A few days ago I received a package in the mail from my Aunt Rachel. Inside was a portal that pulled me into the 1930s. Well, sort of. The package contained two books that belonged to my grandparents. I was pleased, but not surprised, to see that one was a book of hymns in spanish. I’m not sure if my grandmother could speak spanish but she was endlessly interested in other languages, people, and cultures and it wasn’t a bit surprising to learn that she had owned and used a spanish hymnal. I know she used it based on her notes in the margins (see below).
My grandmother was born in 1918 and would have been 20 or 21 in April of ’39 and living in Cincinnati, Ohio. I remember her as interested in world affairs and she would have known that German troops had streamed into Prague only the month before. She may have known that Neville Chamberlain had, the day before, brought a bill to parliament introducing military conscription for all males aged 20 and 21. The Thursday before, Billie Holiday, only a young 20-something herself, first recorded “Strange Fruit” a haunting lament and remembrance of the ‘Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.’ As the daughter of sharecroppers in Alabama my grandmother would have known about that too.
By fall, the world would be at war. A war that would consume millions of lives and the next several years. My grandmother was 27 when it finally ended. I never heard her refer to any other human with anything less than respect, dignity, and yes . . . love. She loved Jesus and she believed, down to the deepest part of her soul, that Jesus loved everyone. The not loving others meant not loving Jesus. And so, when the world was on the brink of a conflict rooted in hatred of other people, other languages, and other cultures . . . my grandmother was trying to learn to sing a language not her own. That’s not a bad lesson for all of us. When the newspapers and internet are full of ugly words and ugly caricatures of others, maybe we should work to learn how to sing a song that’s not our own.