the moon, wooded in crystal coppices. Papaw did not say anything about the moon, but its light sprinkled his good eye like fresh snow. There were tears there, just as there were tears in Gran and Marilyn’s eyes. He told me in a soft, high voice how dearly he would miss Harold. Sitting there with the three of them, I understood a profound forgiveness, the kind that bleeds from nasty wounds, washing the scalding red clear and cool, watering new life with streams that are at once meek, at once mighty.
We broke bread together. Beneath the jeweled glow of stained glass windows, sitting in pews before a cedar cross, we passed around a loaf of bread that had been blessed before it was twisted and torn apart, like a limb. Each of us carried this broken body, wrapped in white cloth. My hands trembled under the weight of its preciousness. I held the body out toward Papaw, as one might bestow a gift. Close to his ear I spoke the words. “The body of Christ, broken for you, Papaw.” With his chapped hands, he tore off a piece, dipped the leavened skin and bones in a cup of bitter blood. Meanwhile, my mother sang a solo. As I went down to the river to pray…Her soprano voice soared softly around the sanctuary, like a dove. Papaw chewed the body and blood slowly as she sang, looking down into his lap. Oh sinners, let’s go down, let’s go down, don’t you want to come down? Oh sinners, let’s go down, down to the river to pray. Tears flowed down Papaw’s face as though from that very same river. My cousin Sarah sat on the other side of him, now twelve years old. She rubbed his back. “It’s alright, Papaw,” she whispered. He nodded in his quiet way, the river continuing to ripple.
Now, let us break bread together, knowing we are broken as we kneel before a God whose love towers higher than the mountains. Let us break bread together, our faces lifted up, toward a sunrise sprouting up like dandelions and buttercups and day lilies across the horizon, even after the darkest of nights. Let us break bread together, before a God whose heart springs forth rivers upon rivers, oceans upon oceans upon oceans of love.