How We Became Methodists
by Jackie Ross Flaum
The pallbearers rolled Nana’s casket alongside an open grave. Friends, my husband and son, and my younger brother Pete followed, then waited. Mom, Daddy, and I picked our way across the tree-covered family cemetery in Morehead, Kentucky. Head bowed, I swallowed large gulps of grief and fell behind. I stepped between the graves of my two great aunts and paused. Amid the fall leaves lay a small, red paper firecracker.
Getting my little brother ready for church on those Sundays we spent on my grandmother’s farm in Morehead required all the adults in my family. At age nine Pete could dress himself. Getting him to do it was a different breed of horse.
“Pete, get ready for church,” Mom called from the foot of the stairs outside the kitchen. The aroma of fried bacon lingered in the air. “Ellen, is your hair combed?”
“Not yet.” I dawdled at the kitchen table with Daddy. Much as I loved Nana, her farm, and the black gelding Rocky who lived there, I hated her church in equal measure.
“You’re still eating?” With a sigh, Mom put one hand on the newel post, the other on the cabbage rose wallpaper covering the walls of the staircase and hallways upstairs. “Pete!”
“Coming!” From the far bedroom overhead came the sound of Pete’s feet stomping on the wood floor.
Pete had pulled all the crust off his toast and left it on the tablecloth instead of his plate. Nana usually cut it off for him. I wrinkled my nose, picked up the pieces, then took his plate and mine to the sink. So far no sign of a tornado, hurricane or other act of God to save us from Christ Our Savior Church.
“You know what your mother says–we do it to please Nana. And that pleases God.” Daddy could read my mind sometimes.
I was eleven in July, 1960, and tuned into the slights of peers. Having a tooth filled without Novocaine, which happened earlier that summer, felt less cruel than the smirks and side glances of girls in my Sunday School at Nana’s church. I had lots of friends at home, but in Morehead no one wanted anything to do with me. Like wild animals they seemed to smell desperation for acceptance and culled me from the herd. Pete didn’t have such trouble. Everywhere he went people flocked to him.
“Pete, I’m warning you. I laid out your clothes.” By the time I got to the stairs, Mom’s dark brown hair, wet with sweat, clung to the nape of her neck. Out of Nana’s earshot, Mom would wonder why the house was always so hot or whether we might spontaneously combust in a church with no air conditioning. Mom kept our house in the city at meat locker temperature.
I flew by my mother on my way to the bedroom I shared with Nana, stopping only to scoop up a firecracker Pete must have dropped on the floor. I knocked on his door.
Shuffling noises came from the bedroom. He cracked the door and stuck his head out, his big brown eyes flashing with anger.
“What?” Pete snapped. He wasn’t close to ready.
“Dropped this.” I handed over the firecracker. He snatched it away.
“Do we hafta go?” he groused. I grimaced and stuck out my tongue like I was choking.
Church attendance at Nana’s house was not an option. We drove ninety minutes to see Nana twice a month. Plus, I stayed weeks with her in the summer. Every Sunday involved church. Maybe that’s why we weren’t real regular churchgoers at home. Attending services at Our Savior counted double. One weekend Mom caught a stomach bug and Daddy teased that she vomited to avoid church.
“I’ll send your father upstairs, Pete,” Mom threatened.
“Coming!” Peter rolled the firecracker between his fingers and studied it until a shy smile crossed his face. He disappeared, and the thud-thunk of scurrying around came through the door.
I was too aggravated to notice Pete’s sudden change. Crossing the hall to dress was awful—I should be riding. When I rode Rocky through the pine and poplar trees with the rabbits, quail, and foxes, I knew for a fact God loved it there too. Daddy said lots of places could be church. Mom once sat on Nana’s side porch and wondered if we could worship there facing the creek where she played as a kid. Nana drew herself up and her lips pinched at the idea you could worship anywhere but her church.
