Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Land of Goshen XI

For me, all these years later, this is also an interesting segment. I'd thought Howard was going home or leaving home, but instead he gets in his car and leaves, goes out into the country. There's some prairie stuff here, and in one spot I use the word midwestern in a way I never would today. To me, today, midwestern means Indiana or Illinois or Wisconsin. Goshen is on the edge of the  Great Plains, a whole different landscape than a something midwestern. I'd never use that word that way anymore. Strange.

Ten years after I wrote this story, I started shooting photographs, digital photographs, of the world I live in here in Siouxland, in part because I knew it would be a test. Can you really photograph a place where there isn't much to see? Can there be beauty there?  If you've looked at the photographs I've used with the segments of this story, you've seen at least something of an answer because they've all been mine, shots I've taken of the world I live in. 

Maybe the story is prophetic. Today I do what Howard does here. Today I go out to the country often, in fact, and try to find beauty. Occasionally, I think, I do.


When I come home from late meetings, there's a light on in the kit­chen. It's always been that way, even if Julia is already up to bed. But there wasn't that night. The house was perfectly dark, darker in fact on the inside than it was from the street. The sky, like the air, was crisp and clear and cold, lit almost hauntingly by the moon, a bright silver dish against the black field of stars, reflecting on the snow over the streets and yards.

Our house has no locks, but I knew what she meant by the darkness. I had said I could stay in town somewhere, and it was her signal that she understood what I had offered as no hollow threat. There was an entire dialogue in there being no lights on, a full conversation that had taken place between us without a word ever having been said. Had I not brought up the possibility of my sleeping elsewhere, she would have kept the light on; but because I had offered it, she was only forcing me to live by my promise. She assumed I'd come home all right, but she was tell­ing me by a darkened house that she had heard my threat. It had been her move, and she turned out all the lights. It's amazing how one knows every word of that argument, even though it's never taken place.

Had I not said what I did, I would have been angry to find everything dark; as it was, I had no right to snarl. So I stood there on Goshen's empty main street, jerking my collar up around my neck, while behind me, four houses west, the downstairs lights at the Heerema's had finally gone out. On the lot next door, the glare of the streetlight on the in­tersection lit up the twin entrances of the old white frame church.

I had only two options, of course; one was to go in the house, and the other was to stay out. Going in would be its own kind of statement. I was reneging on my offer to go elsewhere, and I knew I would be ad­mitting to her that what I had said was nothing more than an empty threat. Even if I chose to sleep downstairs on the sofa, my going in would be my own loss. That's the way I saw it--win or lose. It was a matter of pride. I know that now. But it was past eleven already, and there would be nowhere to go anymore; not even the fast food places in Winoka stay open till twelve on weeknights.

I went to the garage anyway, because I knew that Julia wouldn't be sleeping and that she'd hear the whirr of the starter if I decided to leave. The sound of the engine was my reply to what she'd said by leaving the house darkened. I had told her I could sleep elsewhere; she had al­lowed me the validity of my threat. With the sound of the car leaving the yard, I knew I would push her one step farther, make her feel the deeper penetration of her own real fear, or anger.

By now she knew what had happened at church. Her brothers would have called her and told her or she would have called them. I wondered what they would be planning now. It would be very difficult for them to leave the only church they had ever known. They had to be thinking that it was more their church than it was Heerema's anyway, and in a way, they were right. Without him, there would have been Branderhorsts in that church for a millennium. In a matter of years—four or five, maybe even less, Heerema would have gone on to some city church out east, and the only remnant of his tenure would be a family picture hung in the basement in the gallery of the preachers who had served the place.

The decision we had made could serve only to increase their anger. Undoubtedly, that's what Julia felt when they called to tell her, and the anger made it even easier to turn out the light above the kitchen sink.

I'm not trying to excuse myself now, because I know what I did wasn't right. All I'm trying to do is to get you to understand what I felt. I'm not even looking for understanding; what I'm looking for is something else altogether.

I took the car out of the garage, backed out of the driveway and left town, going east toward Winoka, so if she looked out of the window at all, she would think I was leaving.

