Saved In a Cornfield: My Great-Grandfather’s Conversion by M. R. Byrd
It was probably a warm Kentucky summer night, that night everything would change for my great grandfather, George Elzie Niceley. Hunted by the local authorities for killing a man that had threatened his father, the only way he could see his wife and children was to hang low during the day and then stalk across corn fields by cover of darkness. Why he did not simply abandon my great grandmother and their brood of children escapes me. By all accounts, he was a mean man. A railroad worker, he had tried once to kill his wife Maggie by pushing her in front of a train. He is remembered to have freely beaten his children with whatever articles were convenient, too. Hearing the stories of him before his conversion make me think of Pap Finn, drunk and violent and totally ignorant of just how he spoiled the peace of those around him.
But it would be wrong to assume that my great grandmother Maggie was at home praying that George would stay away, that she would have one night of peace and quiet with her children. From what my grandmother and mother have told me, I have no doubt that, if she were not too busy cooking or washing dishes or putting the children to bed, she was on her knees praying for George to come home. Honestly, the fact that she had any kind of faith was a sort of miracle in itself. Her own mother, Fannie Murray, had rejected Christianity in favor of a kind of folk witchcraft. But while Fannie was busy making “tables walk”, Maggie had found God while giving birth to her son Morris, my grandfather. From that moment on, though completely illiterate before, she was gifted with the ability to read and write. A gift she immediately used to study and teach scripture to others.
And so I see her in some cramped little house on a rural Kentucky road kneeling quietly by oil lamp or candle light praying that tonight would be the night her husband would finally change. But first and foremost that he would be safe. “Just keep him safe, Lord,” she repeats, her eyes glancing now and then at the window through which she can just glimpse the halo around the biggest full moon she’s seen all year. I imagine her pausing in her litany to look at it startled and awed, just as God intended.
It was the same full moon that drew George’s attention away from himself. He was half way across the cornfield he now knew by heart, and was taking a rest. He looks up at that expansive blue sky stretching out regally from the crown of the hills in the distance, and that’s when it hits him—the Holy Spirit. Hits him like a sudden awakening maybe—an awakening to how sorry it is to be a man crawling home like a criminal, and still worse to be any kind of criminal at all—to be a man cruel to the best wife in the entire state.
Or maybe the awakening had nothing to do with the past, but was simply the introduction of a man to a mystery, the beauty of an invisible power catching George’s spirit up in the air, uniting a once hard heart with the very stalks of corn and blue sky and bright moon surrounding him. In either case, whatever it was, for the first time in his pitiful, wayward life, George Niceley felt connected to something bigger than himself.
—What would he have said to Maggie when, afterward, he reached home, knocking on the door feeling more the stranger than ever? Would he have already known the story of the Prodigal Son, learned from his wife’s own lips as she repeated it to her children as a catechism? Or would he think himself the lost sheep or the lost coin, or, better still, the woman at the well? Maybe he was too struck to think so theologically and instead stood there, not thinking or speaking, but simply weeping.
They wouldn’t speak for the time being, just stand embracing. She rocks him in her arms like a child as he cries. Each tear he sheds is a confession, coming not merely from his memory or his heart, but from his gut. She sweetly wipes each tear away with her handkerchief as the children look on in wonder from their place in the corner. When he can finally speak, he says her name softly, “Maggie, Maggie.” And she replies, “I know.”
The mystical, mysterious event that happened in that cornfield cannot really be captured in words. Family tradition about it is as terse as the line “And Enoch walked with God and was not, for God took him.” George Niceley was saved in a cornfield. That is what I have been taught happened, and hungry as I am to understand how it is that an illiterate railroad worker running from the law, totally ignorant of God one minute could suddenly become the preacher of God the next, I cannot. All we know is that when George went home that night to Maggie he was different. Her prayers had been answered and he was now the husband she had so ardently longed and prayed for. My grandmother recalls going to hear my great grandfather, her father-in-law, preach. Even over the phone, I can hear the admiration in her voice. And although she could not recall any specific message that he preached, she insists that he did it well. I want to believe that he preached on conversion the rest of his life—the need for each of us to take stock of how we live and what we are living for. I would hate to think his own conversion made him intolerant of others, as sometimes is the case.
I’ve often searched for this compassion when peering at the few pictures of my great grandfather the family has preserved. In one he’s all dolled up in a preacher suit looking the picture of respectability. His loving wife has her arm in his. Her round face and bright eyes shine out in gratitude. In another, the two of them pose outside next to a grassy field. He’s wearing a white shirt and little bow-tie with black pants and suspenders. His is looking down at his feet like a bashful beau who has just said something romantic or foolish to the woman he loves. She, in her turn, stands cradled tightly under his arm. She’s wearing a simple flower-print dress, and her hair is brushed close to the head in a neat bun. It’s really her face that’s extraordinary. She is smiling. This woman who is revered as a saint in my family is smiling, a telling detail not lost on me who often thinks of the sorrows she endured, sometimes forgetting the joy that was equally hers.
It isn’t the pictures, however, that give me the clearest indication of what my great grandfather’s conversion had done for him. Pictures, after all, can hide a lot. Instead, it’s the image of my own grandfather—George and Maggie’s son—as he sat on the front porch leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. It was a posture he had learned from his father. It’s the posture of a contemplative. My grandmother confirms this when she tells me that Great Grandpa George was “a quiet man.” Although he was a preacher and could have endlessly talked away, telling others what to do, or talked about himself, he was a quiet man.
My mother says that later in life, when my great grandfather had gone blind from the plastering work he took up to support his family, she and my Aunt Kathy would go to stay with their grandparents from Wednesday until Sunday, and invariably her grandfather would be sitting forward with his head bowed clapping his hands as he listened to his gospel music playing on the radio. “He would listen to it all day,” she says, and I can just see him, bow tie and all, eagerly waiting for the day when the hymns would be fulfilled and he would go home to heaven to meet with the God who saved him. My mother says that my grandfather used to make her and my aunt Kathy sing at church, although my mother didn’t like to, and now I think of it, it was probably his way of impressing upon her the message of these songs of hope. It is fitting, then, that she, in her turn, introduced me to God through songs. And, although I am now Roman Catholic, it is the old Gospel songs from my Pentecostal days, these songs that my great grandfather loved so well, that still speak most powerfully to me of the hope that fuels my Christian imagination—a hope in a new day, a better world, a merciful God.