As I took out my dress, Nana hooked her stockings to her corset, slipped on her suit, and shoved her feet into heels before crossing the hall to Pete’s room. I seized the chance to sit in front of her oval mirror and coax my blond hair into the perfect style.
“Don’t make your mother get after you, Pete,” said Nana.
Incoherent whining from Pete ended with “. . . hate church. Bunch-a phonies.”
“Stop! Just trying to save you gettin’ in trouble.” Head erect and shoulders back, Nana retraced her steps and closed her door without a word to me. I jumped to let her sit. Her hazel eyes looked sad. She perched on the stool before her cherry makeup table and I saw disappointment reflected there. Then she grasped her hairbrush, checked the mirror, and used even strokes to pull her pure white hair into a tight roll along the back of her neck.
Fifteen minutes later my father, who rarely raised his voice, shouted up the stairs, “You better be dressed!”
Since Daddy didn’t say which child he meant, I shifted into high gear.
Nana’s eyes closed for a moment then sprang open to complete her preparations. She turned to her right, grasped a tall green and white hat shaped like a beehive, and crowned herself. I struggled into a light blue dress with a full pleated skirt and asked my grandmother to zip me.
“This color dress brings out your blue eyes. You look pretty.” She tugged at the zipper.
I sucked in my stomach so the dress would close. It wouldn’t matter how pretty I looked since nobody would do more than say ‘hi.’ But I couldn’t tell Nana such a thing about the place where she married my grandfather and now served on the Worship Advisory and the Hospitality Committee.
But I told Mom the girls at Nana’s church didn’t like me.
“Their loss. Let’s all remember that.” Mom’s half-hearted smile said it all. Afterwards, I noticed for the first time how few people hung around her and Daddy between Sunday School and church.
Nana sprayed a sweet fragrance on her wrists and dabbed some behind each ear. Next, she reached for a special lotion and massaged it into hands with big arthritic knuckles, brown sun spots, and scratches from picking blackberries. Once the lotion soaked in, Nana put on white gloves and hid her hands.
“Last warning, Pete.” My mother’s threat shot up the stairs.
Nana sighed through her nose and closed her eyes again for just a moment. I held my breath. Pete’s battles with Mom and Daddy made my stomach queasy. I hated when Pete caused a fuss at home, but it made me mad when he tainted any time I had with Nana.
Summers with her were best. The farm with its chickens, cows, kittens, horses, and Nana were favorites with my friends at home. Even after going to her church they asked to come back. We had two horses to ride: Nana bought Rocky for me and a mare named Sweetie for Pete, but he was afraid of her. When I brought a guest, Nana sometimes capped a day of horseback riding, picnicking, and swimming in the creek with a treat. She would back her massive black Buick sedan out of the garage—sometimes the maneuver took three or four tries—and take us to the drive-in to see old movies and couples necking.
Nana rose from the dressing table, smoothed her lavender suit skirt, and turned to me.
“You look like a queen,” I said.
“And you are my princess,” she answered. She opened the door and — .
Pete waited in the hallway, bouncing on his toes. He grinned, and right then he looked like Daddy from his white collared shirt to his new, fashionably tight pants. The front of his light brown crewcut glistened with water he splashed on it when he washed his face. He wore a plaid sport coat, which would probably be gone soon. My parents sometimes allowed him to ditch it as a way to get him into church peacefully. But the coat couldn’t hide how his blue pants bulged around his pockets. Since I could hardly breathe in my dress, I sympathized .
“You look right handsome, Pete.” Nana’s smile rivaled the sun.
We drove to service in my parents’ red and yellow DeSoto station wagon. Pete and I sat in the rear-facing third seat, Nana in front, Daddy in back, and Mom at the wheel. Mom always drove. Pete was real quiet during the drive, but that led me to realize how everything along the way reminded me of Savior Church.
The two-lane road to town hugged the foot of a mountain and wound by a drive-through bootleg store where I saw a church member buying liquor, even though drinking was supposedly a sin. Around a bend I saw what Daddy called the No-Tell Motel run by a deacon.
