From the time we moved to Pungo Creek, I attended Sidney Freewill Baptist Church along with my younger sister Addie. Church was important to me.
Nothing about rural life excited me. I didn’t like fishing, gardening or raising chickens. I preferred dressing up and going out so on Sundays I dressed up and went to Church. I collected my one-month pin for perfect attendance – then three months – then six months – then a year. Every Sunday, without fail, I got ready and waited for the Church Bus that would transport me to Sidney Freewill Baptist Church. I collected the two-year wreath that encircled my one-year pin and then each year I added bars that hung from the wreath. These attendance pins show up clearly in my school pictures.
Long before the two year wreath was fastened to my one year pin, I had made my way up the aisle to the front of the church accompanied by the sweet, sad strains of “Just as I am” and dedicated my life to Jesus. I remember thinking I looked particularly captivating that day. I was wearing black patent leather shoes – unspoiled – fresh from the Alden Catalogue Company and a full skirted dress of red dotted Swiss – new-sprung from Aunt Irene’s sewing machine. My blond hair- held back by a grosgrain ribbon – fell to my waist as I told Reverend Gaskins and the assembled congregation that I wanted to be saved. What a pretty picture I must have made.
Not to be outdone by her big sister, moments later Addie – outfitted in a matching red dotted Swiss and patent leather shoes – followed me up the aisle. I was mightily vexed at Addie’s intrusion into my moment of glory but no amount of glowering could persuade her to return to her pew.
After I had a few minutes to think about it, I decided I wasn’t mad at Addie for following me to the altar. She might have been uncomfortable sitting alone in the pew or she might have felt a sincere desire to dedicate her life to Jesus or she might have just been imitating me. Whatever her reason might have been, together we knelt there with the Reverend Gaskins – Mr. Fire and Brimstone himself – while he prayed and prayed and prayed.
So, together, we gave ourselves to Jesus and began preparing for the big event – our baptism. The best thing about getting baptized was we got to be baptized behind our own house at Foreman Landing in Pungo Creek.
It was called Foreman Landing after my granddaddy – or maybe my great granddaddy. I really don’t know how far back they called it Foreman Landing or how long the Foreman’s had been landing there. My kin never talked much about the family history so I just picked up snippets here and there and pieced those fragments together with my imagination. Too bad my curiosity wasn’t running in those veins when there were still folks alive that could answer my questions.
All I know is they didn’t call it Clarke Landing – even though the Clarke Family now occupied the house on Foreman’s Landing. I once called this oversight to the attention of Reverend Gaskins. Heeding my instruction, the accommodating Reverend Gaskins announced one day before the preaching started that henceforth Foreman Landing was to be known as Clarke Landing. I glanced around the congregation to see the old folks gasping, wheezing and snorting at the surprise announcement. The fretting and fussing really kicked in after preaching. “That’s been Foreman Landing since my daddy was a boy and those carpet bagging Clarke’s want to call it after them. Well I never.” “Grover Foreman would roll over in his grave if he knew this was happening.” It was thus determined by all that the name should remain Foreman Landing. When word got back to Mama about what I had done she got really fired up and lit into me and gave me a spanking to remember but the real pain came from the recognition that my Daddy, Virginius Gorman Clarke, would never have a landing named for him.
Addie and I began practicing immediately for the baptism. We would walk solemnly out to the stake that marked the spot where the baptizing would take place. (On most days the stake was just a stake where we tied up the skiff while we crabbed.) When we reached the stake, we took turns baptizing each other – holding our noses while each sister in turn dipped the other backwards into Pungo Creek.
When the big day arrived, we were well rehearsed. The congregation of Sidney Freewill Baptist Church gathered on our back porch and in our back yard. The choir, dressed in their long white robes, stood by the shore. The plinking sound of our ancient piano drifted through the open back door. A whole line of us stood waiting to be baptized. The men and boys wore white cotton shirts and long pants and the women and girls wore light cotton dresses. No one wore shoes.
On cue, we took each other’s hands and, led my Reverend Gaskins, we moved into the water. The choir sang “Shall We Gather at the River”, accompanied by the distant sound of our piano. My dress floated up around my waist. I scolded myself for forgetting the dress rehearsal. When it came time to be dunked, I didn’t know whether to hold my nose or my skirt.
One by one our moment came. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost…AHHHHHH…. MEN”. Reverend Gaskins dunked us under on the AHHHHHH and brought us up on the MEN. The AHHHHHH seemed to last a long time. When we had all been properly purified, Reverend Gaskins led us back to the shore where I stood there shivering from excitement and the cold, my dress clinging to my legs.
I was saved – washed in the Blood of the Lamb. I stood dripping in the backyard. Up on the porch I saw Grandmama sitting in the swing, smiling down at me.