Lessons from a Small Town: Church
Church. My family and I regularly walked there on Sunday mornings in Ames, New York, no matter the weather. Marching in a line, the six of us navigated the irregular slabs of the village’s sidewalk towards the white clapboard structure in the middle of town. As a youngster, my black Mary Janes struggled to keep up with my mother’s high heels that held the lead position of the procession. At the tail end of the row, my father monitored the pace like a border collie herding a flock of sheep.
Prior to our mid-morning parade, down the street, Catherine exited from her home’s side porch and headed a few hundred yards towards the Ames Methodist Church. The long skirt of her floral print dress covered the thick nylon rolls that secured her opaque stockings to her meaty calves. On a hook in the kitchen, her everyday bib apron awaited her return. Metal hairpins anchored her course hair in a tight silver knot at the base of her weathered neck. A heavy wool coat protected her in the harsh winter months.
Facing the massive, oak entrance, Catherine, the Church custodian, pulled a skeleton key from her dress’s side pocket and slipped it in the keyhole. The dedicated steward stepped through the double-door archway, flicked on the light switch and turned to the left. She gripped the smooth wooden banister and climbed the short set of stairs towards her appointed station. The narrow treads on the wooden steps mimicked flattened slices of black licorice. The rubber mats muted the thumps from her sturdy lace-up shoes.
Standing on the landing, she uncoiled the thick jute rope and tugged on the dusty cord with both hands. Her ample body swayed from side to side with the rhythm of the bell’s clapper. The loud clangs echoed down Ames’s single tree-lined street. Catherine was our official Sunday starter.
When my family and I reached the entrance to the Church, we filed in with other family units. Once inside the building, the odor of stale urine from the adjacent indoor privy greeted a tiny me and filled my nostrils. The obnoxious cloud lingered in the air like the exhaust fumes that trailed our school bus on a cold morning.
Mom didn’t like us to use that primitive bathroom. I think she was embarrassed by its presence. But one time I couldn’t hold my pee any longer. I held my nose between two fingers of one hand as I unlatched the door with the other and tip-toed in. When I sat down, my skinny, bare bottom did not fully fill the crudely carved-out opening, so I had to steady my quivering torso with both hands on the wooden bench. My lace-trimmed Sunday panties hugged my ankles and kept my legs together. I was scared to death that I would fall into the dark hole. Mom and I were glad when a real toilet was installed.
In the vestibule, a life-like painting of an unknown man hung on the opposite wall. When I first saw it, I was confused and a little scared. The figure had long hair and a full beard and was dressed in what looked to be a bathrobe. His piercing, dark eyes stared directly at me. There was a glow, like a full sunshine, behind his head. He was holding a tall stick with a hook at the end. I did not know who he was, but I suspected that he had to be pretty important because there was a light fixture above the frame so everyone could see him in the dark.
Why did we come to this place?
Why did Dad put paper money in a shiny plate with a velvet lining each week?
Why was there a loud pipe organ in the big room upstairs?
Why did a man in a black robe with a starched white collar, that looked like his shirt was on backwards, stand behind a wooden lectern and shout at us until his face turned red and his neck bulged out like a bull frog ready to croak?
The Ames Methodist Church is a plain white building with colorful windows and a tall, pointed steeple with a bell. We sat in a pew each week. As a kid, I thought that was a funny name. We always sat in the same place. Up front, left-hand side.
There is a long kitchen in the basement. It used to have a linoleum floor and matching counter tops. Facing a double window with frilly curtains, two wide, white sinks anticipated dirty dishes. The kitchen always smelled like old coffee grounds and stale baked goods.
We sang lots of songs in Church. Before I could read, I moved my lips and pretended. I felt very grown-up as I joined in with the rest of the congregation. Actually, I just hummed with my opened hymnal that I picked from the rack in front of me. Musical accompaniment boomed from the huge brass pipe organ behind the choir section. Alta commanded the two layers of keyboards. Our organist’s gray head tilted back and forth in time to the music like a human metronome but her fancy Church hat never fell off. Her thick heeled shoes slid effortlessly across the long wooden pedals under her bench. Alta was the master of the musical monument.
Each Sunday I followed the instructions of the man behind the podium. I closed my eyes and folded my hands together when I was told to bow my head in prayer. Sometimes I peeked. Dad always seemed to be sleeping in his aisle seat. He said he was just resting his eyes but I know I heard snoring. Then I stood up and sat down when instructed with the rest of the crowd, even when I did not know why. It was exhausting.
During the long talking part of the service, I counted dead buck wheat flies on the nearby window sill. Once I counted fifteen. Sometimes a live one put on a show and danced on the colorful pictures on the stained-glass. The morning sun light poured though the tinted panes casting bright hues on the ceiling like a spectacular kaleidoscope. Each week I chose a different favorite color.
Gloves were a part of my Sunday outfit when I was young. I loved my white gloves and worked hard at keeping them clean. I stored them in the back of my underwear drawer. One Sunday I misplaced the left one. In a panic, I kept my bare hand under my crinoline petticoat during the entire service. I was afraid I would be yelled at for not being properly dressed by the man up front in the black robe and white collar. When I got home I found the abandoned glove jammed behind the back of my drawer and pulled it out for the next week.
Mom always wore a hat. She had a collection of hats that could rival the Queen of England. Wide brims with bows. Tall crowns with flowers. One even had a row of real feathers that made her look like a walking peacock. I only wore a bonnet on Easter Sunday when I was little.
