Natasha Trethewey

6. Prodigal

Once, I was a daughter of this place:
daughter of Gwen, granddaughter
of Leretta, great- of Eugenia McGee.

I was baptized in the church
my great-aunt founded, behind
the drapes my grandmother sewed.

As a child, I dozed in the pews
and woke to chant the Lord’s Prayer—
mouthing the lines I did not learn.

Still a girl, I put down the red flower
and wore a white bloom pinned to my chest—
the mark of loss: a motherless child. All

the elders knew who I was, recalled me
each time I came home and spoke
my ancestors’ names—Sugar, Son Dixon—

a native tongue. What is home but a cradle
of the past? Too long gone, I’ve found
my key in the lock of the old house

will not turn—a narrative of rust;
and everywhere the lacunae of vacant lots,
For Sale signs, a notice reading Condemned.

I wanted to say I have come home
to bear witness, to read the sign
emblazoned on the church marquee—
Believe the report of the Lord—
and trust that this is noble work, that
which must be done. I wanted to say I see,
not I watch. I wanted my seeing to be
a sanctuary, but what I saw was this:
in my rearview mirror, the marquee’s
other side—Face the things that confront you.

My first day back, a pilgrim, I traveled
the old neighborhood, windows up,
steering the car down streets I hadn’t seen
in years. It was Sunday. At the rebuilt church
across from my grandmother’s house,
I stepped into the vestibule and found
not a solid wall as years before, but
a new wall, glass through which I could see
the sanctuary. And so, I did not go in;
I stood there, my face against the glass,

watching. I could barely hear the organ,
the hymn they sang, but when the congregation rose,
filing out of the pews, I knew it was the call
to altar. And still, I did not enter. Outside,
as I’d lingered at the car, a man had said
You got to come in. You can’t miss the word.
I got as far as the vestibule—neither in,
nor out. The service went on. I did nothing
but watch, my face against the glass—until
someone turned, looked back: saw me.