I only went because I thought I might be able to still see my parent’s house on the hill from the parking lot. Also I thought maybe the doors would be unlocked. And maybe I could sit alone in familiar stifled silence, rubbing my finger pads over those same those burnt orange- carpeted pews, feel the heft of those hymnals where every song sounds like the wheeze and groan of a busted pump organ. Just somewhere to go. My daughter would be with her family for the rest of the day, and I couldn’t check into my hotel for hours. I had nowhere to go in that hot, sad town.
And I wanted to see the piano. Pastor Larry Kostenko,converted my foul mouthed foul tempered father before he ended his tenure at that church. Baptized all 6 ft 4 350lbs of him in the giant milky green bathtub hidden behind the alter. Dad had paid his first tithe in the form of a baby grand piano. Pastor Larry was a talented musician, and my father said he wasn’t full of bullshit, like the religious leaders of Dad’s youth. Also he didn’t trust the Church with money. So Dad donated a piano.
My parents were complicated.
I haven’t been a Seventh Day Adventist for so long that I’d actually forgotten it was the Sabbath. Or more precisely, it was 10am on the Sabbath, meaning the Sabbath school classes were winding down, old folks were beginning to mill around the foyer, children were trying to run and make a little noise before the long hush, and the music was starting to drift serious but sleepily out of the sanctuary. Time for the service proper.
I wasn’t wearing panty-hose. I had not been to church in my life as an Adventist without them. They were as much a requirement for my religion as they are for the women of the British Royal Family. You got sent back to the dorm if you didn’t have them on. You weren’t showing respect to God if you weren’t presenting your best. Which apparently required cocooning your legs and privates in airless nylon blends that buckled and rolled down your belly when you sat.
In fact I had on pants, and a blouse that complimented my bosom. And yet, there I was, pushing through the pneumatic doors and wading into that soft brown murk of my adolescence, of my most painful memories, and my dead parents.
And they were kind in that soft murk; very, very kind.
A lady who knew my mother found me. She was proper, powdery grandma white, with a proper green grandma-dress that was so removed from the petulance of fashion she could have worn it in any decade of the 20th century and looked rightly placed. I wanted to hold her and press my head against the soft flesh that jowled sweetly around her neck. I started to cry and took Klonopin.
I asked after all the people I remembered, which weren’t many. My parents had lived there for 20 years, until their early deaths, but I went to boarding school far away, and then college. They were dead, all dead. People who had been staggeringly kind to me, people who took me in when my father couldn’t handle my immovable pain and desperate neediness anymore. But it was all right. They had been old, and right with the Lord.
She squeezed my knee and said, “It’s God’s plan that you’re here today,” and I didn’t argue. I’ve finally become smart enough to know that I don’t know much.
A woman played my Dad’s piano flawlessly, as most Adventist women are brought up to do, and I sung to it, groaning and wheezing along with a unabashed loudness I’d never had when I believed in God. Then, instead of a lecture that twisted and strained to draw modern guidance from a convoluted and contradictory Iron Age text, the pastor read The Sermon on the Mount and let it stand on its own. Have you read it? It’s quite good. It fits neatly in almost any faith or philosophy.”Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Be kind, be good. Be simple, be whole and brave. I liked it.
They fed me after; it was the once a month fellowship potluck. Adventist food. Meatless, salt-less, casseroles and boiled vegetables, a whole pot of just stewed lentils. I had forgotten what unpretentious, un-enameled health tasted like. Once you stop resisting it, it’s nice. I finally sorta GOT what other people saw in all this. And I wished, as I sometimes do, that my brain could follow my heart into the comforting haze of religion.
Afterwards I climbed back up against the sun and gravel, to the parking lot, and took out my phone. I scanned the ridge above the church with my camera. Perhaps the forest of scrub oaks have grown, though that is not their habit. Perhaps the new owners have repainted an even more invisible shade of brown. I couldn’t find the house. But that’s ok. I’d already found more than I’d come looking for.