I’ll be really honest with you lovely people who grace my stories with your eyes, I wrote this today after a weekend I couldn’t quite get it together. I haven’t missed a day of writing in awhile but that all ended yesterday and I thought it might continue today but this story with its flaws and lack of luster is, for me, a victory in itself.
Do you like how I set your standards for my writing so high before you’ve even begun?
My underwear was too tight. It cut into my waist under the dress I wore and I couldn’t stop wiggling, I moved around on the hard pew bench forgetting for a moment the dread of knowing that after two hours of sitting my bottom would be completely numb.
“Stop it.” Mom leaned over and whispered above my head. For a moment I did stop and tried to listen to my Aunt play the piano. All around voices rose up in a chorus of words I didn’t think about, to a song I knew how to recall with greater ease than my own name. My Mom’s voice was quiet, she looked down and smiled. Grandma pinched my arm hard enough to get my attention and mouthed a soft rebuke meant to encourage me to pay attention and sing. I opened my mouth and let the words come, “Come thou fount of every blessing teach my heart to sing thy praise.”
I looked down the row at my cousin’s coloring in their notebooks and wished that I hadn’t gotten in trouble for climbing the tree in the parking lot before church. When Grandma told me I had to sit by her, I knew that meant I’d have to be quiet and give my complete attention to the service. She followed my gaze and shook her head at the whispering trio of children giggling softly in-between Uncle Bill and my Mother. Grandma handed me the bulletin and I opened it as the song came to an end and Pastor Philips mounted the steps to his pulpit. He smiled and adjusted his glasses as he looked out at all of us waiting in our seats for him to begin his message. Aunt Margret made her way across the room to sit beside Uncle Bill and I clapped without making a sound as she sat down and winked at me.
At lunch every Sunday Grandma would quiz the grandchildren on the sermon so I knew that I could not daydream as I did in school. I listed, trying to contain my wiggles, and forget my uncomfortable underwear, as Pastor Philips opened in prayer then began his sermon by quoting the scripture.
I tried to file the references away in my mind to recall later. I knew most of the verses he would mention because of the Bible drills Grandma insisted on, and the ones I did not, I hoped my cousin Tyler would know and whisper to me if I was asked at lunch. I looked at Grandma, her lips moving in exact rhythm with the verse he quoted. She saw me and smiled, and pat my arm with her cold, wrinkled hand.
I didn’t know how, so I blinked once at her.
Pastor Philips repeated the verse and I looked at him. He was looking at my mom.
“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,” He said, not taking his eyes from her.
“but he who hates reproof is stupid.”
I turned to search her face and saw nothing but the blank expression most people had when listening to a sermon by a man who was prone to linger over a subject until it was beaten with full force into the brain of his slowest listener.
He began to speak fast then, in an unusual way that made my mind wander because of the quick, steady cadence. I looked out the window at a parking lot filled with cars and saw grass in the distance burning under the July sun. I saw the tree I’d climbed and made a promise to myself to get to the top next week. I began to dream about the book waiting for me on my nightstand at home. I longed to be on Prince Edward Island with Anne Shirley and Diana. I wondered if if was much cooler there in July and assumed that because it was so far north in Canada, it would be. It seemed like such a romantic idea to walk home from church through a field on a path that led down a lane and under low hanging trees in a haunted wood, and not drive in a hot car to a Chinese buffet.
The pastor shouted the word “confession” loud enough to jerk me from my musings and said something I couldn’t understand before looking again at Mom at saying “repentance.”
I noticed then that the mood was different in all the pews around us, no one nodded or looked to their neighbor with a smile like ever other Sunday I could remember. It was as if the collective group of a hundred were holding their breath.
He said that in repentance we put our sin to death before it put us to death. He added that one who would not repent would have to be cut off. He said that they “must be ostracized from the fellowship.”
I said the word ostracized over to myself several times. I’d heard it before but still thought that it sounded like something a mischievous animal would do. I knew that I was wrong, but still couldn’t remember what it really meant. When he spoke, Mrs. Beaty, who sat directly in front of me, looked at her husband and bit her lip. I thought she might cry. I looked to Mom and Grandma, Aunt Margret and Uncle Bill, but none gave any indication that they noticed me. Their faces were turned to the front, unmoving. My cousins weren’t paying any attention and for a minute I was worried about carrying the load of Grandma’s questions on the sermon, but then Pastor Philips stopped talking and the room went still. It didn’t feel as though anyone was breathing. The clock that normally ticked of the seconds on the back wall was silent. The coffee maker that turned on to prepare hot brew for our fellowship after the message didn’t make a sound. No baby held in the arms of its mother cooed or cried. Mom turned her head toward Grandma who looked hard at her and nodded. I felt like I had missed out on some great joke when Mom stood up in the middle of a sea of quiet and made her way past the cousins and her sister and brother in law, into the isle and down to the front where small steps led to the top of the pulpit.
I felt a rush of panic, the kind of which only comes to someone who knows that what is happening is not right but has no idea why. A solid dread settled in the pit of my stomach and I moved closer to Grandma who put her arm around my shoulders and squeezed.
Pastor Philips again nodded to my mother. Her hands rested at the side of her skirt and she didn’t flinch when she looked from the man who baptized her into the crowd of people, most of whom she’d known all her life. She paused for a moment and I would wonder later and for years afterward what she had thought about in the breath of those few seconds. I believe that her mind must have gone blank the moment before she poured her heart on the floor of the church her father and mother helped build, laying her life at the feet of her childhood playmates and closest friends. She said to no one and to everyone, “I have sinned.”
