It’s one of those pages of history that a gentler woman wouldn’t relate, but because I’ve always liked a good story better than being genteel, I’m telling it anyway. After all, my mother is no longer beside me telling me to “shush” and the rest of the family has learned to put up with me.
You could say that it all started with the wooden pews. Lacquered to an ice-rink gloss, they were as durable as the people that sat on them. Unlike church pews in the big cities, ours had no frills and no padding. It wasn’t because cushions were against our religion, but just against the pocketbooks of our small farming congregation.
The building itself was built of pale blond brick and trimmed in white, from the singular spire to the painted pipe railing. The sanctuary’s entry was A-framed, wrapping behind the pastor’s office into an L-shape to accommodate classrooms, restrooms, and the fellowship hall. The front of the church whispered of old hymnals and fresh Juicy Fruit, while the back of the church always smelled of homemade rolls and fried chicken, a must for every potluck.
Linoleum covered the lengthy hallway to the classrooms, dutifully masking the noise of the wooden planks underneath and providing easy clean up when Eudora began to giggle. Even by age five, my friend still didn’t have complete control of her bladder, especially if she tried to suppress her laugh. So, the Tiny Tots spent most of our Wednesday and Sunday nights tucked as far away from the congregation and carpeting as possible. It was just as well, giving us plenty of excuse to belt out our favorite songs like “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and “Before we say goodbye.”
If our pastor was the spiritual engine of our church, Mrs. Margaret was the physical spark plug. A mover and a shaker, she knew what was what and how to move anything forward. If the church needed painting, Margaret bought the color. If the floors needed waxing, Margaret formed a crew. If the widows needed aid, Margaret headed the committee. And if a child needed chastisement, Margaret provided a swift, across the pew thump.
On Sunday mornings, all ages were expected in the service, except for babies two and under who were allowed in the cry room. Children that could read followed along in their Broadman Hymnals and Gideon New Testaments. Those not yet in school stared at the colorful baptistry mural or colored in the loops of the a’s, b’s, and p’s on their monochrome bulletin. I, being in the later category, preferred tracing Paul’s missionary journeys with the aid of my finger and the maps in my mother’s Bible. Yet, despite extending my travels to include the “Fertile Crescent” and “The Wandering in the Wilderness’, I soon bored of my weekly Middle Eastern trips.
One day, on an eventful walk from Sunday School into the sanctuary, Eudora suggested we sit together, away from our mothers, just like the big kids on the back row. A glorious prospect, I thrilled to this new scope of freedom, until I realized I would need my mother’s consent. Surprisingly enough, Mama gave permission with only one prerequisite: we’d have to sit on the second row — right in front of Margaret.
I may have been illiterate, but I wasn’t ill-aware. The threat of Margaret’s thumps were legendary with agony. Once she zoned onto her target, the knock had an echo that resounded from the vestibule to the choir loft. She could make even junior high boys wince with pain. I definitely didn’t want to encounter her thwack.
All went well, at least for a while. Eudora and I sang loudly and leaned heavily on the Everlasting Arms, but it was “Bringing in the Sheaves” that ultimately led to our demise. When some little girl behind us kept crooning about “bringing in the sheets”, I saw Eudora start vibrating.
I knew the signals. Eudora always started with a quiver, followed by a quake. She would either work herself into a giggle or suppress it into a dribble. Either way, my heart sank. As the piano played the opening bars for “Shall We Gather at the River”, I knew what it must have felt like to sit down on the veritable stormy banks of the Jordan as it overflowed.
An important lesson was learned that day. Getting away from parents isn’t always what you dream it will be. Especially when wooden pews are involved.
(In front of our little church, a few years after this incident….above: Danny Tinney (6 years old – my nephew!), Denice Griffin Mitchell (2 years old), and me at age 8)
(Picture at header: Sunday School class – L to R: David Harris, Dobie Brantley, Janice Rigsby, me, Becky and Barbara Berry – Margaret’s daughters)