The minute I started the car, the radio went on, as it always does, set as it is to a station that plays classical music. After eleven, there's nothing but jazz: the smooth, swishing rhythms, the muted complaints of the horns, and the almost endless tour of emotion only hinted at there in the temper of music. I'm not a jazz lover, but somehow it seemed perfect just then, an excursion into another world completely than the frigid, naked expanse of prairie beneath a perfectly cloudless night.

East of Goshen the land rises into one of those swells that a thousand prairie writers have seen as a wave in the flatland ocean. It's not a hill at all; a kid with a sled wouldn't do a thing from its summit. But it stands up high enough to let a person look down on the town of Goshen and count the three streetlights down main between the bare bones of the maples and elms in the yards of its houses.

I pulled over on the gravel road, and stepped out into the cold, dous­ing the lights. It was one of those shiny cold nights when high school kids could brag about driving all the way back from Winoka without using headlights. In the dearth of wind, Midwestern cold isn't intolerable. The dry air seeps like a wash of cold water into your lungs with each deep breath, and it's bright like a lamp's glow against your cheeks. Oddly enough, on a cold, moonlit night on the prairie, dark as it is, everything sparkles. Mercury lights at a thousand farms glitter like landborn stars; whole towns sit against the darkness like spilled jewels.

But it's impossible to catch the prairie's mighty beauty with a camera. I've seen many artists attempt to catch the depth of its grandeur on can­vas, but I've not seen any that succeed. Probably half the homes in the nation have mountain portraits on their walls. Forests have depth and mystery; our own deepest human roots link us to the trees. But the beauty of the prairies lies in their almost massive naked power; it's a landscape without secrets, and it simply can't be caught in any kind of a portrait.

I was thinking of the prairie's immensity, thinking, oddly enough, of Red Chinese. When I was a boy the Cold War was being waged, and I remember being terrified of the communists because it was said there was no fighting with an army that would come in waves a million strong. March the Chinese a hundred abreast into the sea, it was said, and you would never deplete their population. Militarily they were ill-equipped, people said, because they had no sophisticated arsenal; but one feared their sheer numbers, the immensity of the force itself, thousands of corpses piling up on each other but still more bodies coming forward, while our best machine guns shot themselves into uselessness. It was part of the scare of the times, of course, but there is something in the immensity of that image that compares with the size and the force of the prairies, huge and relentless.

It was guilt in me, even then I suppose, that made me think the way I did.

I've never lived in a city, but I was thinking how it would be easy to hide from God in streets clogged with people. It's not so easy here. When that last trumpet sounds, no one will run to the prairies for cover.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Land of Goshen X

So Howard gets the call to visit the preacher and let him know the consistory's position. It's a meeting he can look forward to, of course, unlike the one someone else from the consistory is making to the Branderhorst boys.  

I used to pride myself in dialogue like this, although, after just reading through it, I don't know that I was as good as I thought I was.  I like some of it, but I'm less sure I'd do it this way now, so many years later.

What's clear here is that Howard is far more at home with the young preacher/prophet than he is with his in-laws. 

Makes me wonder what's going to happen.

And I wrote the story!

"They wanted your scalp all right," I told him when he came back in. "That's what they came for."

He raised his eyebrows and nodded.

"We took your side."

He took a sip of coffee and said thanks.

"There wasn't even much discussion."

What I told him was worth a grudging smile that didn't rise exactly from the center of his soul.

"So how are you taking this anyway?" I said.

He put down the cup and rubbed both hands over his face as if to wake himself. "I can live with myself," he said, looking down at his preacher's hands. "I think sometimes that maybe I was all wrong—not the substance of what I said, but saying it that way. I don't know."

He's a young guy, even if he's only five years younger than I am. Goshen's his first charge.

"We're the ones who have to take the heat now," I told him. “You're not in the firing line anymore."

He nodded again. What I said was limp, and I knew it. Theoretically, I was right, of course.

"It's a terrible strain around here," he said. "Nora just never figured on anything like this. She never was too hot on being married to a preacher, and now she's got all this animosity on her back. She feels it, and it makes her defensive. She loves me and she hates the job—that’s ­the whole thing. What the seminary can never explain exactly is that you have to have a stomach for being prophetic, I guess.”