One time Mom mistakenly left a tiny pink, plastic curler at the nape of her neck. She must have been in a hurry—we were always running late—and plunked her newest Sunday hat on top of her platinum curls. The rogue roller was left hidden underneath everything by mistake.
The ripple of laughter started at the far side of the pew when one of my sisters noticed the lone curler. Soon all four of us were suppressing giggles that torqued our bodies and shook the pew. Unaware of the source of our laughter, Mom shot her familiar “You better shape up!” glare. For a moment, we were able to stifle our giggles but within minutes unrestrained tittering erupted like hot lava from a volcano. The innocent, lonely pink curler remained in place during the entire service.
When the final Amen echoed and Alta enthusiastically pounded on the organ keys, everyone filed out and went back downstairs and exited. Mom and Dad went home to prepare our Sunday dinner while my sisters and I attended Sunday school in the basement of the Church. Here, with the aid of a wide flannel board and numerous cut-outs of people dressed in robes and sandals along with assorted animals, I learned amazing Bible stories. I liked the one about a whale that swallowed a man named Jonah. Another favorite told of a terrible flood and how all of the animals paraded two by two on to a big boat to stay safe. That time I got to place some of the beasts on the green flannel. And the best tale was about a baby who was born in a manger. It was through these colorful lessons that I learned the identity of the man in the vestibule painting. I wasn’t scared of Him anymore.
Why did we keep coming to this place?
Why did it start to feel so comfortable and familiar as I got older?
Why did I start to enjoy Sundays mornings?
As the years went on I started to appreciate Church more and more. It was a place where in cold winter months the female members offered home-made steaming macaroni and cheese casseroles, meatloaves dotted with green peppers, simmering vegetables in pools of melted butter and clouds of mashed potatoes in Pyrex dishes. The warm food filled our stomachs but it also fed our souls as we gathered in fellowship. The pot-luck dinner was spread down rows of mismatched tables with assorted embroidered table clothes in the basement level of the Church. Folding chairs crowded next to one another providing seats for everyone. Tall aluminum coffee makers hummed in the kitchen under the watchful eyes of seasoned, aproned servers with tight gray perms and sensible shoes. Sometimes there was a special corn fritter supper. Here vats of lard cooked balls of dough to a golden crisp. The Church ladies delivered the fritters on big platters. By the time the plates reached the end of the tables, only grease stains remained.
In the summer months, I enjoyed Ice Cream Socials at the Church. Scoops of Sealtest ice cream filled bowls or sugar cones. Gooey homemade chocolate syrup, fresh strawberries and real whipped cream topped the cold mounds. While the adults sat outside in the cool shade of the trees to gossip, the younger kids enjoyed the adjacent playground equipment. I liked to whizz down the tall sliding board with a piece of waxed paper under my butt to give me extra speed. The older boys played a pick-up baseball game on the ball diamond behind the Church and argued at home plate over close calls.
I learned about commerce and charity at Church.
Throughout the year, the senior women of the congregation collected cast-off clothing, empty handbags and tired high-heeled shoes for the annual Rummage Sale. During the days leading up to the fund-raising event, the ladies arranged folding tables in the basement and tagged the inventory with handwritten tickets. A nickel, a dime, a quarter. Few items crossed the paper barrier of a dollar bill.
Rummage Sales were held on Saturdays. I looked forward to the yearly event and in anticipation, I pried loose coins which had fallen from my father’s pants pockets and lodged between the planks of my parent’s bedroom floor. I collected them in a Beech-Nut baby food jar that I kept in a corner of my closet. I did not have an allowance or any other source of income so this would be my spending money.
One time, I intended to shop for an evening gown to expand my formal dress-up collection. After carefully examining the inventory, I selected a strapless, emerald green gown. Not having the exact amount, I offered Florence, my Sunday School teacher, all of the dusty change that I had collected. It was a few cents off. She kindly accepted my offer. I pressed my dirty coins in her fleshy palms to complete the transaction. Florence gently folded the fabric and bundled it into a creased A&P paper bag. Everyone was happy. I snagged a bargain and more funds were added to the Church treasury. High skips punctuated my joyful retreat home.
In sixth grade I became an official member of the Ames Methodist Church. During a series of Saturday morning classes, I memorized the books of the Old Testament, in order. But my membership represented more than a mental collection of odd names and Commandments. I was starting to weave my moral fabric.
When I graduated from high school, I left Ames and the entire state of New York for college. I packed a blue trunk with my clothes and a few other possessions. Vinyl records for my portable record player, hot rollers and an orange blow-up chair for my dorm room. My Church lessons were stowed deep in my soul.
My life became busy and my Church experiences and lessons lay dormant for many years.
But on September 3, 1977 I returned to the Ames Methodist Church, and my feelings for my Church awoke from their hibernation. It was here on a warm, late summer afternoon that I launched a new chapter in my life. I became a wife for the first time and soon there after, a mother.
As my father walked me down the aisle of the Ames Methodist Church, I smelled the familiar wood from the pews. A few black flies remained in the corners of the windowsills. The sound of the pipe organ during the processional reminded me of the days when I couldn’t read the words in my hymnal. I hummed along just like I did when I was five-years-old.
On that day, my Church came alive in my heart. It was then that I realized its value and the answers to my childhood questions. This was a special place. I was home. The Ames Methodist Church was the perfect setting for my emergence into adulthood.
When the ceremony was over and before I left the Church for the reception, I made sure to whisper thank you to the portrait of the man in the entrance way. I needed to express my gratitude for all of the blessings that He had given me.