Swing Low This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

March 8, 2013
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Petunia Harvard was a peculiar woman, which seemed to be the only thing our little town of Oden, Texas could agree on. When her little yellow '57 Volkswagen bug first pulled into the driveway of 412 Ninth Street, we had no inclination that she would be the one to change our lives forever, or what she would mean to all of us in the ­
long run.

Oden had always been a bit disconnected from the world. Sure we had the technology – our fancy iPhones and iPads – but as far as ideals, well, we might as well have lived in the '40s. It made no ­difference what we kids believed, because in a town like Oden, the adults were the ruling mass. My ­family lived in the home directly across from 412. Ours was a two-story Victorian with a red roof and white walls. The ideal Southern home.

I suppose my parents were old money; my father grew up in Oden and my mother in a neighboring town. My father was the high-school football coach and my mother a bank manager. Both were well-paid professionals and ­because I was the only child, I usually got the bulk of their payday. When I was younger I would sometimes throw tantrums, begging for a new baseball glove or Gameboy, and my parents would comply.

As I got older I began to care less about material things even though I still wanted the latest Xbox games and would spend time when I wasn't doing homework playing baseball or football with neighborhood boys. Then we'd go to my house and play Madden on my widescreen TV. Sometimes Mom would get us lemonade and cookies if she wasn't making calls for work. Life was simple, but I always had the sinking feeling it was unfulfilled. Until ­Petunia Harvard came to town.

Petunia was black, and admittedly it was probably that first observation that swayed our opinion of her in a negative way. Although we of Oden considered ourselves Baptist, we were an all-white town, with the occasional Hispanic family. Because our beliefs had been so untouched by the world, we had little tolerance for difference whether it was denomination or color of skin.

Petunia was 47 years old and had never married. She would say she was married to the Lord, adding that she could love no other the way she loved Him. We at first thought she was Catholic, but she made it clear she was Southern Baptist through and through. She was plump, not overly so, mind you, but Mom once remarked, “That woman is round in spirit and in body.” What always stood out about her was her love for the color yellow. Rarely would you see her not wearing an outfit that matched the sun.

She made it a point to dress nicely every day because it was her belief that if the Lord were watching, she needed to look her best for His glory. She was quite fond of hats too. Big, flamboyant ones. She had them in all colors; reds, blues, greens, oranges. Her favorite one, though, had a bird's nest on top. And to this day, I am almost positive one of those birds winked at me. Even in church she wore them proudly without paying any mind to the stunned children who had always been told “You're not supposed to wear hats in church”

But there is one part of her I will always remember, and it was her huge voice. If we could hear the angels sing, I'm pretty sure they would sound exactly like her. Even our music minister couldn't match her voice when she sang, and sometimes he'd just stop using the microphone all together. I asked her once why she sang so loud and she just looked at me with a grin on her face. And say: “Because if God don't wanna hear me sing his praises as loud as I can, then he wouldn't have made me a mouth to sing, now would he?”

And that was that. Her favorite song was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and every morning she would wake up, get dressed, and go for a walk, all the while her voice cheerfully singing “Swing low, sweet chariot, Comin' for to carry me home.”

Sometimes if I woke up early enough, she'd let me walk with her. My parents didn't entirely approve, but they grew used to it. I would walk beside her and we'd talk about church and God. One conversation I remember word for word, because it probably had the biggest impact on me. I had told her offhandedly that one of my friends had called her the “N” word, and it was bothering me.

“Why does it botha you, sugah?” She asked, a smile still plastered on her face.

“Because you don't do anything about it. People call you terrible things all the time. If it were me, I would give them a piece of my mind.”

“Oh really? Zachary, what does Matthew 5:39 say? Do ya remember?” I shook my head sadly. She answered for me. “Jesus said, ‘But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.' Don't you think Jesus got called names all da time? But He didn't talk bad to them, no sirree, He showed them love. It don't matter how many people call me names, I'll still show them all da love the good Father shows me.”

From that day forward Ms. Petunia became like a second mother to me. Sometimes I would skip baseball altogether just to go to her house and talk over lemon squares and sweet tea. My friends would make fun of me, claiming the more time I spent over there, the darker my skin would get. I would always bite my tongue remembering what Petunia told me.

Things were blissful for a time because no matter how bad my day got, I always had a talk with Petunia to look forward to. And it wasn't just me she was influencing. One day five of my friends asked if Petunia would mind if they came over too. We'd talk about our problems and offer each other advice while Petunia chipped in with her always spot-on solution “Courtesy of Your Lord, Jesus Christ.” Sometimes when a friend was having a really hard time, we'd spend time praying over him with Petunia's insistence. We started calling her “Auntie.”

It was mid-October when she passed away. She never talked about it but Auntie Petunia had always had heart problems, and I think everyone's heart was broken when she collapsed on the sidewalk that Sunday morning. Right in the middle of the last verse of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” No one knew quite what to make of it, although I'm sure she probably welcomed it with open arms, because she'd finally be with the Lord whom she loved with all her heart, soul, and mind.

Her funeral was held outside, the colors were white and yellow because she didn't ­believe her death should be mourned if she was with Jesus. So we all wore yellow and watched her coffin with tears in our eyes and grim smiles on our faces because we knew that up there she was singing with the angels, her big voice like sweet thunder rolling through the clouds. Her tombstone read: “Petunia Harvard, whose chariot finally came to carry her home.”

Our lives were never the same after that; they were changed for the better. Sometimes if I close my eyes and clear my mind I'm sure I can hear her voice singing: “Swing low, sweet chariot, Comin' for to carry me home! Swing low sweet chariot, Comin' for to carry me home.”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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