I wondered where she was just then. There had been some movement upstairs when she first left with the baby, but now it was perfectly silent through the house. Somewhere she was sitting up, her senses piqued, I was sure, trying to catch the emotional tenor of our conversation through the walls of the manse, trying to feel what we were saying downstairs. And I wished just then--you can't imagine how much I wished--that I could offer her Julia somehow.

"You've got the majority on your side," I told him.

"It's the fact that there are sides at all that gets her," he said. "I've stirred up the waters around here and everything's muddied now. It's not so much the nature of the bitterness as it is the whole blame quarrel." He sat there talking, staring at the TV as if he wished he could occupy his mind with something else, even if it was the terror of South Africa. "She's not like Julia at all that way. She's no fighter."

It made me wonder what might have happened to prompt him to say that.

"Nora just sits here and suffers, and I haven't the slightest idea what to do about it. She can't feel whatever bit of assurance that I feel, and she just lacks the guts to fight. She wasn't built for it."

"Maybe this will help" I said, "I mean that we're on your side now, officially.”

"The only thing that would help is full reconciliation. As long as there are sides, she's going to sit here and cry.” The lines in his face broke just a bit and he looked away.

I wondered what Julia herself would think to sit there just then and watch him bite back his own tears. I wondered what the Branderhorsts would say to see him broken, if it would be enough for them to see him bleed from his wounds as deep as their own maybe.

"It's a unanimous vote of confidence we've given you," I told him.

"I've always been taught that once you're in the pulpit, you speak for the Lord God Almighty." He put his fist up to his head and hit himself lightly several times, as if he were trying to awaken himself from what he was feeling. "You want to tell the people something that will change them somehow, help them to see themselves in relation to the will of the Lord.”

"You did that," I told him. "Everybody knows it."

"But they never tell you how it feels when you come down from the mountain and take off your socks to smell your own feet and know you're no God at all, that you're nothing more than clay and nothing more noble than those you want to change. What they don't say is that there's a part of every preacher that is supposed to be listening to the very words he's preaching." He smoothed back his beard with both hands. "You know what kind of burden that is?" He laughed as if he did. "There ought to be a law that every stinking preacher has to be a certified schizophrenic. Make it a prerequisite for seminary gradua­tion: “This man is a legitimate loon, fully capable of living two lives, ­one as a preacher and another as a human being.’ They ought to stamp it on every set of ministerial credentials. If you're not crazy, you shouldn't be part of it. Turn the rest into stunt car drivers or something.”

I had nothing to tell him really, nothing at all.

He swung his head around at all four walls, as if there would be a finger up there writing. Then he took this deep breath and grabbed his coffee. "I'm sorry," he said.

"It's all right."

"Here I am going on and on and I'm the one who's supposed to be the pastor. "

There was something about him that was so precise and fine, so out of place, in a way, his perfect hair, so dark that it seemed almost black, except for the almost mahogany tones it would take in the lights at the front of the church; and his beard, trimmed low on his jaw.

"So let's turn this around," he said. "Let me play the role here for awhile. You're the one with problems too, I'm sure. What's going on in Julia's mind?"

"Got an extra room?" I said.

He laughed. "That bad?"

"She's got so much of the old man in her," I said.

"Even if she wanted to see things in a different way, she couldn't fight her brothers' power," he said.

"She can't work up the strength to see things in a different way," I told him.

His face cleared and his eyes narrowed.

"I just don't think she can be objective," I said.

"Can you?"

I figured no one could be more objective than I could, knowing the Beagle for close to fifteen years the way I did, being inside that family, and yet outside too.

"Do you love her?" he said.

I told him I didn't think that was a question one asked of people who were married for more than a dozen years, and he laughed.

"Are you two close?" he asked.

"What is this?—a counseling session?"

"I'm doing a poll for Redbook on sex in the Goshen church."

I told him that I knew a lot of men who complained about their wives' headaches, but I wasn't one of them.

"You want my advice?" he said.

"That's not why I came here," I said.

"It's the preacher in me—I don't feel right about talking to people, unless I can tell them what they're supposed to do."

I was happy to see him over his anguish. I figured his good mood would do him well when he'd go up and talk all of this over with Nora.

"This isn't just one battle for you, it's more like three or four. Keep them separate."

"What do you mean?"

