I Am a Turnip
My Mamaw Greer always said, “Children are keen observers and poor interpreters.”
She meant that children are highly observant of their surroundings but they often assign the wrong meaning to what they observe. She would sure know. She’s the one who caught me singing about a turnip, in church. I don’t mean the word “caught” like I was doing anything wrong on purpose. I was only 6 years old, tender hearted, and had not yet learned the ways of mischief from my older brother, Jim Ed. I just mean, Mamaw was the one who, during the lively congregational singing, overheard me belting out at the top of my lungs, “I AM A TURNIP WITH A HOLE OUT IN THE END!” with every bit of power, authority, and conviction that I could muster. I might have been a skinny little freckle-faced thing, but I could sure belt it out. Momma jokingly said that if they cut me open, they’d find nothing inside but two giant lungs. Jim Ed always added, “yeh, MONKEY lungs.”
I swayed and clapped in beat beside my Mamaw. “I AM A TURRRRNIP......WITH A HOOOOOOLE —“ I stopped singing because Mamaw was studying my singing, with a funny look on her face. “Are you saying turnip??” she mouthed at me through the loud music, leaning in closer. I stopped clapping. “What??" “Are you singing TURNIP??” “Yes ma’m. A turnip with a hole out in the end....right?” my confidence in the lyric deflating even as I blurted it. She clapped both hands over her mouth to keep her laughter from busting out.
Instantly, I knew something was a little off, because Mamaw was not one to be disorderly in church. Loud as our Pentecostal church was, we still had our own sense of order and decency, and joking and laughing amongst yourselves in the middle of congregational singing was frowned upon. Mamaw was meek and orderly, and would NEVER be the one distracted and giggling.
The only other time my Mamaw Greer had ever been disorderly was right in the middle of one of my Papaw Greer’s enthusiastic sermons when he jumped up on the wooden altar bench to demonstrate a point and split his pants. Mamaw GASPED “Oh my GOD!” then wheeled to the lady beside her and assured her quickly, “That‘s the first time I’ve ever cussed.” In Mamaw’s mind, she had just taken the Lord’s name in vain. But I think that seeing a peek of my papaw’s saggy under briefs was a good reason to cry out to God.
“Karen Jr., you’re pulling my leg” She shot me a coy look, then pressed her fingers over her grin again, embarrassed to be tickled. The music rollicked around us — people clapping, swaying, worshipping, not even noticing us. Even though she was tickled, I knew she was serious because she never called me Karen Jr. unless there was good reason. I was named after my mom, and Karen Jr. was actually on my birth certificate, but my Mamaw usually called me Kari since I was little and Karen Jr. sounded so grown up and serious to her.
“What IS it, then??” I asked. “It’s supposed to be ‘I am determined to hold out to the end.'" Laugh tears glistened in the soft creases of her eyes. "What?? Nuh-uh ”I wasn’t convinced. I had been singing with passion about the turnip with the hole out in the end since I was probably 4 or 5. It was one of my favorite congregational songs.
It never had occurred to me an odd thing to be singing about a turnip in church. In my defense, we sang songs that said “I am a wretch” or “I am a worm” so I figured a turnip was just as lowly. Surely Mamaw was mistaken. I was pretty certain the lyrics said turnip. And being a turnip with a hole rotted out of one end was, in my opinion, even worse than being a worm.
It’s no wonder I mis-heard the lyrics, because the music in our little Pentecostal church was loud and rollicking. Although highly uplifting, it was often deafening. A sinner man that once visited our church said that he loved the music in our church because it sounded just like honky tonk music, only it was about Jesus. I knew he was a sinner man because he had a tattoo on his arm and the imprint of a Skoal can in his back pocket. I was a naïve little red haired preacher’s daughter, taking it all in from the second row and loving nearly every minute of it. I had never been inside a honky tonk, so I just took sinner man’s word for it. But it was true that Sister Bonita’s piano solos always reminded me of the saloon music in TV westerns. Both Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis learned how to play and sing in a Pentecostal church, if that tells you anything. And there were way more besides those two. I figured sinner man knew what he was talking about.
The music in our church certainly was robust — piano, B3-organ, full drum kit, bass guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and a tambourine or two. At one time, we had a steel guitar too. If you had a clarinet or trumpet, whatever, you were encouraged to bring it and make a joyful noise. This was a far cry from stiff high church. This was where you could express yourself, musically, emotionally, physically. Dance, play, shout. The giant rumble of worship was a perfect environment for young kids to hone their musical skills. It was also a perfect environment for young kids to hear lyrics all wrong.
Anybody who has grown up in a Pentecostal church can tell the tale of at least one song they passionately sang the wrong lyrics to before finding out they weren’t singing the right words. Like Rhonda Payne and the Christmas carol “Silent Night.” Every time they got to the line “round yon virgin mother and child” she thought they were saying “Brown John Bird and mother and child.”
In her mind, along with the cows and sheep, Brown John Bird was one of the animals at the manger scene with baby Jesus. Rhonda might never have known the truth had she not insisted when she was 9 years old that her mom tell her the names of the other animals. Her mom told her the other animals didn’t have names and that there was no such thing as Brown John Bird. I think that was the day Rhonda’s religion started coming unraveled. She had been singing about Brown John Bird since she was 5. There were lots of other people’s mistranslations I had heard of:
“Hiking eternal, our Garden King”
was actually“High King Eternal, our God and King”
“he looked beyond my socks and saw my knees”
was actually “he looked beyond my faults and saw my needs”
“olive oil, olive oil, in the turnip greens”
was actually “I’ll live on, I’ll live on through eternity”
“crazy in the morning, crazy in the noontime”
was actually “Praise Him in the morning, Praise Him in the noontime”
Having just been told there was no turnip, I was uncertain how to proceed. I couldn’t remember exactly what Mamaw had said the right lyrics were, so I finished out the song how I usually sang it
only less loud and with less confidence when I got to the turnip and hole part. When the song was over and we sat down, she pulled a hymnal from the rack on the back of the pew in front of us, and opened to page 104 so I could see the lyrics for myself. I stared at the page trying to wrap my head around what I was seeing.
I scanned the entire hymn for the word turnip. Nope. Only “determined” which made me think of detergent. Moving forward with this new reality would take some real effort. Sometimes it is hard to retrain your brain after you have taught it something and done it that way for a long time. Especially when you have attached deep feelings to it. This turnip had shaped my young budding sense of humility. It would be hard to let it go.
I recited the word “determined” under my breath to try and remember it, and I reminded myself to ask Mamaw what it meant after church. The offering plate had already passed us and was being collected from the very last row, as the swell of the organ stirred the congregation into the next song. Mamaw stood and joined the voices singing “Gladly, The Cross I Bear.”
In a few seconds, I would stand up, exchange a brief grin with her about the turnip, and then join her, singing with just as much gusto and fervor as before, not missing a beat. I didn’t know all the lyrics or the reasons and dogma yet, but I sure did love singing beside my Mamaw, and I loved Jesus, and I loved the good feelings and the spirit of what was happening all around me. One last time I looked down at the page with the turnip not there. I closed the hymnal, and stood up beside Mamaw who sure enough grinned and gave me a gentle pat. I smiled too. Then I closed my eyes, gripped the pew, and passionately sang out “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear...”