The face I’d always thought of as kind looked down from the pulpit and asked, “And tell us, what was your sin?”
Immediately I was terrified that I would be next. Mom knew I’d stolen chocolate from Grandma’s pantry that morning and made me give it back. I could feel my face turn red at the thought of having to stand before everyone and tell them what I’d done. I burrowed into the crook of Grandma’s arm and she patted my shoulder at the weight of my movement.
Mom looked at me, then looked away and stared at something above my head. “I had relations with a man who wasn’t my husband.”
It took me a minute, but I guessed by the general gasp of those around me that it meant something bad. I turned to my cousin Jackson who was listening pressed against his mother and I shook my head to let him know of my ignorance.
He mouthed the letters to me “s-e-x.”
I said the word to myself. Sex. I knew what it was well enough to know that Mom doing it with someone who wasn’t her husband was worse than bad. I wondered if that’s why Dad hadn’t been home since Easter and why I only saw him on the weekend. No one had said anything and though I’d guessed it meant they were divorcing, I didn’t know for sure, and I didn’t know why. As long as I didn’t ask, it wasn’t real.
“And have you stopped this sin.” He said speaking to my mother but looking at the congregation.
“Yes.” She said her voice wavered and her body stood as still as I’d ever seen it.
Pastor Philips nodded. “And have you asked your husband for forgiveness?”
“And has he forgiven you.”
I felt relief knowing why Dad left, but the feeling of elation was soon replaced by the knowledge of what was occurring before me. I’d heard the words “church disciple” before. It looked a lot like how Dad and Mom punished me at home. I wondered if Pastor Philips would spank Mom afterward in front of all our friends and family.
Next to me my Aunt cried while my uncle held her. Grandma sat as still as Mom stood except for her arm that squeezed me at lingering intervals. Pastor Philips went on, “And what do you ask of us?”
She whispered and I didn’t hear any of the words she spoke.
“You’ll have to make your request louder.” The Pastor said, his voice an example of increased volume.
“I ask for your forgiveness.”
He took off his glasses and nodded his head “Yes” he said. “Yes, I imagine you do.”
Mom looked from the spot on the wall behind me to the man positioned far above her and stared at him until he looked down.
I listened to the coffee maker turn on in the back corner of the room as Pastor Philips told my mother that she was forgiven. She walked back up the aisle toward our row not making eye contact with anyone but my grandmother. She sat down without a look to me, but patted my hand when I placed it on her arm. I heard the Pastor address the congregation with a voice strong and sure of itself as he told them my Mom would now be disciplined by the church with their collective silence until she worked out her problems with my father. I knew that meant she would be ignored and until my name came from his lips like a cannon shot from the pulpit I wondered if I would have to ignore her to.
Pastor Philips looked at me and I sat hard against the back of the pew as he said that as my mother’s child, I would be included in the loving touch of rebuke and that I should be treated as she would have to be, without a word of hello or goodbye.
I thought of what I heard the Amish call shunning and felt a rising bubble of laughter at the thought that with my bare arms and uncovered hair I would be treated as they were. I turned to Jackson, trying to hold in a smile, and he looked away. Grandma’s face was hard, and she looked angrier than the time I accidentally kicked a hole in the screen on her front porch. Mom wiped tears away from her cheeks and held my hand.
I didn’t know what the silence meant, that I would miss a year of my friend’s lives and have to spend Sundays in the back pew with my mom, alone. I didn’t know that my cousins wouldn’t be able to come to our house to hunt Easter eggs or that our family’s annual summer trip tubing down the Ocoee river would be taken without me. I tried to stifle laughter at an absurdity I couldn’t place and the whole time I didn’t know. I wouldn’t know, until at camp the next day my best friend Ruthie would turn from me and walk away. I would begin to see then, and Jenna would help when she dropped a note in my lap at lunch the same day that said, “Mama says we can’t be your friend for awhile. Sorry.”
I would know then that the fabric holding my life together was being torn from itself.
The sun would set on the holy day and would rise anew, and on that day I would know.
Even though there was still an hour left before church let out, my Mom stood as the Pastor went on, quoting a verse in Matthew then one in Revelation. She took my hand and walked me past our family, leaving her bible and bulletin and notebook, her grip on my hand hurt and I drew a breath and hissed low against my teeth. She looked down, realized she was hurting me, and released her grip. No one looked at us as we walked and from his place the Pastor kept on preaching.
The heavy wooden door pushed open under the weight of my mother’s palm and we stepped from the foyer into the sunlight, hit at full force by the suffocating heat of a summer day in Georgia. It didn’t take long for my underarms to sweat or to wish that I was in my bathing suit and could jump in the lake across the street from the church. I heard Mom exhale loudly and turn in time to see Grandma come out the double doors. She stepped away from the building, fanning herself with the bulletin mom left on the ground by her seat. Grandma handed her the bible she’d left with it and held it for a moment when Mom put her hand out to take it back. The two said nothing but looked at one another and smiled.
“Well” Grandma said looking at me, “who’s hungry?”
“I am” I said. There was nothing else to say. I knew it wasn’t time for questions yet.
“Good” she said walking toward the car and smiling brighter, “lets have Italian. I’m sick of Chinese.”
Callie Armstrong © 2014