"There's this big fight in the church--that's one. It involves you as an elder. Then there's the private one with your brothers-in-law—that’s two. There's the silent one with Julia--that's three."

I told him they were all the same.

"You're dumber than I thought you were if you think so," he said. I wasn't sure what I'd said to deserve that. 

"Thanks much,” I told him. 

 "I didn't mean it that way." He smiled, because what he'd said hadn't been malicious. "What I'm saying is that each one of those fights is a little different, and you can't lump them all together.”

When I didn't have anything to say, he put up his hands the same way Vermeer did at the end of our meeting, resigning himself to something.

“When I was a kid, we used to have these church bazaars—all kinds of games and food, a big
money raiser," he said. "Thank goodness, no one's ever heard of them around here. Anyway, I was always terrific at throwing darts. I'd pick up one of these little old-fashioned wooden things, the ones with the real feathers, and loft it perfectly, put this sweet little arch on the toss, and bang! I could get balloons one after another. Usually walked home with whatever prizes I wanted. In fact, it got so easy that they kept me away. It wasn't fair, but it was church, you know?" He kept lofting imaginary darts into the air and watching them hit off the wall. "Lately I've come to think that's why I became a preacher. When a balloon gets nailed, it's just gone, you know. The dart never even slows down. It hits and sticks, and there's nothing left of the balloon but a knot of rubber pinned up there in shreds. That's the way I thought it was going to be with preaching. Softly thrown darts would just blow away the problems."

"Your problem was you read the Lord's signals all wrong," I told him. "He was calling you to be a quarterback."

He straightened out his back and pulled his arms up over his shoulders.

"So where were you when I needed career guidance?"

"Marrying into the Branderhorsts," I said.

"You didn't marry a family," he said.

"Somebody turn out the lights in here?"

"I'm serious," he said. "I don't need a broken marriage on my con­science. I've got enough weight back there as it is."

"The problems are not related, remember?" I told him. "'You're dumber than I thought.'"

"Oooohhh," he said. "That one came home to roost."

I held up my hand and rolled an imaginary dart between my fingers, then lofted it up in the air in a perfect arch so it would land right on him.

"Pop," he said.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Land of Goshen IX

South Africa makes an entrance here. "Goshen" was written ten years before my trip there, so I'm a little surprised myself to find it; but there it is, a news story from the old days of apartheid. Amazing that I chose a story that made whites sympathetic.I put it in because it seemed to mirror Heerema's predicament. I wouldn't do use it today--that's for sure. Why not, is an interesting question.

And the print of Andrew Wyeth that Howard makes such a big deal about--it's in our closet right now, but it's been on our walls for years, in every house we've ever owned.  We still love it, but we don't have the right place for it in this new house of ours.  I don't have the slightest memory of writing about that painting, and I was surprised, just now to find it here.

By the time we get to the end of this segment of the novella--there's still more to come--there's another idea that's quite inescapably me: paradox, two irreconcilable ideas somehow co-existing. For most of my life I've looked at paradox as truth.

An old wise man named Leonard Verduin once told me that truth always has two foci. It's never circular, always somehow bi-polar. Jesus Christ wasn't just divine; he was also human. That's not possible, but, biblically speaking, it's true. It's paradox.

There's paradox here again, and it's enough to make the old man in me recognize the much younger writer of the story. 


The meeting of the church board went off with less anger than I thought it would. My own three brothers-in-law came in and sat at the head of the table, laid out their case fully and not without emotion, then answered our questions for nearly an hour.

We have this custom in the board that when the meeting adjourns everyone shakes hands, as if the press of flesh will somehow fuse us back together as brothers in Christ. So once our discussion was over, Herm and John and Randall stood there at the end of the table while the rest of us filed past and shook their hands. I hadn't talked all night long, hadn't asked a question or tried to help them either. I was thinking that it might be inappropriate for me to enter into the discussion at that point, as if perhaps it would be some conflict of interest. So I was sur­prised that neither Herm nor John said a word when I shook their hands; only Randall spoke, and all he said was "Howard" out the opposite side of his mouth where he always keeps his toothpick.

