In the beginning…my grandmother played the banjo.
She was a traveling Evangelist in the upper Midwest. She led revivals. Anointed folks with the fire of the spirit. She was vibrant. Alive. I am rooted in a tradition of powerful spiritual women that began with her.
When I knew her, though, she had type 2 diabetes. Could only move with a walker. Spent her days in a La-Z-Boy recliner watching tele-Evangelists to which, when my grandfather wasn’t looking, she would send parts of her Social Security checks. She gave wet kisses. She didn’t play the banjo.
She remembered the day her mother took her to the butcher shop where her father worked, handed her over and said, “Here. Take your daughter. I don’t want her anymore.” She would be passed from home to home. From Grandmother to Aunt to Cousin. Searching for the place where she belonged.
I on the other hand never questioned where I belonged. An only child, I was the center of a home where both parents were turned towards me. A mother with a degree in education. A father with a degree in Language. I was destined to learn. Destined to speak.
I was also the first child born to the newly founded church family at King’s Chapel Assemblies of God. A rogue group of idealists, they had broken off from a church where the pastors living did not align with his preaching. They found a small church on the outskirts of town where they would raise their hands, raise their faith, and raise their children together. At every church anniversary, I was reminded of the special place I held in the hearts of this spiritual family.
But I might have never been. My mother knew she only wanted one child. When I asked her why, she told me the sibling rivalry had been so bad in her family (with three siblings only a year apart) that she didn’t know how to avoid the same dynamic in her own children…unless she only had one. But her first child wasn’t me. She miscarried. As she mourned this loss in the hospital, she asked God whether she would have another child. She promised if she did, she would give this child over to God.
Yes. And she will be a special child.
As this was a conversation between God and my Mom, I can neither confirm nor deny its validity…but it is my Mother’s truth.
I never knew what to make of this story. Never knew how to understand it. When I was 23 I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. As part of the program participants went on spiritual retreats throughout the year. I was not Catholic. Whether I was Christian was questionable. But I knew that if I was going to serve people, I needed to do so in a reflective way, in a community that was seeking to do the same.
On one of our retreats at Blue Ridge Summit in Pennsylvania, I remember going to a wide open field in front of the chapel to meditate. I do not recall what prompted it, but I found myself thinking of my mother. Of myself. Of the privilege of being an only child. All the love I had received. That attention. The allowance. The tuition. The forgiveness. And I thought of “She will be a special child.”
In that moment, I thought of the Dalai Lama. From the time he was “revealed” the Dalai Lama was told he was the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. Told that he was holy. Told that he was destined to lead his people. Destined to be wise. Enlightened.
If an entire nation looked to you and told you that you were holy, treated you as such…how could you be otherwise?
As I thought of this, the phrase “Only Every” rose to my consciousness.
Only child. Every child. Only every child deserves this kind of faith. This kind of belief. That they belong to the divine. That they will be special. That they have a unique perspective, a unique gift, a unique wisdom to offer the world that only they possess.
What if my mother had raised my grandmother, rather than the other way around? What would Ida be if she had been an only child, first born of Kings Chapel?
It occurred to me long ago, it will not be any wonder if I am able to offer the world something special. It will be a wonder if I don’t. With roots buried deep in the red clay soil of the Midwest, and branches stretched in every direction, I am a tangle of wild possibility.
And one day, in tribute to my Grandmother, I will learn to play the Banjo, too.