Thursday, March 22, 2012

Haunted By My Grandfather's Voice

My paternal grandparents,
P. M. Thomas and Susan Thomas
   Something happened to me yesterday that has left me rather shaken and unnerved. While driving to work yesterday morning, I heard in my mind the voice of my long dead paternal grandfather (the man in the photo on the right), singing to me. 

   I have no explanation for why he suddenly came to mind; it's been more than a year since I last thought of him. On the occasions that I have thought of him, I have done so with admiration and affection for his strong, uncompromising Christian character and life that he led by example, which I wish I could emulate. My memories of him have become somewhat hazy of late. But there was no mistaking that voice. And there was no mistaking that song; it was a liturgical hymn that I had often heard him and my grandmother sing during church and family prayer times when he was alive. I don't know the words of that hymn, just it's melody. But there was no mistaking that either.

   I remember pulling over to the side of the road in shock and sitting in a daze for a few minutes while his voice in my head went on, singing that hymn. And then something in me began to swell up and emerge that I have not experienced before. A powerful flood of my memories of him, and more importantly the little Mar Thoma parish [1] in India that he used to go to began to return, clear and sharp like a camera lens focusing on an object. With them came a deep, intense longing that I still cannot put words to. Without understanding why, I began to sing that hymn the best I could, put my head against the steering wheel and started to cry. It took a few minutes before I could pull myself together and finish the drive to the two project sites where I worked by myself for the rest of the day.

   But his memories, voice and hymn in my head did not go away, even while I was at work and all the way to small group later. If anything, they have become stronger and followed me over the last two days. And with them, the strange stirring in my heart that I still cannot put words to.

   P. M. Thomas was the grandfather ("appachen" in our native tongue, Malayalam) that I saw and personally connected with the least, but probably the man who has left the biggest impression on my father's family in terms of his life and legacy. I remember Appachen to be a devout and pious man of few words, but uncompromising in his character and conduct. Though living a modest life with a meager salary, he raised a strong, God-fearing family through whom his legacy lives today. A man of prayer, he had a rule in his house for family prayer to be held at 6 AM and 6 PM, which were kept without fail. He was also a man who spent time immersed in his Bible everyday; one of my best and most powerful memories of him is in his 70's, old and greyed with a pacemaker in his heart and cataract in his eyes, yet attempting to read his Bible with a magnifying glass. I think that image made an impression that remains to this day, and spurs me on too to immerse myself in the Word of God.

Sharon Mar Thoma Parish
   But those weren't the specific memories of Appachen that have been following me since yesterday. It was trotting behind him as a little child, trying to keep up with his quick pace, to his little parish church every Sunday, when my family and I vacationed in India every other summer. It was memories of standing and kneeling beside him in the wooden pews, listening to him sing the songs of the liturgical service, sung by the priests with the congregation responding with singing at the appropriate points. It was the solemn, yet deeply meaningful and reverential atmosphere in that old church as the hymn and prayer books were opened, men in their Sunday white, women with their heads covered and the priests in their vestments, like those in the photo on the right at my niece's baptism. It was my grandfather ushering me to the front when it happened to be my birthday, to kneel at the steps in front of the altar with other children as the priest laid his hands on our heads and pronounced the blessing on us. It was watching Appachen go up to the front to receive the communion bread and wine from the priest, as the priest put the bread in his mouth and let him sip from the chalice that contained the communion wine. And most of all, it was the sound of Appachen's voice, singing the hymns and prayers during the service and again at family prayer times, with that particular tone and pitch that made his voice immediately recognizable to my childhood ears, the same voice that I heard singing to me yesterday.

   My heart has suddenly been filled with a longing to see my grandfather again;  to hear him sing those old hymns again; to visit his little parish; to once again hear and participate in that traditional liturgy which I watched him partake of; to hear those deeply moving, yet solemn and reverential hymns and traditional worship that I watched standing by his side as a child; to re-visit and explore my spiritual history, heritage and that ancient church from which my family has come; to visit his grave at the cemetery where he is buried with my grandmother, but more so to live his example and legacy. I want to live a strong and upright Christian life like he did, to one day lead a family like he did, to one day leave a legacy like he did.

   My grandfather's voice is still singing that hymn in my head. My heart is still stirring with memories, and I'm still crying. Something is happening to me, Jesus. But what is it?

- The Wisdom Seeker

[1] Salem Mar Thoma Church, Ernakulam