Then the boys left. It took us a half an hour to decide that while it would be good for us to remind Heerema that some of his parishioners thought his funeral sermon was inappropriate, we wouldn't ask him to resign his position or seek a call to some other church. Officially, we decided not to accede to the request of the Branderhorsts--it sounds so clean that way, the way I wrote it into the minutes. There wasn't much discussion really, and for the most part I stayed out, except to vote. The decision was unanimous.

That's not to say it was easy. The fact that we acted quickly doesn't mean it was easy--not at all. We all sat there quietly for a while. Jake Vermeer maybe had the longest speech, and all he claimed was that nothing Heerema had said wasn't by the book. Jake's an old man. He had his hands out in front of him, the way a child leans his arms out over a school desk to pray. He's rock-hard, unshakably conservative, doctrinaire enough to frustrate anyone who's on whatever side he op­poses. But you always know where Vermeer is coming from. No matter what's on the agenda, for the most part it's as if he doesn't even have to speak; in fact, he doesn't do all that much talking. It's just that what he says always counts. "The preacher's being right doesn't make this any easier," he said, his hands folded saint-like out in front of him.

I remember hearing a story about Queen Elizabeth sending Bloody Mary off to be hung. Temper your justice with mercy, people advised her, she's your own half sister. But the Virgin Queen knew that the deci­sion had to be made. The law had to be followed; justice had to be meted out. But there was mercy too, and the mercy flowed from her eyes and down her cheeks. Justice was tempered by her own internal sorrow about what she believed simply had to be done. Justice was the decision; mercy was there in her tears. So the story goes.

Vermeer sat there nodding his head as if to convince himself of what had to be done. "I don't like it much," he said. “Something in this whole business makes me feel for them boys.” Then he leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest to signify that he had finished. "Lord Jesus, come quickly," he said. It's something he says every time he's in that kind of place, as if he's throwing up his hands and asking for all of it to be over. That ended the discussion.

I told them it might be a good idea to tell the boys yet that night of our decision, since I was sure they'd be waiting somewhere. Somebody asked, facetiously, if I wanted to bring the news. I told them how somewhere back in history the bearers of bad tidings were killed for merely bringing the news. Everyone laughed, and someone else got that assignment. I said I'd stop over at the preacher's to explain what we'd decided. Because he was so much involved in what was going on, he hadn't been at the meeting.

It was just past ten when I got there, and Heerema was sitting in front of the television in an old easy chair whose springs were so worn that not more than a foot was left between him and the floor, his legs out­stretched over the braided rug, his boy tucked snugly under his arm.

His wife let me in the door and led me through the living room to the den off the kitchen. The news was on just then, some news tape from South Africa.

"Look at this," he said.

A white guy stood in the middle of an immense crowd of blacks, try­ing to keep them off by swinging something at them wildly—what looked maybe like marbles in a nylon stocking or something. But every time he'd turn his back, one of the blacks would push at him, try to knock him off his feet. On and on like some cowboy he whaled at them, spinning furious­ly, catching their blows and delivering his. It was a horrible thing to watch because he was so vastly outnumbered, as if the whole history of racism had been laid on his shoulders. Finally, he went down and the mob had at him, all the time the camera rolling, until some police finally came to his rescue and lifted him, bloodied, back to his feet. He was fortunate not having been killed. It was a horrible thing to watch, sickening in fact, no matter what you believe about South Africa. It was chilling and gruesome.

He got up from his chair and handed the boy to his mother. "We think we got it bad," he said, turning off the set. "Sit down, Howard. You need some coffee yet?"

I said I didn't need any, but I'd have some if there was still some hot. Nora had already left with the baby, so Jeff himself stepped out to the kitchen. "Well, let's have it," he said from the other room. "How did it go?"

I guess I felt uncomfortable yelling it through the open door, so I waited while he picked up the coffee. Up above the couch on the south wall was the only painting in the room, a Wyeth print of an old broken down wagon out back of some country home. It's late October or early November in the picture, and the sun is just retiring somewhere on the other side of the house, so the sky takes on this yellow hue. Half the picture is the long grass that grows out back of the house, like prairie grass, tall enough to come halfway up the spokes of the wagon wheels.

