The Sunday Mommy Came to Church
“You Can’t Go Home Again” — Thomas Wolfe
Sometimes when I was little, we all went to church together, the four of us: Mommy, Daddy, Jennifer and me. Most Sundays, my mother didn’t go. Grammy Jones always said, “Your mother only goes to church on Christmas and Easter.” Her face would turn like the wicked witch of the West, her mouth tight and her lips disappeared. She never missed a Sunday.
It was close enough to walk to our church; everyone walked all over town then. Dad only drove the pale blue Ford, with its pointy fins, if it was raining or snowing. I remember the feeling of my hand being tiny enough to be enveloped in my father’s warm hand as he held it.
Westminster Presbyterian Church stood on what we considered a hill in our flat landscape: red brick with a white steeple. The very same hill where we rode our sleds in the winter. To this day, when I've taught "here's the church, here's the steeple, open the doors, see all the people," I see that building in my mind’s eye.
We wore Sunday dresses and Sunday shoes, something we girls liked, but boys squirmed and complained because they couldn't wiggle their toes. Our Sunday shoes were tight; they felt brand-new every time.
We wore white gloves. I can see them on my maple dresser, laid out carefully next to my menagerie of ceramic dogs. I like the idea of gloves, but when they were on my hands, they never quite fit. They wouldn't slide all the way down to the space between my fingers. It felt like I had webbed fingers. Likely, the gloves were my sister’s from the year before. The thick raised seams were supposed to stay in perfectly straight lines. They didn't. They were continually twisted and worm-like.
I delighted in sitting next to my mother since she wasn't home much. When she was home, she was usually painting, reading, or playing her violin. She told me I interrupted her “incessantly." That's a big word for a four-year-old, but I knew what it meant. I felt like I was bothering her, so I tiptoed around. I cherished being so close to her in church. A whole hour! Her scent was a blend of Joy perfume, Revlon lipstick, and Triple Lanolin lotion. Dad was one scent — Old Spice.
I loved it when she wore her seal skin coat; it was the darkest brown (almost black) when the velvety fur went in the same direction. I could sort of draw on it, smoothing it down all one way, then I’d move my finger in the opposite direction, making a light-colored line appear in the fur. I’d try to remember the letters in my name and write in the fur, always having a hard time on the horizontal stroke on the top of the ‘J.’
I'd imagine distorted faces in the grain of the wooden pews. The benches were hard and uncomfortable on my bottom. How much longer could the minister talk? Even he must be tired. How many more hymns?
Sometimes I'd lay my head in my mother's lap: her thighs soft as pillows. That was one of the most secure places I remember in my childhood. I used to imagine if the Russians came and dropped bombs from planes, glass shattering, people screaming and running toward the basement toward the yellow and black fall-out signs. I'd be untouched, just Mommy and me, with my head in her lap.
My mother's purse was ever intriguing. Her Sunday purse was shiny and matched her shoes: patent leather with a square metal closure that clicked in a satisfying way as it closed. Click, click, click. I’d do that until Daddy pointed his eyebrows at me. Mommy would just lay her hand on top of mine to make me stop. Occasionally she had her satin navy purse, the one with a round mirror inside a silky case. I’d take it out and look deep inside my mouth, trying to see all my teeth.
At last, it was over. Then we'd have to shake hands with dozens of old people with stale-smelling breath. All the ladies wanted to pet my hair. They wore too much perfume; I don't think they could smell it. It made my tummy feel sick. The worst part of church was the unending line of people talking, patting shoulders, saying endless goodbyes, as if we wouldn't see them again for years!
I usually sneaked out of the line where I'd find other kids who’d also escaped. We’d run around, pretending to be horses. If the adults still hadn't appeared, we debate whether to roll down the hill in our dresses. No one wanted to get in trouble with grass stains.
After church, we'd go to Sunday dinner at Grandma and Grandpa's. I loved the smell of old books, my grandpa's pipe and biscuits baking in the oven. Grandma would cook for days for Sunday dinner: homemade peach butter, rolls, ham, string beans with bacon and always, a pie.
As soon as we walked inside my grandmother stopped whatever she was doing; she’d squat down and hug me hard. Then she’d step back, cupping my face in her hands and smile at me. Her hands smelt of flour, vanilla and soap. She'd say, "Goodness gracious, you’re growing like a weed!"
In the living room (my grandparents called it the front room) lace doilies on the sofa and chairs made it feel like a fancy palace. My mother wouldn't be caught dead with a lace doily anywhere in our house. My father’s parents kept plastic covers on their lampshades. In the center of the backyard stood a canopied grape arbor with thick wide rough leaves, a pump for water, and lots of hiding places.
But best of all, they didn't drink alcohol, so I knew Daddy would be OK and Mommy wouldn't get mad at him.