This is part of a continuing fiction story I’m working on.
You can find the other parts of the story at the following links:
We spent Sunday mornings in church and Sunday afternoons sitting on our front porch, taking naps or, if it was summer, swimming at the pond behind the church. On the last Sunday od month there was a church picnic and Mama, Edith and I made pies to take to it.
I sat next to my parents each Sunday, in a hard, wood pew, trying my best to pay attention to the pastor. Edith dressed her best to make sure all the boys had their attention on her instead of the sermon. Most Sundays it worked and I had seen many backs of heads slapped when mothers or girlfriends had followed the gazes from some distracted male to my sister adjusting her skirt or fanning her clevage with the bulletin.
The first pastor I remember hearing at the church spoke more of damnation than hope. I was sure Pastor Stanley must be 100 years old and sometimes I wondered if he would die from all the yelling he did. It wasn’t the yelling that took him, but he did finally pass away, ironically quietly and peacefully in his sleep, next to his saint of a wife.
“Your sins will lead to your dastardly end!” Pastor Stanley used to shout from the pulpit, sweat beads on his forehead, even in the winter. “The wages of sin are surely death! Death! Is that what you want for your future?! Repent or your soul will be damned to the fires of hell!”
Pastor Stanley may have died peacefully but he lived angrily.
I knew he was speaking the truth in many ways, but it was the way he spoke that made me feel like God was an angry God, watching and waiting for us to fail and fall on our faces so he could cast down punishments from the sky.
The next pastor who filled the pulpit had a different mindset about who God was.
“God is a forgiving God,” Pastor Frank told us one Sunday. “Is he happy when you sin? No. But is He ready to welcome you back into his loving arms when you ask for His forgiveness? Yes. There is nothing you can do that will ever separate you from the love of your God and His son, your savior Jesus Christ.”
Pastor Frank would make his way to the back of church once we were dismissed and do his best to shake the hand of every person in the congregation as they left, asking how they were and offering to help when he could. His wife was Lillian and she was beautiful. She had long black hair that hung straight down her back, almost to her rear, usually kept it in a tight braid. I marveled at the braid, wondering how she weaved it on her own or if maybe Pastor Frank braided it for her. Lillian’s skin that was the color of coffee with cream.
Some of the people in our community called her a not-nice word behind her back, but I never did. My mama wouldn’t allow that word in our house and even if she had I never would have used it. The word sounded dirty and Lillian wasn’t dirty. She had perfect, straight white teeth and bright blue eyes, set off by her darker complexion. Mama said Lillian was from somewhere called Jamaica, which I had only read about in books at school. Pastor Frank had met her there when he was a missionary. I didn’t care where she came from. I cared that when she spoke to me she cared about what I had to say.
“Blanche, you look so pretty today,” she told me one morning as I shook her hand after the service “Is that a new dress?”
I nodded. “Mama made it for me.”
“Well, she did a fine job,” she said.
I loved her accent, the way it sounded exotic, like the voice of someone who had experienced adventure.
“Thank you,” I told her.
“I can’t believe you’re going to graduate next year. I did get that right, didn’t I?”
I nodded again.
“It’s going to be such an exciting time for you!” she said and hugged me close.
I was glad she was excited, but I didn’t even know what my future was going to be. I felt more apprehensive than excited.
“Of course, you have plenty of time before then,” she said quickly. “This next year of school is going to be the best one yet – proms and graduation and memories to be made.”
I didn’t bother to tell her I probably wouldn’t go to prom. I wasn’t the type of girl boys asked to proms.
Out in the sunlight the food was already being set up on the tables by the ladies of the church.
“What’s that boy doing here? I’ve never seen him in church,” Stanley Mosier said as he looked across the field near the pond while we ate watermelon, sipped fruit punch and watched the children chase each other in the high grass.
I looked up, a piece of watermelon in my hand, and saw Hank standing under the weeping willow by the pond with an older woman’s arm hooked in his.
“He’s here with his mother,” John Hatch said, lighting a cigar. “His father kicked him out a few years ago, but she asked him to come with her today, I guess.”
