My Mother was a woman who believed in broadening her children’s horizons, despite her disappointment at where those broadened horizons sometimes led. Caroline Stoneking was a good Jack Kennedy Liberal. She remains so to this day, both a Liberal and my Mother. At the time of this tale, the appellation Liberal was not the pejorative that it has become; was not spit sideways from a sneering mouth.
In that long ago and faraway, my childhood world had drawn in a long breath and waited, as if reluctant to exhale. There was an expectant pause, both in the nation I was growing up in, and in my parents’ marriage. Jack Kennedy and Malcolm X had both fallen to assassins, but Bobby Kennedy, Dr. King, and Fred Hampton were still amongst the living. At the moment of this pause, the marriage of Caroline and Francis Stoneking teetered on a balance; badly shaken but not yet sundered.
Our collective world centered around the modest bungalows of Maywood, Illinois. Maywood was and is an old suburb of Chicago, a place indistinguishable from the city proper. Driving due West out of Sandburg’s City of Broad Shoulders would yield no clue that any boundary limit had been passed over. Maywood is famous for nothing, save perhaps as the birthplace of the musician John Prine, and the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
My little enclave was clearly bordered and defined. One and a half blocks south of our brick domicile was The Ike, the Eisenhower Expressway. Beyond that barrier children did not pass alone. An almost equal distance to the north were the railroad tracks that divided Maywood into two halves: Working Class White Folks to the South, Working Class Black Folks to the North. The dividing line was not strictly adhered to, but it was there. Seventeenth Street and Ninth Street, the two busy thoroughfares to the West and East, completed the limits of my nine-year-old universe. Inside that rough square, I was free to roam under the shade of the American elm trees that arched over the streets.
Raised a good Unitarian, Caroline Stoneking maintained a liberal outlook on the subject of religion. Although we regularly attended services in the solid German-Lutheran neighborhood of Forest Park, my Mother liked to dabble. She ushered her two sons to Sundays of the Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian variety. Francis Stoneking, my Father, remained at home to guard the castle.
While my Mother was broad-minded with regard to denomination, she was not without criteria. She preferred her preachers young, vibrant, and handsome. Caroline Stoneking was a woman who liked her sermons pithy, uplifting, and succinct.
Beyond the boundary of the railroad tracks lay all that was wonderful in Maywood: The barbecue joints, the record stores, my beloved model shop, and the public school where my mother taught third grade. The churches were there as well, from gospel storefronts to soaring brick steeples. North of the tracks lay an alternate universe, accessible only in the company of an adult.
And so one sultry Chicago Sunday morning, we set out to have our horizons broadened. We were dressed to the nines, or so I believed. My little brother and I were sporting our matching Buster Brown blazers; he in red-and-white stripes, I in blue-and-white. We looked like half of a miniature barbershop quartet. My Mother wore good Lutheran pastel, with a matching pillbox hat. We may have thought we were the last word in nattiness, but we were soon to be proved wrong.
Our destination was a scant three blocks to the North, but one does not scramble across the loose rocks of the rail-bed in ones Sunday best. We made a detour to the West, crossing the tracks at Seventeenth Street. Walking east, the sun in our eyes, we could see the steeple rising over Madison Street: The Rock of Ages Baptist Church.
My family, minus my Father of course, attended church in a timely fashion. We usually managed to arrive before the opening prayer, but not by much. Our departures were swifter than our arrivals.
When my Mother herded us past the wide-flung doors of The Rock of Ages Baptist, the pews were packed and the preacher was already in the pulpit. An usher took us in hand, wearing the most beautiful suit of clothes I had ever seen in my young life. The man caught me staring up at him. He gave me a solemn nod and a wink, then turned to lead us up the aisle.
Walking between those rows of pews was akin to entering a tropical paradise. It was hot, humid, and resplendent with every variation and hue of color that existed in the universe. A single Black-Lady-Church-Hat is impressive. A dazzling sea of those same hats is awe-inspiring. I was more than awed. I was slack-jawed; a bug-eyed little cretin out of his element.
The usher guided us down that passage adorned with tropical finery. He indicated our seats with an outstretched hand, revealing the perfect amount of lemon-yellow cuff shot just so below the sleeve of his soft gray suit coat. Before we could take our places in the pew, the voice of the preacher rolled down from the pulpit.
“Good Morning, Brothers and Sisters! I see we have some visitors with us today. Welcome, Sister. Would you care to introduce yourself to the congregation?”
My eyes snapped to the sound of that wonderful voice. The preacher hovered above us, his robes a glowing purple, a broad smile on his wise face. This was a church experience unlike anything in my short life. At St. John’s, we scuttled quickly and quietly to our pew. The Lutheran ministers most certainly did not greet late-comers aloud. I was still goggling at the pulpit when my Mother spoke.
“My name is Caroline Stoneking, and these are my sons, Dale and Todd.”
“It is our pleasure to welcome Sister Caroline and her children. Let us open today’s service with a prayer.”
My Mother threw me into the pew, sliding in next to me and dragging my little brother after. The force of my Mother’s pitch landed me against the thigh of a large Black woman. The woman met my horrified chagrin with a huge smile and a pat on the knee. When we bowed our heads to pray, her amazing hat bowed with her.
The conclusion of the prayer was punctuated by a chorus of Amens. Raising my eyes, I saw the choir before me. Three tiers of scarlet robes rose to the right of the altar. Standing before this backdrop of scarlet was a skinny young man with an electric guitar. He struck a chord, the organist doubled it, and the gospel choir began to sing.