When I think about it now, I know that picture is itself an illustration of the affinity between me and the Heeremas. It's not only that I liked the print--I did. It's not only that its being alone on the walls, unencumbered by plastic angels or candleholders or vials stuffed with plastic flowers, was simply "right," and, unlike the usual Goshen wall-­hangings, very tasteful--it was. It was more than that. The print itself represents a commitment on the Heerema' s part. When they bought that print and hung it, they were signifying their own commitment to live out here in the country, if to no one other than themselves.

It's not a sentimental picture either, no amber waves of grain, no patriarch husbandman with wisdom imprinted in the lines around his eyes, standing there as if he's wise enough to recite you half the Farmer's Almanac, and throw in some Walden at a discount. It's an unsullied por­trait of real country life. But it's something that no one else in Goshen would put on their walls. Most places you'll find mountain streams or riverboats. 

But not at Heerema's. They've made a commitment to a way of life. They think that com­mitment will enable them to live harmoniously with those whose roots go as deep as the broadest cottonwood.

What the Heeremas don't under­stand is that in making the commitment, they have already externalized that way of life in a way that the Branderhorsts, and most other Goshen folk, have not. They've measured the possibilities of that way of life against other options—the opportunity of living in a city, even a small city, or the option of taking a charge in some sun-belt suburb. They've opted for this prairie life in a way that few Goshen souls do themselves. For many of them--even for Julia, really--there never were any options. It was simply understood that she would live somewhere around Goshen. In fact, it wasn't even understood. Choosing to live here was as much an instinct as choosing to breathe.

That's what separates us--the Heeremas, myself, and the handful of other outsiders—we’ve chosen this place. We know it in a different way than those whose whole histories are buried in this fertile soil. That knowledge is a blessing and a bane.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Land of Goshen VIII

What happens today I like. It's not pretty. It's not pretty at all, but I like it because it strikes me as truth. After thirty years, I must admit there's a me here, a writer I recognize as someone who maybe wouldn't write this kind of dark story anymore, but a man who still believes that what happens in the subtle reversal that occurs is convincing and somehow the truth.

I think there's some moment in Shakespearean tragedy called "the tragic reversal," the moment when the hero understands his own tragic flaw and thereby recognizes his problems.

Howard's no Hamlet; and he doesn't die in the story--after all, he's telling it in retrospect and not from the grave (like the stories in Up the Hill). The Branderhorst studs are not going to hang him from some Big Sioux cottonwood for what he thinks.

Maybe I'd be a better writer if they would. But back then I didn't think I knew anyone who was that evil, and making the Branderhorsts murderers would have made me feel, as a writer, well, phony.

Still, I hope you don't mind me saying that what happens here in this segment, Howard's own tragic reversal, is something I admire, if a writer may say that about his own work. 

I hope so. It's a long ways behind me.

I couldn't give them what they were asking for, and they knew it as well as I did. "I'm not going to be pushed, Herm," I told him. "I'm not going to let you push me around on this—I got the church to think of too.” .

He swept cookie crumbs off the table with his stocking cap. "I guess we know, don't we, Sis?" he said. "There's nothing left to say anymore." He got up from the chair and zipped up his coverall. "All these years and what the old man gave him and he ain't got a dime's worth of loyalty.”

"What is it you want, Herm?" I said. "You want my head—you want my mind, is that it?"

"Daaeee, Daaeee," the baby said.

"You want me to get up and stamp my feet and walk out the door with the rest of you?—is that what you're after?"

He stood at the back door and pulled his cap over his head. "It's all we wanted was to know whether or not you was with us, that's all. I think we know now." He pulled the door open. "We'll see you at the meeting," he said, and then he left.

The kid was pulling and scratching and whining on her lap. Julia sat there with no emotion on her face, nothing at all. 

"He's teething again," she said. "I don't know what to do with him."

I love Julia. I always have. And when I think about it now, when I remember how far we stood from each other just then, I can't help but be amazed at what kind of immense distance can stretch between two people that are one flesh; because right at that moment I didn't love her, not at all. I hated her for her blindly stubborn allegiance, for her inabil­ity to stretch far enough to see her father's own weaknesses and her brothers' boundless arrogance. I hated her, and I wanted to punish her for taking their side and not seeing her husband's own position. I wanted to punish her with every last New Testament passage about leaving your father and mother and cleaving to your husband. I wanted to hurt her with nothing less than guilt, to scar her for siding with them as if the instinctive urgings of old hot blood were the strongest force on earth and I was just some undocumented worker.

