Altar Table

Grandpa Payne was a man with a fourth grade education, a mind for math figures and a love of wood. He cut and pieced, sanded and stained the grain of Walnut, Pine, Mahogany and Birch.

He was a master carpenter. In his thirties, forties, and fifties, he built houses from the ground up, a pocketed canvas apron around his waist, a nail between his teeth, a hammer in his hand. When he retired, he built a workshop smelling of pine shavings behind his house; and he made furniture. Sliding his hand across the smooth finished top of a table, his eyes smiled. When he lost his sight, he fashioned walking sticks from Grandma’s Cedar Christmas trees. After stripping the branches, he sanded and stained the trunk of the tree, then adhered a rubber tip to its narrow end. He tried each one out with a hike in the woods before handing it down to one of his grandchildren. I was the youngest. I received the last one.

Communion Sunday meant we all went to church, even if Grandma had an excuse. Grandpa was dressed in his gray suit, had a Blue Jay’s feather in the hat band of his Fedora, and a gold chain shined as one end disappeared into the watch pocket of his trousers. At the end of that chain was his retirement gift. When he pressed a button, the gold cover with his initials, IGP, popped open and the second hand ticked to the rhythm of time. Mama and I fancied up too, wearing our lace dresses and good shoes. Grandma put on her Sunday-best hat, the yellow one with a striped bow. I carried a quarter for the collection plate.

Grandpa led the four of us into the sanctuary. Our seats at Mt. Moriah Methodist Church were three rows back from the front, in the center. The minister looked right at us when he preached.

The church allowed senior members to stay in the pews during Communion. Grandpa refused to let his eighty-eight years keep him from kneeling at the altar. When it was our turn, he used his walking stick as leverage to help him stand. His knees creaked as we followed him to the front. Two deacons assisted Grandpa as he knelt, and the minister came forward with the sacrament. We all received our wafers dipped in grape juice and kept our heads bowed in prayer until we were all served. The minister stood and waited for us to get up and take our seats.

The elders bent to assist Grandpa. He shrugged them off. Still on his knees, he reached out and grabbed the leg of the altar table, giving it a good shake. Candles flickered, coins rattled in the collection plate, and the vase of flowers slid. We stood gawking at Grandpa, our mouths wide.

Grandma said, “Garth?”

Mama said, “Daddy?”

I looked down at my patent leather shoes, and wished I was somewhere else.

Reverend Doug bent real close to Grandpa’s bald head. “Mr. Payne, are you alright sir?”

“Yep, fine.”

“Do you need help Mr. Payne?”

“Nope, don’t need no help, just checking to see if this alter table is still sturdy.”

“Sir?”

“Been a long time since I built this table, Son, almost thirty years. Made it in my workshop.”

“I didn’t know that, Mr. Payne.”

Grandma and Mama looked at each other, shrugged, and then looked at Grandpa. They didn’t know it either.

“Nope, Reverend. I didn’t tell nobody. Finished it, brought it to the church and left it inside the front door. Figured if it was needed, someone would find a place for it. Table’s been right in this spot since the Sunday after I brought it.” He released the leg of the table and pulled himself up using his walking stick. “It’s still sturdy,” he said, satisfied.

“Yes sir, it is,” Reverend Doug agreed.

We walked back to our seats, and as the rest of us took out our hymnals and turned to song 634, Now Let Us From This Table Rise, Grandpa stood and sang it by heart.

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