John’s wife Barbara snatched the cigar from his mouth and shot him a disapproving glance.
She silently mouthed the words “not at church,” as she tossed the cigar to the ground and crushed it under her heel. John watched her with a bewildered expression.
Edith propped her elbow on the picnic table and her chin on her hand, lifting one eyebrow, like she always did when she was about to be mischevious.
“Why’d he get kicked out?” she asked John.
“Wrecked his dad’s car, for one,” John said. “He was drinking. He was about 16 at the time. After that he was always getting into trouble one way or another. Getting kicked out only seemed to make him worse, in some ways. He’s been working at the mill. Lives in an apartment over the Cranmer Funeral Home. Seems to show up at work at least – unless he’s been at a dance the night before. He travels with that band of his. Thinks he’s a regular Hank Williams or something.”
Edith looked at me as she said in a sickly, sweet tone, “Well, anyone is redeemable. Aren’t they, Mr. Hatch? Isn’t that what the pastor just preached on?”
John had his back to her, scowling slightly at Hank and his mother, thinking.
She fluttered her eyes at me and smiled. I glared at her.
John nodded and turned back to face us.
“Yes, you have a point there, Edith. Let’s hope he repents and makes a turn around,” he said.
“If he doesn’t we might have to have the sheriff dig his dead body out of the pond one day,” Stanley Mosier said, shaking his head as he reached for another piece of chicken. “A path of destruction like that only leads one place and it’s nowhere good.”
I grew up a Daddy’s girl in a lot of ways. I loved Mama but I was Daddy’s special girl. We both loved baseball and Abott and Costello and, of course, reading.
When I was real little he read me classic books before bed.
“Porthos: He thinks he can challenge the mighty Porthos with a sword… D’Artagnan: The mighty who? Porthos: Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of me,” he read one night, with me snuggled under the covers, eyes wide as I held on to every word of the Three Muskateers and waited to find out what would happen next. “D’Artagnan: The world’s biggest windbag? Porthos: Little pimple… meet me behind the Luxembourg at 1 o’clock and bring a long wooden box. D’Artagnan: Bring your own…. And – well, well, look at the time. You have school in the morning so we will have to finish this tomorrow night.”
“Daddy!” I cried. “You can’t leave me hanging like this!”
“It’s never a bad thing to have something to look forward to in life,” he’d tell me and lean over, kiss me on the forehead, and then stand with a grin on his face. “Sleep tight, Blanche and don’t let those bed bugs bite.”
“Bed bugs? We have bugs in our beds?”
He laughed, a big hearty laugh that came from somewhere deep and free inside him. Daddy was a big man, tall, his belly protruding over his belt, yet his face slimmer than other men who carried the same weight. He wore bifocals when he read, looking over them, down his nose if he looked at someone while reading.
“It’s just a figure of speech, little one,” he told me.
“What’s a figure of speech mean?” I asked.
“It’s something people say a lot – now stop stalling with all these questions and go to bed.”
Mama was a reader too but she read romances and mysteries, books Daddy teasingly called “trash literature.” Daddy read more “classic literature”, as he referred to his collection of Dumas, Dickens, Elliot and Tolstoy.
As a teen I started to miss those special times with Daddy.
When I started developing – as in breasts and all that goes along with physically growing up- I think Daddy just didn’t know how to talk to me anymore. I didn’t grow up top the way Edith did, but it was enough for Daddy to start looking at me differently. It was like he thought I was a different person inside because I looked different on the outside. I wasn’t different, though. I was still Blanche. I simply didn’t know how to tell him or show him I was.
Sometimes he’d still read to me while we sat together in the family room, after my homework was done, a passage here or there from Hemingway or Steinbeck, even though we both agreed Steinbeck wasn’t our favorite.
When Daddy started going to church more he read to me from A.W. Tozer. The living room was dimly lit by a lamp next to his chair as he read , a fire crackling in the fireplace. His pipe was lit and smoke curled up from it where it sat in the dish on the table by the lamp.