And that's exactly why I said what I did then.  "There's a place I can stay in Winoka," I told her. It was my way of punishing her. "Maybe it would be better that way for awhile." I was determined that she take the blame for whatever happened to our family.

She wouldn't look at me, because she knew I had actually forced the burden on her. The baby came down off her lap again and mounted her leg for a ride, but she picked him up angrily and set him back down.

"I know how you feel," I said. "Maybe it's better if. . .”

"You think you're so damn smart--you and your education and everything. You think you know it all, don't you?"

I let that go, thinking that she already knew what a dumb thing she had just said.

"What makes you think you know how I feel? You never loved my father anyway. The whole time, I swear, you were smiling at the funeral—the whole time—I didn't need to see you, because I know when you're laughing." She was bitter as winter.  "You loved it, didn't you? It'd be one thing if you didn't smile, but I know you did. You always thought you were better than us. You always have."

"I always loved you, Julia," I told her.

"I'm not talking about me. I'm talking about them. You always thought they were nothing but bullies, dumb old farmers who didn't know shit because they never went to college."

"It's no use talking right now," I told her. "I'll call you after the meeting." I pulled my jacket from the chair where I'd left it when I'd come in. "It's no use us talking anymore about it because the whole thing is poison right now.” I stood at the back door, watching the baby still pawing at his mother's legs.

I never left her before, not once in fifteen years. I have never even threatened like that, and neither did she. "Go on then," she said. "Go on and get out."

I was thinking right then that I actually know them a whole lot better than they think I do. I was thinking that nothing would be so humiliating to Julia than her hus­band leaving. I was thinking that in her world there was no higher priority than to succeed at the calling of wife and mother, and that my leaving her behind would make her sense her own silly hardheadedness, her stubborn Branderhorst pride. Her very identity was forged by her role in my life. My leav­ing would force her to stare into her own dark and empty failure. That's what I was thinking.

I can see now that what I was doing to her was my own ultimatum.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Land of Goshen VII

Drama mounts as the family, including Howard's wife, Julia, want to know where their brother-in-law--and husband--stand. 

One of the worst times of my life happened in a church war that went on for more than a year and scrambled almost everything connected with what a church might be, what it's supposed to be. I may have written this back then, but when I read today's section I also thought of Kathleen Norris's Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, which I read back then sometime, a memoir that examines Ms. Norris's small town South Dakota life in a fashion that answered questions I didn't think I even had about how things work in small towns. 

Kathleen Norris is here in the family dynamics. 

Julia is a character I don't think I'd create today--maybe because I'd be afraid no one would read the story. I'd like her to do something other than she does.

But I'm talking too much again, thirty years later.

But I was talking about the church council. Beagle resented my being elected. I know he did, simply because he never brought it up. The boys used to joke about it. I remember John saying once at Sunday dinner how they couldn't talk so openly anymore now that Howard was an elder--how they'd have to ask me to leave if they wanted to talk business. Then the three of them--and Julia--laughed, chuckled really, super­ciliously, as I remember, in the same tone as if they were watching one of their kids trying to wrestle a sow. 

But Earl never laughed at all that time. That's how I know he felt humiliated at my having been elected. People who never chose him, chose his son-in-law, an outsider, not even a farmer.

The truth is I've always felt the church has retained some sanctity by not admitting them to office. It's remained the only institution in Goshen that didn't yield to the Branderhorst's bullying. Earl ran the elevator board for twenty years; John was an officer of the cattleman's associa­tion; and Randall came back from Vietnam and stepped right into author­ity in the American Legion. Only church office wouldn't admit them.

It was the first week of February when I knew for sure how they would deal with their offence, that time when most of the sows have already farrowed, and there's little work to be done on the farm. The only sound is the howl of heat rushing from gas burners over the farrowing pens and the crunching noise frozen snow makes beneath your boots. In February farm work goes dormant like everything else, so Beagle's funeral was all the boys had to think about.

One afternoon not more than a couple weeks ago Herm came to our place, and he was there when I came in from school. He was sitting at the table with Julia, his coveralls zipped down to his waist, his hair bunched up on his head from the way his stocking cap had been pulled over his ears.

