easter was the only religious service she would attend. you couldn’t even get her to the church at christmas. oh, she’d go for weddings, baptisms (see previous chapter), and i believe she may have gone to a funeral or two when the deceased had been a particularly holier-than-thou-kind-of-person. but those were extreme instances of her churchiness. she claimed to be a prebyterian, and every time she would invoke her presbyterianness, i would immediately flash onto the cloistered walkway of the local presbytery (although i may have confused the one in chicago on michigan avenue with the actual one in rapid city or it may be that presbyterian churches are all similar in design, idk.)
it’s not that we weren’t observant christians. she insisted i attend church (i went to several different brands during my first 18 years), and even after i stopped attending regularly (not at all, in other words) i continued to dabble in various forms of worship (jewish men, catholic men, warlocks, and leathermen to name but a few.)
for years, a 6″ long, 2″ wide of piece of plastic that looked like a loaf of bread sat on our kitchen table. its top was cut out and inside sat maybe a hundred strips of colored card stock, each with a verse from the bible; psalms, apostles, jesus, and genesis. our day was started with breakfast and a random reading from ‘our daily bread’ (printed in a holy font on the side of the plastic loaf.) we said grace (sometimes; it depended on my age — more often when i was younger — or how many other people might be joining us for a meal and their level of christian enthusiasm.)
when i was under 10, she would sit on my bed while i knelt at its side with my elbows on the mattress and my palms pressed tightly together, my eyes closed with towhead bowed and i would chant, “now i lay me down to sleep, if i should die before i wake, i pray the lord my soul to take, but should i live for other days, i pray the lord will guide my ways. amen.” i’d stand and she’d hug me, tuck me in, and leave the door cracked just enough that the light from the living room would illuminate a sliver of my bedroom. i think she may have prayed then too.
i cannot decipher, after all these years, why easter was the one day she felt she needed to be at church. of course, if i had only asked her, she may have said, “i like the idea of renewal, the second-chance aspect of the observance. also, it falls close to grandma’s birthday [her mother].” (side note: my grandparents –her mother and step-father–never went to church. ever. my grandmother’s birthday was april 11th and when easter fell on her birthday there was always an extra special birthday celebration, but still no church for them. wyoming republicans, what can i say?)
but easter would invariably roll around, its advance announced at school with egg coloring activities (the pagan aspects of religious holidays are still a teachable moment, are they not?) and my mother would begin the “what shall i wear to easter services” drumbeat and that would in turn, require scrutiny of my skinny physiognomy, “you’ve grown, you’ll need new shoes, new trousers, a new jacket, tie, haircut, rub & polish, scrap and plaster” or so it seemed.
new clothes appealed to me on many levels, not the least of which was my desire to be ‘a la mode’ such as it was in highland park or rapid city in 195_ or 196_. it meant that i could peruse the sears catalog, a wish book of gargantuan proportions, its thin paper leaves not unlike those in my king james bible, minus the gilt edging, turned delicately from front to back, one page perused at a time, whether ladies foundation garments or shovels, hacksaws, and b.f. goodrich tires for your john deere tractor. i liked the models and fantasized about their life off the page while sitting on the couch in the living room with the weight of the catalog pressing into the flesh of my legs just ever-so-slightly uncomfortable, suffer the little children to come unto me, sayeth sears, roebuck and company.
of course, the holiday then required a photo. and she’d pose me in the woods in highland park or next to the car at our first apartment in rapid city, or when mary lived with us and the weather had turned warm, we’d head up skyline drive and at the last turn before dinosaur park, we’d pull over to the side of the road by the pines growing out of the sandstone with our best clothes on, the sun blinding us (all that squinting, not the result of our smiling, but of the glare from the spring sun shining on the prairie below; eyes closed in prayer, perhaps) as we have in these two photos; her dress red with white buttons, white-stitched button holes, and piping on the collar and sleeves. she looked like a divinity to me. (still does, sap that i am.) please note the three-button sport coat with hand-tied bow tie sported by yours truly. a look that i’ve retrieved for my golden years.
[my other grandparents in illinois, my father's mother and father, were completely devoted to their church where they learned to love everyone regardless of their sins and unrepentant ways. on the other hand, it is interesting to note that in spite of my cousin and aunt's particular brand of christian homophobia, i do not believe they ever, ever went to church. these my mother's half-brother's family, living just over the hill from the photo below. to this day they retain their judgmental ways. sigh.]
mary went to church on sundays, putting on a dress, pearls, bracelet, and lipstick, every time. her dresses were always perfectly crisp, starched, and laundered, oftentimes a virginal white. with her short, curly black hair brylcreemed — if it was good enough for men, it was good enough for her– and full bosom, she’d sail into a pew, pick up a hymnal and bark her way through whatever plea was being sent up to the heavens. surprisingly, she had a great, rich singing voice, but the only time she’d use it was on sundays; you’d never catch her singing otherwise.
but she could never convince my mother to attend sunday services with her. frankly, i think my mother worshiped the peace of being alone on a sunday morning with mary and i out of her hair, a cup of coffee, the paper, and a marlboro sending a smoke signal up from the crystal ashtray by her chair her holy incense. (that ashtray was a weapon. it was cut from a 5lb. piece of blown german crystal, all harsh angles, nearly impossible to lift with one hand. it followed my mother around until smoking killed her in 1982. we threw it away the day after her funeral.)
in 1968 my mother made her outfit for easter. crocheting the yellow sweater and sewing the skirt from a [mccall's/butterick] pattern she bought mail order. she may have worn it just this once, but possibly for a work function as well, but i don’t recall her in it ever after. that was the thing about easter, wasn’t it? it was about the new, the fresh, the spring, the sapling, and the seedling, the easter lily, the crocus, the redbud, and the robin. it wasn’t about god or jesus, not at our house, and if it were, it was impossible to imagine the cruelty of the crucifixion, and the forced march to golgotha, and pontius pilate. (have you read robert graves’ “i, claudius”? pontius pilate comes off as a rather urbane, sympathetic man, placed in a position that he found untenable, but that required his acquiescence to the powers of rome, and the priests of the temple in order to maintain his power, such as it was. i recommend the book regardless of your stand on whose head the fault of jesus’ death falls.)
the concept of a man dying for our sins still seems an impossible leap of faith to me. actually, the concept of faith seems impossible to me. i know that my grandmother patrick had faith, a practical faith; it was her life. but i don’t believe my mother did. her attitude toward religion, in spite of her insistence on my participation in the rituals as a child, belies any true faith. but still, and in spite of, there she’d be, primped, coiffed, dressed, and ready to meet her god, whoever that might have been. [as soon as i stopped attending church after my 18th birthday, my mother stopped going to easter services. what was the point? she may have asked herself.]