That music struck me with the force of a tidal wave, my tiny self a bobbing cork in its wake. The congregation began to sing and clap, swaying in the pews like tropical birds on a breeze. My hands rose of their own accord, hovering in the air before me, hesitating. My companion beamed her huge smile at me, giving me the permission I required.
“That’s right, Sugar, that’s right.”
And so I gave myself over to that music, clapping for all I was worth. I wanted it to go on forever, the guitar, the organ, the voices of the choir rising and falling in major chords. One voice would soar above the others, a high female voice, only to be answered by another, rich and masculine. The beat of the music was simple and clear, marked out by the loud clapping of moist hands.
That wonderful music still sounded in my ears as the familiar church business progressed. There were the announcements, just as at our church. When all the necessaries had been attended to, the preacher wrapped his hands over the rim of the pulpit and leaned forward. His face was serious and kind.
“Sisters and Brothers, this blessed morning I would like to speak to you of the challenges facing our community, and of how the Lord’s good words teach us to respond to these challenges.”
Thus began the sermon, the time when little boys are required to sit still and quiet. The preacher’s voice rose and fell, but as it did so, so too did the voices of the congregation. The cries rose all around me, confounding my knowledge of proper church etiquette.
“Preach it, Brother!”
The exclamations were wafted about by the fluttering of countless colorful fans. The Rock of Ages was full, and it was very hot. The woman beside me rocked in the pew, fanning herself and exclaiming. So too did all of those around our little trio. My Mother sat quite still, a small smile pasted on her face. Above the fluttering and the Amens, the preacher continued to preach.
I cannot tell you the words of the sermon, except that the voice of that preacher was like the gospel music that preceded it. I believe the man in the pulpit may have hypnotized me, because I sat still and quiet. It was my Mother who fidgeted. The recitation of God’s teachings moved far past the normal span of a good Lutheran sermon, the point at which polite coughing would inform the minister that he had overshot his allotted time. But this was The Rock of Ages, and the preacher had more to say.
The sermon rolled on, accompanied by the fluttering of the fans and the Amens. I wanted to join in, to lend my squeaky voice to the exclamations. I was listening carefully now, hoping for the proper place to call out my Amen, when I felt my Mother’s damp hand grasping mine. Her voice may have been a whisper, but it sounded like a shout.
“Come on, Dale, we need to be going.”
I looked up at her in horror and confusion, the spell of the sermon broken. I shook my head, not understanding. She responded by tugging me to my feet. Then we were standing in the aisle, three lone figures naked before the congregation. It was then that I prayed with the earnestness of a child, prayed that the floor would open up and swallow us. The only answer to my fervent prayer was the kind voice of the preacher.
“I would like to thank Sister Caroline and her children for joining us today. I hope that we will see you again.”
My Mother, thankfully, said nothing. Getting us each by the hand, she marched my brother and me down that aisle and out into the bright sunlight of Madison Street. To her credit, she held her head high. I did not. The pause of silence passes. Behind us, I heard the deep voice of the preacher resuming his sermon.
A pause is only that and nothing more. At the beginning of the new year, the outside world let go its hesitant breath. That fateful season opened with the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam, the fighting invading our living room as black-and-white television images.
Winter passed into spring and an assassin’s bullet took Dr. King. Two months later, another assassin laid Bobby Kennedy low. The nation reeled, and my parents reeled with it.
Amidst this turbulence, Caroline and Francis Stoneking entered the messy realm of divorce court. The proceedings were a drawn out affair, with more than enough bitterness to go around. Before their marriage was pronounced officially dead, the Chicago Police assassinated Fred Hampton. The Dutch Elm disease began killing our stately trees, leaving lines of immovable wooden tombstones in its wake. It was under these hammer blows that my small nuclear family fragmented and fled.
Caroline Stoneking, who would soon become Caroline Cooper, carted my brother and me off to a small city in Indiana. We became Methodists, drawn in by a handsome young pastor whose sermons were buoyant and of the proper duration.
Once a month, my brother and I would ride the old Broadway Limited into Chicago. We traveled alone, guided only by the firm hand of the Black train porters. Over the many train journeys that followed, I listened carefully to the words of the porters, learning a great deal in the process.
Francis Stoneking would meet us at Union Station. We spent our visits in his new downtown apartment, just blocks from the Lake Michigan shore. When our time was over, our Father would pack us back onto the train. These monthly journeys were the beginnings of a lifetime of travel.
It was in that Indiana town that I first acquired an awareness of girls. I became smitten with a beautiful young Black girl and she with me. Although the entirety of our young love consisted of public hand-holding and private exploratory kisses, it was more than enough to broaden the horizons of her father and my mother. I discovered that a widened view of the world was one thing in theory and another in practice.
Just as the world could not pause for my childhood, it has not paused for me. Four decades have passed since I last set foot or eye to Maywood. From what I hear, things have changed. The train tracks that divided my childhood realm are gone, replaced by an urban bicycle path. Green ash trees have been planted to take the place of the decimated elm trees. The City of Maywood renamed the municipal swimming pool in memory of Fred Hampton. This did not please everyone, but it pleases me.
The Rock of Ages Baptist Church is still on Madison Street, the old clapboard church reincarnated as a shining modern edifice. The old church has grown and prospered, for which I am thankful.
I wish the old neighborhood well. If one of my many journeys across this globe should lead me back, I will be sure to spend a hot Sunday morning attending services at the new Rock of Ages. I will dress to the nines in my best suit, my tie a perfect knot. An aging White man in a middle pew, I will sing, clap my hands, and shout Amen.