We passed the college football stadium where we’d gone to the Fourth of July fireworks sale and display two weeks before. Pete had seen two boys from church, who wanted to sit with him. When we passed the red Dairy Cheer sign, we were a block from my two great aunts who were baptized in the church.
Nana’s two elderly sisters-in-law waited for us on the porch of their house in town. From there they could stare at the white wood two-story where Nana and my grandfather used to live. Granddaddy was a bank president who moved to the farm to please Nana right before his death. My aunts said farming was as natural to him as a fish walking on land, and just as healthy.
Daddy got out of the car, loosened his thin striped tie, adjusted his glasses, and climbed the narrow wooden front steps to help the aunts. He held the car door open as they grunted their way into the backseat.
Mom insisted on picking up my aunts as a public service. Aunt Myrtle, the younger and skinnier of the two, could drive but she was a hazard. Given her habit of gesturing wildly, nobody trusted Aunt Myrtle to keep the car under control. Nana might handle a steering wheel like she was calf wrestling, but she kept her hands in correct ten and two o’clock positions. My Aunt Bertha never learned to drive, never married, and never had a kind word. She reeked of roses and disapproval.
The ride to church and the attempt to find parking—something akin to a tour through Hades, since the windows were rolled up to protect everyone’s hair or hat—ended with my mother pulling into the drugstore lot across from the red brick church.
Once the engine cut off, Daddy thrust open the door, and all but fell out gasping. At least Pete stuck to his side of the car for once, and he didn’t wear cologne. It must have been awful squished in the middle seat where Daddy endured a war of perfumes waged by the ladies.
In the parking lot Daddy put on his blazer and gazed at the church with its long flight of cement stairs and gold cross above double white front doors. Then he reached into his pocket, and took out a quarter for Pete and two for me. Our tithe from our allowances, Daddy called it. I placed mine in a black patent leather purse. Pete hesitated before slipping his quarter into his coat pocket, not the pants pocket. I eyed him funny.
Daddy helped the aunts across the street and Mom took her mother’s arm. Nana chatted with several people while my parents stood by like abandoned orphans.
Finally, Mom shooed Pete and me toward the side door of the church and the basement where children had Sunday School. I groaned softly and walked with my head high like Nana.
“Hey, it’s gonna be okay,” Pete told me, his face as innocent as Jesus before Pilate.
Two boys called, and Pete bound left down the primary school corridor. I dragged my feet across the linoleum floor of Fellowship Hall and to the right hallway where my class met. It wouldn’t do to arrive early and sit alone in a row of wooden chairs while knots of the girls chatted. And getting there too late meant everyone stared when I walked in.
My timing was perfect. I sat near the front, smiled hopefully at the girl two empty seats away. She returned a vacant look, so I gave my full attention to the teacher, Aunt Bertha’s friend Mrs. Krug. A short woman with a lisp and mounds of breasts untamed by any bra she wore, Mrs. Krug was trying to shoo kids into seats. She beamed at me when she reached the podium because I was her savior. I bailed her out of long and painful silences when she asked the class a question.
Mrs. Krug called the class to order, announced the mission to receive our offering, and we passed the gold collection plate so starving children in India could eat off our ten or twelve dollars in quarters and nickels. One of the last kids to take the plate placed it on a table in the back. We bowed our head for opening prayer, and Mrs. Krug hissed into the lesson.
It was blessedly cool in the basement classroom. I knew from experience the same could not be said for the sanctuary above where we would hear about damnation. The sound of the choir searching for the notes of their anthem filtered down to compete with Mrs. Krug. Choir members always made a noise to the Lord, though I never thought they looked joyful.
“You s-s-surely know a lot about the Bible, Ellen,” said Mrs. Krug when I answered her last question. Two girls behind me giggled soft enough to avoid reprimand.