“The yearning to know what cannot be known, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to touch and taste the unapproachable, arises from the image of God in the nature of man. Deep calleth unto deep, and though polluted and landlocked by the mighty disaster theologians call the Fall, the soul senses its origin and longs to return to its source.”
Sometimes the passages Daddy read to me made me think too much and no matter how much I thought about it, I couldn’t make sense of it. There were a deep thoughts in what he read but I was just too distracted by adventure and romances to focus on them.
Daddy was an accountant, working in a dingy office in the town 20-minutes from our house. Cramner & Robins Associates Inc. opened before I was born when he and Franklin Cranmer, a distant cousin of his, started the business. They opened the office soon after Daddy returned from a college two hours from home, a degree in one hand and Mama’s hand in the other.
For Daddy working with numbers came easy. Numbers were how he made a living but words were what made him feel alive. Some days he worked long hours and we didn’t see him until right before we went to sleep, but other days he came home around 5 and we all sat together for dinner. Mama said it was important for us to sit at the table and tell each other about our days.
“How was school today?” Daddy would ask Edith and I, because parents only seem able to ask their children about the child’s least favorite experience in life.
Edith usually shared about a person she had met, a new boy at school or a sweater she wanted to buy. I almost always shared about a book I was reading, a new author I’d discovered, or what I’d learned in history class.
“You’re too worried about those boys,” Daddy would say to Edith, looking concerned, the concern growing as the years went by.
“Oh, Alan, boys are something all girls talk about at this age,” Mama would say, smiling across the table at Daddy. “I was no different when I was Edith’s age. I know I chatte: about you to my parents after we met that day in class.”
Daddy blushed when Mama talked about how they met and Edith and I would smile across the table at his obvious discomfort.
“Well, I just – it’s just – I mean we need to meet some of these boys you are always talking about,” Dad stammered a little, looking at Mama as if to say “Don’t try to throw me off my game by flirting, Janie.”
After dinner Mama would go sit on the front porch and soon Daddy would follow. They sat together on the wooden swing, whispering and giggling like teenagers. Edith and I, inside doing our homework, looked at each other and giggled when we were younger, but when we were older we rolled our eyes and made gagging noises.
Mama was always sure to have a hot meal ready for Daddy when he walked through the door, even if he came home late.
“He’s supporting this family; the least I can do is provide him a hot meal at the end of the day,” she told me more than once.
On the late nights, she and Daddy ate alone at the table. Daddy shared what had delayed him at office – usually a difficult customer or a new client who would bring more business.
Mama wore her dark brown hair in a bun on her head, no matter if she was home or out. I almost never saw her with her hair down. She went into her room at night with it up and woke up before us all, twisting it and pinning it in place again before the rest of us saw her. The only time Edith and I saw it flowing across her shoulders and back was if we were sick or had a nightmare in the night. She’d rush in, her hair flowing behind her, scoop us into her arms and take care of our needs, never complaining that she was tired or frustrated.
Her voice was soft and smooth as she sang in the darkness.
“I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known”
Mama always wore dresses, even when she was digging in her flower beds or Daddy’s garden. Her day started at 5 a.m. every day. She made Daddy’s lunch, brewed him coffee to take with him to work in a Thermos and then she made breakfast, always fresh – eggs from the chickens out back (the only farm animals we had even though we lived in between a row of farms), slab bacon or breakfast sausage from a local farmer and toast made with bread Mama cooked herself while we were away at school or work.
She washed clothes in a basin, rinsed them in a deep sink in the laundry room, dried them on a line out back, or if it was raining they were dried on wooden drying racks around the house. She ironed everything – shirts and dresses and sheets and even towels. She made a full dinner every day, even Sundays after church. She washed the dishes and put them away every night before bed. She scrubbed the floors and washed our bedding once a week.
She was more than I could ever be and I knew it. Maybe that’s why it worried me when she had suggested that I’d be just like her one day. I knew I could never be as good at her at keeping a household and a family together, but I also knew I could never be content only doing what she did.