In the 1980s and 1990s, my mom and dad were my Sunday school teachers at different and repeated times throughout my youth. Their tenure was broken only by the occasional kindhearted and educationally minded church volunteer. In hindsight, this—by itself—was a pretty unique scenario even back then. Even more so, of course, if you go by today’s standards and expectations.
More remarkable yet was they’d been doing it for a good handful of years before my brother and I were born, answering a call to help grow (and in some cases, plant) the seed of faith in the children entrusted to their care and teachings for the weekly hour their parents brought them to church.
Church, the same physical church for decades where my children would eventually be baptized and where we’d finally hold my parents’ funerals, was just part of the weekly routine for my family. There was no escaping it, but we never really thought to, anyway. The deal was sweetened by my mother making sure I was in pretty, new if needed, custom-designed, handsewn dresses and all of us getting to go out to eat afterward at a different fast-food restaurant—a treat from the homegrown, homemade food we were subjected to for the other 20 meals of the week. Now and all grown-up, it’s homegrown, homemade food that has risen to treat status.
My mother directed the choir in our very youngest years. Both of my parents sat on a number of committees and were active, vote-casting members of our church. My dad served as Sunday school superintendent for a time. We were always whiling away Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, and the odd Tuesday night rehearsal or Sunday afternoon annual meeting, tucked into a pew with books and colors or roaming the ‘backstage’ and back-office corridors in a rich game of hide-and-seek.
I am Lutheran, so while for some the smell of incense instantly transports them back to church, the smell of lemony-oiled wood, freshly vacuumed old carpeting, hot dish, church cookies, and the slightest hint of floral, old lady perfume does it for me.
I am now in my late 30s, and both of my parents died recently of under-researched, and as-of-yet incurable diseases. But being on the upper end of the age spectrum when they began their family due to factors outside their control, when they died, it could have been considered somewhat within the realm of expectation for their ages.
Still, it hurts no less.
Especially since I bobbed along with the tide of current society and began my family late due to factors totally within my control, and I have no parents to turn to for advice or for a gauge of what to expect and why I should expect it from my own, very young children.
I’ve unwittingly fashioned a life for myself that bears little resemblance to the balanced and bucolic home I grew up in. I struggle to feel oriented or like my time is being spent for its highest value most days. I miss the grounding effect of being in the presence of the two who quietly exemplified such lucid, magnanimous, and kind convictions.
I miss the pace at which they lived their lives. I miss their reverence for the sublime minutiae of regular, old, everyday, good living.
But I can still meet my parents in church.
I can commune with their memory, sometimes more distinctly than what reduces to going through the motions of real communion. Those times I’m distracted by how my kids are managing it, or by thinking about how my husband has sat out of it since the muddled days of his youth, together with worrying my kids are going to think what is now a comfort to me may be weird to them later as a result.
I see the stitching of my father’s Sunday suits, highlighted in the morning sun as it comes slanting through the church windows, soaking the finely structured shoulders of the older men’s jackets, which are slowly disappearing from the church’s assemblage and being replaced with effortless jeans and t-shirts.
I hear my mother’s voice in the old hymns, and I see again what the notes she would teach me with her singing look like on a page.
I can still feel my father’s fingers rest on one of my shoulders like a phantom limb, so accustomed to his usual repose of having one arm strung along the back of the pew, gathering however many of his family he could reach within it, leaving his hand to gently embrace the furthermost family member on the other end while he listened to the sermon.
I can still hear the heartfelt lilt of my mother reciting what, for everyone else, was the rote text of the Lutheran liturgy, as she renewed her faith every Sunday with its mere utterance.
Nowadays, I know that church is hard sometimes. It’s hard to rally my troops and get dressed (maybe even a little more nicely than we do otherwise). Sometimes it’s harder to believe in something I took as a given as a child, now that life has sucker-punched me a few times.
But I know now it is worth it to try to give my children a touchstone. A sense that as the world will continue to change around them in what may feel like a hopeless downward trajectory of abnormality sometimes, and that while they will have to adapt to thrive, I want them to have something in their lives that feels normal, wherever their feet take them and no matter how rocky the road.
I want them to know of a place to go where the pace is always set to rest, joy, and hope. I want to give my children a one-string, tin-can phone to reach me when I am gone. Even when, and especially when, they are crying on the other end of it.