“My father taught me.” More snickering. Perhaps I sounded prideful. But I loved talking with Daddy about the Bible books he read.
Pete hovered when Daddy and I talked about Bible stuff, but never seemed interested in the trumpet that crumbled the walls of Jericho or the resurrection. Unlike Mrs. Krug, Daddy made it exciting. He studied the Bible at home and talked to me about it like I was a grown-up. When I asked about Nana’s church, he said people there didn’t cotton to his notions of Jesus.
Mrs. Krug asked which Bible character was caught by a big fish instead of the other way around, and I finally answered, “Jonah.”
“Now, boys-s-s and girls-s-s, we’re out of time.” Her ‘c’s and ’s’ went on forever. “Jonah lay in the whale’s belly three days-s-s or, the s-s-s-same number of days-s-s WHO lay in the grave?”
I refused to rescue her, wanting to avoid more snickers. Instead, her help came from above.
Loud booms and pops outside by our heads shook the windows, followed by shrieks and angry shouts. In the sanctuary above a herd of running footsteps and a loud crash made ceiling tiles move. One boom seemed to come from directly overhead. Dust drifted down to baptize the assembled hairdos and crewcuts.
Another loud bang-boom-pop right outside the basement window of our classroom. The gunpowder smell in the room reminded me of the smoke over the Fourth of July celebration. Ms. Krug shook out of her paralysis and ordered us to line up and walk quickly but quietly to Fellowship Hall. By the time she got the orders out, we had all bolted anyway.
Screaming, laughing children and red-faced adults flooded Fellowship Hall from surrounding classrooms. Everyone fled into the heat.
A siren wailed closer. As I followed the crowd out, a fire truck pulled in front of the church. Firemen in black rubbery coats jumped off and began hooking hoses to the hydrant closest to the church.
I quickly found Pete outside. He stood on the grass with two girls from his class, his sport coat wet under the armpits from sweat. He craned to see what the firemen were doing, and appeared mighty pleased with himself.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“Some boys set off firecrackers,” he said. The girls giggled.
“Where’d they get them?” I knew full well every child in Morehead probably purchased a bunch at the stadium’s Fourth of July celebration two weeks ago.
Adults poured out of the front sanctuary and side doors searching for their offspring. When Mom saw Pete and me, her taut face sagged in relief. Then her mouth made a big ‘O’. The girls scattered.
Mom reached over to pat both Pete’s sagging pants pockets. They jingled with coins. She stiffened and surveyed the milling congregation to see if anyone watched.
She bent toward my brother. “Did you take money from the collection plate, Pete?”
“Did you put any money in the collection plate?” Mom asked.
Before she could ask anything else, Daddy arrived. “A bunch of kids set off firecrackers around the outside windows of the church. The pastor cancelled service. Pity. I’d already distributed the funeral home fans in the pews.”
The Laidlow Funeral Parlor sponsored the handheld, cardboard fans which provided all the air circulation in the sanctuary. The preacher would holler about the fire awaiting sinners in hell while everybody waved funeral fans to keep from dying of heatstroke on earth.
“The open windows let in all the smoke and stench from the firecrackers,” Daddy continued. “Besides, the fire department won’t let anyone in the building until they see it’s safe from fire.”
“Which kids?” Mom cast an eye toward Pete.
“The pastor rounded them up and sent for their parents. It was a prank, no harm done—I mean, except for services being cancelled,” Daddy said.
I worked hard to hide my joy. Pete looked everywhere Mom and Daddy weren’t.
“Ellen, find Nana and yours aunts and help them across the street to the car.”
I ran off to obey Mom. Pete was involved, I had that figured. I wanted to kiss him.
Beside a row of parking meters in front of the church Nana, Aunt Bertha and Aunt Myrtle talked with Mrs. Krug and two other old women. The fire hoses attached to the hydrant leaked water down the sidewalk toward them.
I didn’t remember Nana using a lot of rouge that morning, but her cheeks looked redder than the fire truck.
