My grandfather was a minister.
My grandfather died ten years ago, at the end of a lake-side walk at the end of a placid July. He was young still–I have friends with older parents–and out running, on a familiar earthen tree-dappled trail: the path split, the trees whispered, and there, and suddenly, his beautiful heart gave out.
He loved the world more than anyone I’ve known since; when I think of him, it is this profound enthrallment I remember. He loved the world so purely, and I like to think he encountered something so beautiful amidst the trees that day that his heart could no longer bear it. (The better part of me does not think, but knows.)
To this day I have a hard time writing about him without crying.
But this is merely a preface to another story.
A few weeks ago, I learned from my mother that the boarding school at which he’d once taught English, and where he used to be chaplain, had some twenty years of his recorded sermons in their archives. A few weeks ago, I wrote to them to inquire about these tapes.
I’d not been expecting much: when I was in college I worked in the Archives and Special Collections of the institution’s library, and was too familiar with the stringent lending and listening policies sustained. Instead of brushing me off, though, the librarian took my address, and on Thursday I received, on a flash drive, the entirety of the HMF collection.
I plugged the small object into my computer, and, bracing myself, clicked one labeled “WH Auden.” A moment of static, and a voice–one so familiar that familiarity doesn’t quite describe it, the voice that was the voice of so many childhood stories, and the voice of the first Emily Dickinson poem I ever heard, and the voice of countless songs and lullabies and whispers–filled the air.
“Excuse me,” it said, “for fussing around a bit with a tape recorder, but three days ago our daughter gave birth to a son, and someday he’ll have to explain that his grandfather was a preacher, and I would like… I would like him to hear some of the things I said. So I hope he’ll play this one day, when he’s fourteen or fifteen or sixteen.”
It is always strange when a thread from the past reaches out to embroider the present, and stranger still when the decoration is no mere accident, but done with such conscious intent. My little brother–it was he who’d then just been born–is twenty-five, now, so he’ll be listening a few years late, but if anything the impact just feels greater, and somehow both more sweet and more grand.
And the sermons are beautiful, and as radical with love and paradox and poetry as I remember so much of his attitude to be. (I am biased, but it’s true: if someone asked me today about my most cherished possession it would be these above anything.) The sermons are beautiful, but most beautiful of all was the weight of that first sentence. I would like… I would like for the world to hear some of the things you said.