Aunt Ida was baptized on a Sunday at the Glendale Baptist Church, my church. The baptismal pool stood high above the choir, like a big glass-sided aquarium hovering over the raised pulpit area. I had been baptized a couple years before, so I knew it well.
When everyone in my third-grade class decided they wanted to be saved and walked up to the front of the church at the end of the service, I followed. I didn't feel especially sinful and Jesus didn't whisper in my ear during the invitation hymn, but on the fourth verse of "Softly and Tenderly," when the choir echoed, "Come home, Come home," I bolted from my seat and stumbled up the aisle to the front of the church. Brother Richard asked if I wanted to be saved from my sins, and I said yes.
My mother took me to church on a Saturday to get instructions on what to do during the baptismal service the following day. I was to strip down to my panties, put on a white gown, walk down the steps into the water, stand on bricks placed a few feet apart if I was too short and the water reached my nose, walk over to Brother Richard, hold my hands in prayer position and close my eyes. Brother Richard, I was told, would slip a hand through my praying hands and pinch my nostrils together before dunking me backward. He wouldn't hold me under more than three seconds. That was it.
I was baptized in the blue pool over the choir members' heads and all went well except that my gown puffed up as I stepped into the water and I had to tug it down so that everyone in church wouldn't see my underwear. I didn't feel differently afterward, just wet and happy that it was over.
Now Aunt Ida was going to be dunked in front of us all, to save her 80-year-old soul for Grandaddy's sake.
The choir hummed "Just As I Am," as Brother Richard, standing in the water in his robe, called out Aunt Ida's name, raising his hands heavenward. Her little white head appeared at the corner of the baptismal as she creakily walked down the steps into the water. Her gown puffed up just like mine had and she stopped to smooth it down, then stepped toward Brother Richard. Before she put her hands up in prayer position, she looked across the glass toward the congregation, trying to find us. She turned to Brother Richard as if to say, let's get it over with.
He pinched her nose with one hand and cradled the back of her head with the other, then gently began to dip her back, but she wouldn't budge. He tried again and she stood ramrod straight. There was a faint mumble from the congregation and I started getting nervous.
Brother Richard tried one more time and Aunt Ida went back with a violent splash. He recited a blessing over her quickly and she popped up gasping. Her right hand flew out and took hold of the glass front of the baptismal pool and drops of water came splattering down on the heads of the choir members. A woman in the back row of the choir spread the paper bulletin over her head like an umbrella. The blue water sloshed furiously. Brother Richard helped Aunt Ida back to the steps while she gazed out toward the congregation looking like a little, hunched over, wet white rat, grinning wildly. She had done it. Grandaddy could rest easy now.
My mother went up to the baptismal dressing room and dried Aunt Ida's hair so she wouldn't catch cold. After church, we went to Grandaddy's house for Sunday dinner, as we always did.
We all sat down to eat Aunt Ida's feast of fried pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, butterbeans, black-eyed peas, sliced tomatoes, biscuits, cabbage, squash, cornbread and macaroni and cheese. Aunt Ida jumped up from her seat and leaned across my brother's shoulder, pushing dishes toward him.
"Kyle, have a little of these black-eyed peas. They're good for you."
"Bettye, won't you have a little more cornbread?"
"Emery, let me get you some molasses for your biscuits."
Aunt Ida's soft white hair glowed in the afternoon sunlight passing through the kitchen window. She was so happy she looked as if she might break into a jig at any moment. I thought she looked just like an angel, a real angel, right here on earth.
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