“There was only one quarter in the collection plate! Mary Tolliver said the children in her class used their offering money to buy firecrackers from Pete before class began,” raged Aunt Bertha. “She didn’t realize it at first, since one of the girls took up the collection.”
“Taking money from starving children in India,” said the woman beside Aunt Myrtle.
Nana huffed. “Those quarters wouldn’t feed many starving children.”
“I imagine it was Pete’s idea to light the firecrackers,” said Aunt Myrtle.
“The boys didn’t have to do it,” Nana sniffed, “no matter who thought it up.”
Aunt Myrtle patted my shoulder with one hand and waved the other. “The boys said—.”
“—Pete suggested setting off the firecrackers under the windows to get out of church,” interrupted one of the other women.
“That Pete,” snarled Aunt Myrtle. “When Mary Tolliver’s back was turned to the pull-down map of Israel the boys went out the back and caused all this trouble.”
Aunt Bertha tsk-tsked.
I threw back my shoulders to stand tall like Nana always did. “Pete was by the Fellowship Hall door. I saw him when the firecrackers were still going off. He couldn’t have lit any.”
Nana turned to Aunt Bertha. “See? Pete wasn’t even there.”
“Mary Tolliver s-s-s-said—,” began Mrs. Krug.
“He’s gonna be rotten if you keep forgiving his sinful ways.” Aunt Myrtle had the nerve to wag her finger in Nana’s direction. Aunt Bertha and the other women wobbled their double chins in agreement.
“If the spirit of the Lord was really in the people of this church, maybe kids wouldn’t want to get out of church!” I spat, my body quivering.
A collective gasp came from everyone but Nana.
“Gertrude,” Nana broke the silence by turning to Mrs. Krug. “Would you take Myrtle and Bertha home?”
“Come on, Ellen.” Nana gave me a smile, removed her white gloves, and held out her hand. “If I’m not mistaken, the Methodists have worship in half an hour. My friend Bernice from Homemakers Club is a Methodist. They preach love. And, they put in air-conditioning. Your mother will like that.”
Aunt Myrtle’s jaw dropped. Aunt Bertha’s two scarlet lips created one thin line.
I took Nana’s hand, thinking how I loved no one better than her. We crossed the street like queens approaching their royal carriage. A minute later Pete ran across the street waving his sport coat in the air like a victory flag and careened into the rear of the car.
“We’re going to the Methodist church,” I said with a meaningful nod toward Nana. “It has air-conditioning.”
Pete didn’t even make a face. Smiling broadly, I grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze. He crawled in the rear and I walked to the backseat to wait for our parents. They crossed the street arm in arm.
“. . . And he sold three dollars worth of those two-a-penny firecrackers for six dollars —all the offering! Well, except for his quarter. What are you going to do it about it?” Mom’s mouth twitched like she wanted to laugh.
“I’m goin’ get more firecrackers and go into business with him,” said Daddy.
Another red firecracker lay by my grandfather’s tombstone. A trail of them amid the red and yellow leaves led me toward the friends and family gathered around Nana’s casket.
Pop! Boom! Bang! My head snapped up. A series of explosions echoed across the hilltop cemetery. I giggled. A few mourners gasped. My husband and son looked stunned, but Mom and Daddy chuckled and wiped at tears.
Unable to stop laughing or crying, I ran to hug the Methodist minister officiating at Nana’s funeral: “Oh, Pete. It’s perfect.”
Native Kentuckian Jackie Ross Flaum is a former reporter for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, CT. She moved to Memphis and served as publicist for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, communications manager for Memphis City Schools, and free-lance speech writer/publicist for such corporations as Federal Express. Several years ago she abandoned reality, and now writes fiction, especially mysteries. Her first short story, available on Amazon, appears in the award-winning “Elmwood Stories to Die For,” tales of the famous cemetery from Malice in Memphis writers. She is married with two grown daughters and five grandchildren.