Writing well isn’t only a matter of technique; it’s also dependent on what we allow ourselves to feel. Often, my strongest feelings come from childhood. Driving back today from Indianapolis, I came upon a radio station that was playing old-time church hymns: “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” “In the Sweet By and By,” “Bringing in the Sheaves.”
Sometimes I wake on Sunday mornings with the feeling that there’s somewhere I’m supposed to be. I call back the memory of the churches of my childhood: the hard wooden pews, the dusty smell of the hymnals, the thimble-sized communion cups half-full of Welch’s grape juice, the Saltine cracker from which the believers broke a piece of the body of Christ, the red-edged pages of New Testaments, the preacher extending the invitation to salvation— Jesus is waiting. Won’t you come to him now?
I was fifteen when I accepted the call, and I still remember the feeling that filled me after my baptism, this feeling of life starting again, of all my wrong steps being cleansed, of every sin forgiven. This was love, my mother told me. This was Christ’s love. Although I eventually dropped away from the fold, and remain outside it even today, I never forgot that lesson. I never forgot that when you truly and wholly love someone, you forgive them for falling short, forgive them the injuries they bring you, forgive them for being less than what you want them to be. All the while I basked in the warm comfort of this new life after my baptism, I began to see how my mother’s faith—her refusal to stop loving my father no matter the ugliness of his temper—might just be enough to save us.
Listening to those hymns today, I remembered how my mother used to read to me from A Big Golden Book, Dale Evans Prayer Book for Children. Dale Evans, “Queen of the West,” the wife of Roy Rogers, the square-dealing, “King of the Cowboys.” They stood for all things decent and right, and as hokey as that may seem these days, I still look back at the boy I was and my mother’s attempts to keep reminding me of everything that was good in the world, with great affection. She was no Dale Evans, mind you. She couldn’t do rope tricks, couldn’t ride, couldn’t sing worth a lick. But she was a mother who wanted her son to know he was loved. From this book, I learned my first prayer of gratitude: “God is great and God is good/And we thank him for our food.” And I learned how to ask God to take care of me: “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” No matter how far I’d eventually travel from that simple faith, I’d never be able to completely forsake it. I’d carry it with me through everything that lay ahead. I wish my mother were still alive so I could tell her this: her efforts weren’t in vain; I can still hear her gentle voice reading from that prayer book, as she sat on the edge of my bed and I repeated the words she said, taking them in, feeling the goodness of her love.