Call me crazy, but have you noticed how men who drive Saabs always look like John Denver? It’s true. Look it up! Next time you see a Saab, you’ll see John. Even the women who drive Saabs manage to look like John Denver.
Our pastor drove a Saab.
Thing is, Pastor John Denver- I don’t recall his name- was a kind man and, in those days when we made it to Church, it wasn’t so bad. He was soft-spoken, mild-mannered, open-minded, a man for whom religion was perhaps a passion rather than a gift, and in turn he highlighted stories of morality, encouraged us to live like Christ and embrace our philanthropic spirit. I learned a thing or two from that man and I thank my mother now for having forced us there, for having on those rare Sunday mornings woken up on time to send us to Sunday School. Though these days my Bible of choice is a Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris book, I’m respectful of other ways of being. And while I have my opinions on the matter, and strong ones at that- go figure- I’d never forsake those who choose the holier path in this life. Take away those John Denver Sundays and I’d be a far less empathetic, open-minded man. But I digress.
No family pretended to attend church better than ours. Mom was religious about being religious and, despite a deep-rooted belief that we should, in fact, attend on a weekly basis, we seldom did. Well-intentioned as she was, Mom struggled on Sundays with the alarm clock. As I am now, she wasn’t the type who ended a night easily. She’d sit on the couch each night and watch the late shows, knitting or crocheting, writing out greeting cards, or petting the cat waiting for one of us to be home again, safely asleep in bed. For this reason, waking up wasn’t her finest talent. Sundays were that much worse for her, as often they’d be up late the previous night playing cards with friends or neighbors. And thus, when that alarm rattled at 9:30 she was the only one who wouldn’t hear it. Or maybe she did and pretended she didn’t. My sister and I lay awake in our respective beds, eyes wide, praying we didn’t hear shuffling, throat-clearing, muffled voices, searching for any sign Church wasn’t in our future. This was a prayer answered so often it’s a wonder I’m not a goddamn monk.
Now let’s regress for a moment and get something straight. My father worked six days a week, every day but Sunday, and was in the habit of waking no later than 5:00a. No matter what time they went to bed on Saturdays, the man was simply incapable of sleeping late. So it begs the question, doesn’t it? If he was up, and we know he was, how was it that Mom slept through that alarm so often? I mean, that fucking thing was loud, too. If I pattered down the hall in search of a glass of water in the middle of the night, Mom woke up. Yet, this cacophonous apocalypse of sound couldn’t do the trick? Just sayin’. I love a good conspiracy theory, but it doesn’t take Art Bell to put this one together.
Let’s just say Dad wasn’t much of a Churchgoer. Sure, he’d go when occasion forced the issue: Christmas, Easter, a wedding, funeral, a baptism here and there. He had one dreary gray suit, one pair of scuffed dress shoes, a bland tie, and a white shirt. That suit was an albatross, hanging there on the door staring us down, a reminder that Church was in our future. He was compliant, Dad was, a good soldier tucked into that pew. He stood when it was time to stand, stared down at the hymnal and mouthed the words when it was time to sing, nudged me whenever I drifted off, which I always did, imagining how I’d maneuver those wooden beams above, how I’d slide down the old wire that held the crucifix high above the floor.
So listen: we were Presbyterian in a Catholic world, one of few families in town forced to sit on our hands during a Catholic Communion- and any Church-worthy event outside of holidays was likely to be a Catholicized occasion. The local operation forbade crossover, a slight that slashed me to the core. I was fifteen, maybe sixteen when this finally triggered a reaction in me. There I was, standing outside with a fistful of rice, waiting to launch it at my subservient cousin and her husband the master- Priest’s words, not mine- ranting at my father, not thee Father, about the injustice! The hypocrisy! The nerve of those people! He stood there with his hands in his pockets, looking around, nodding, begging me to calm down, stop it. The bastard smiled, I know he did. I remember so vividly how he whispered through his gap-toothed grin, “hush it up.”
On those days when Mom was awake, when we did get dressed on time and when it wasn’t an “occasion,” Dad stayed home. There were no excuses. He just didn’t go. And let’s clear the air: my sister and I were clever little shits. We knew how to manipulate these old folks. We were little fucking con artists, the two of us, and we could contrive such mind-bending, scenario-slicing, emotion-tugging exploits as to initiate us master sociopaths. And yet, I can’t recall a single time in all of childhood when we pulled the most obvious trick in the book, one simple line of dialogue: “If Dad isn’t going, why do we have to go?”
Right? Not once!
God dropped to lower case for me sometime shortly after my cousin’s wedding and not long after John Denver drove his Saab into retirement. Church became nothing more than carefully selected scripture to suit the rant of the day, to keep us in fear, to puppeteer our little hands to toss that crumbled bundle of dollar bills into the collection jar.
It’s all so clear once you know the truth, but by the time the truth was clear it was too late. Grass has sprouted from the dirt over her casket and all questions go unanswered. And though Dad’s still here, hopefully for many more years, the time is never quite right for questions of such depth. Besides, small talk is never too small to fill the void.