I love this shot of my family in 1964. There we are: Dad, Mom, and all the chillun, from my big sister at 15 down to my little sister at 3. We’ve just come from church. I wonder who is snapping the photo? Obviously someone we kids know, as we’re laughing. Usually Dad took our family photographs, peering down through the viewfinder of the Kodak Duaflex and trying with ponderous patience to get all of us children looking up at once and possibly smiling. In support of this, it was Mom’s job to stand behind Dad, dancing and waggling her hands.
Old photographs can carry so much nostalgia, as this one does for me. Such dreams Mom and Dad had. Such good intentions. And right around the corner, the late ’60s and ’70s were waiting to pounce and grab all of us by the scruff of the neck.
When I think of my early childhood the words that come to me are “orderly” and “safe.” Life moved predictably and seamlessly. Every morning with breakfast cereal Dad poached eggs and made orange juice (we bought frozen cans which Dad mixed in the blender, so I grew up thinking orange juice naturally had a layer of icy fizz on top). Saturday mornings Dad cooked pancakes. Sunday mornings we all dressed in Sunday clothes — our grandmother sewed the matching dresses we three girls are wearing in the shot above — and went to church.
On the way we passed a cemetery with its name in giant white lettering on a hillside. I think it must have started when we younger ones were learning to read, but as far as I was concerned it was simply traditional that as we drove by, we kids had to scream, “Spring… Grove… Ce-me-tery!” It was part of the church experience.
Church was an enormous part of our lives. DH has always teased me (because my family didn’t watch much television, or follow any sports, and always went to church), “You grew up in a cult.”
I was an adult before I really grasped how different my upbringing had been, but it certainly was not cultish. We were Episcopalians, for goodness’ sake. It’s true that when I was very small the whole family knelt in the living room every morning for a service of Morning Prayer. I remember being on my knees looking up through my laced fingers at the 19th century family portrait over the sofa (it was a child holding a doll, and the expression on the face of the doll worried me intensely). My big sister remembers everyone kneeling for Evening Prayer around the various cribs that appeared over the years.
This practice of Morning Prayer stopped, probably not long after the photo above was taken. But church itself went on and seemed to be woven into our lives.
Mom led adult education classes. Dad volunteered in support of the church administration. My little sister and I spent so much non-Sunday time at the church and parish hall that I can still hear the scuffing of our small shoes skipping up the long flight of stone steps (on the far side of the cloister above). We roamed freely for hours, playing in the empty Sunday School classrooms or trailing the church sexton as he straightened and tidied the buildings. This kindly gentleman’s first name was Zoltan, or Zolt. For years we thought it was Salt.
It was a large church, with a chapel for children’s services separate from the main service in “the big church.” My little sister and I both sang in the children’s choir (I loved the red robes and white cottas) and I was proud when I grew big enough to be the crucifer — carrying the cross at the head of the parade! The children’s service was much shorter and left time for Sunday school and the occasional special visitor.
Once, when I was about five, an elderly visiting minister addressed the entire Sunday school of about seventy children, gathered in the church basement.
He told us his brother had recently died. (I immediately pictured my closest brother, age 8.) He told us that after his brother’s death, he had paused in his living room. (I pictured our living room.)
“I couldn’t see him,” the white-haired minister said dramatically. “I couldn’t hear him. But I knew my brother was there!”
Gosh, that was easy — we were whizzes at hide-and-seek! I jumped up. “I know! I know! He was hiding behind the curtains!”
Naturally, every year we kids did our Christmas shopping at the church white elephant sale. This was an evening event in December. My nearest brother, my little sister, and I were always given a couple of dollars to spend and I can still remember the breathless excitement of getting into the car at night carrying lumpy packages in mysterious paper bags. (Whispering and bouncing on the seat: “You’ll never guess what I got for you!“)
When I was six or seven I found the perfect gift for my mother at this sale. It was — gasp! — a silver goblet. Yes, it was dented in numerous places, and rather black with tarnish, but — look at the scroll work. It was just like the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper! And best of all, it only cost 25 cents! I knew Mom would be barely able to contain her excitement.
My mother’s thrilled reaction was everything I could have hoped for. It was only decades later, when a friend looked at me oddly and said, “You bought your mother a cup because it looked like the cup from the Last Supper?” that it occurred to me that perhaps this was not the typical gift of a six-year-old. But it was perfectly normal in my family.
It also says something wonderful about my mother that she kept that dented, 25-cent, silver-plate cup on her bedroom bookshelf, polished, for the rest of her life.
As an adult I have met many, many people who in their childhoods were scarred by religion. I, however, was bathed in it. God’s message as I was taught it was all about love. I don’t remember ever hearing a word about sin or retribution from Mom and Dad. Yes, there was mention in the prayers (and certainly in the hymns and lessons!), but I grew up with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and that old-fashioned language was poetry to me. “We have erred and strayed like lost sheep.” “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent…” Even now the cadences roll peacefully in my mind, like familiar music from long ago.
It’s true that when I grew older and attended services using the “new” Episcopal prayer book of the ’70s, which — aside from being associated in my mind with sideburns and giant polyester collars — was less poetical and more easily understood, I was troubled by some of what I was repeating. (Mom said to me, “Do you have to listen so hard?”) As an adult I found my comfort place in the United Church of Christ, which is all about social justice and has very little formal liturgy at all.
Still, that early, completely positive exposure to the rich panoply of worship has meant that I have been at ease in almost any religious service I’ve been a guest at over the years. Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Quaker, Buddhist, Navajo. My heart is open to the familiar longing.
I have come to believe that what was most different about my religious upbringing is that Mom and Dad did their best to live by their Christian ideals. For me there was no dissonance between what Jesus said, what my parents said, and how they tried to behave at home.
They weren’t perfect parents. They made mistakes. But the world as they presented it was orderly and warm and made sense. I didn’t grasp until I was an adult how different that was, and what a lucky, lucky gift I had been given. A foundation for life.
Today my father has been dead for decades, and though in memory I can still see his humorous dark brown eyes, I can’t always summon his voice. However, I have only to think, “Lord, bless this food to our use and us to Thy service,” and I can instantly hear Dad saying grace in his soft firm voice before every meal we ever shared at a table.
My big sister was going through family papers recently and found this prayer that our mother wrote in the 1970s for one of the classes she taught at church.
God, help us to remember as we
look into ourselves that you love us as
we are today. That you are patient with
us. That our humanness is acceptable and
no surprise to you. Help us feel Your
tenderness toward us as we try to grow.
Let us feel Your gentle caring support as
we move toward becoming the selves you
have created us to be. Amen.
Love, patience, tenderness, acceptance, caring support. That is the God we knew from Mom and Dad.
I have not been able to give my children the same all-permeating religious upbringing I was given. I tried. I took them both to church as babies and young children, but it’s hard to swim alone against the cultural tide. With each one, in turn, Sunday soccer games and inertia overcame me. I have only to hear Lucy ask, “So who was Judas again?” to know how I failed. This often makes me sad.
The one thing I am sure of is that both my parents would forgive me.
Our humanness is acceptable.