"I'm here officially," he told me when I dropped my briefcase at the back door, "because we're coming next week. You tell them we're coming.”

I nodded. Julia sat stone-faced while I took a cup of coffee from the air pot on the counter. The baby scrambled over her lap, un­willing to sit quietly or get off.

"I'm over here now because what we want to know is where you stand on this--after all, he was your father-in-law."

I stood behind the bar and leaned over towards them. Julia faced her brother across the table, looking outside through the windows over the deck. 

"You want him gone, don't you?" I said.

Herm uncrossed his legs and pushed himself up on the chair to straighten his back. He crossed his arms over his chest so his shoulders squared. "We think what he said up there at the funeral wasn't right at all for a preacher of the Word," he said. "We think it's unbecoming of the office, and yes we want him gone.”

He used my own quiet tone of voice.

“What are you going to do if the board says no?—have you thought of that?" I said.

"Herm says that we're all going to resign our memberships," Julia said, turning toward me, her eyes hard as clenched fists.

"Daaaaeee," the baby said, looking up at me. "Daaeee, Daaeee." Her mother pressed her finger over his lips, trying to hold him straight.

Sometimes you simply can't stop that child.

"That's your deal, Herm?" I said. "It's a case of you or him?"

"I can't sit there and listen to him anymore. It's useless for me to go to church when he's there," Herm said. "I might just as well go some place else. That's all I'm saying."

I knew how they would say it, but it angered me to hear it anyway, like blackmail. Maybe it angered me more because I wanted them to be something other than what Beagle had reared them to be. Maybe I hoped Julia would help them, I don't know.

"Don't let me tell you how to feel, Herm, but if I were you I wouldn't come with any kind of ultimatum," I said. "You know what I mean? None of this 'either him or us' tough-guy stuff. It's intimidation and not humility.” What I was warning him not to do was exactly what his father would have done, and he looked at me as if he didn't understand a word of what I'd just said. “You know what I mean, Julia,” I said to her. “Explain it.”

Little Rudy kicked off her lap, then stood there beside her, taking Cheerios out of her hand. "Daaeee home," he said. "Daaeee home. Daaeee.” She was drawing the lines herself now.

"All I'm saying is argue your case—tell them what you think. What he did at the funeral was inappropriate. Tell them you need an apology for Heerema's impoliteness or something, but don't strong arm the church, for heaven's sake. We aren't steers.”

The baby tried to get back up again. He stretched his arms over Julia's waist and grabbed the belt of her jeans. She picked him up forcefully and set him down hard on her lap. But he wasn't happy there. He was in one of those moods when he doesn't know what he wants. Maybe even the child sensed the brittle anger in the air.

And then it was Herm who said it, which scared me, I guess. "Julia says she doesn't know where you stand," he said. "All of us want to know. The family needs to know who's damn side you're on here."

I pulled myself up from the counter and poured another half cup of coffee. They wanted a yes or a no. I looked a Julia, who looked away.  I wasn't surprised.  "It's not so black and white for me," I told him. "And I hope you appreciate that I've got something other than this family's pride at stake. I got the responsibility of that church office too. You understand that, don't you?"

"Just what to know where you stand," Herm said. "It's all we want to know is where you stand on this." Unemotionally it was said, not as a threat but a simple statement of fact.

The sound of a cartoon war came into the kitchen from out in the den, where the kids were watching television.

"I'm not saying I don't feel what you're feel—“

"You don't understand nothing. You don't have a notion for the way each of us kids feel inside about the way that—I can't say what I'd like to call him—for the way that guy shit on our old man right there in the church. You don't under­stand at all."

"Shit," Rudy said. "Shi', shi'-"

Julia tried to quiet him.

I needed both hands to lift my cup up to my lips. All the time I was thinking how things just had to come to this eventually, and how I was glad that at least now it was finally coming to a head.

I watched Julia wrestling with the baby. "Why don't you let him go in with the kids?" I said. 

"He don't know what he wants," she said, but she wasn't thinking about Rudy.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Land of Goshen VI

More background, including an anecdote that, at this distance, I'm guessing I once heard someone tell. It's too good a story for my imagination. But I thought it worth a whole chunk of this looooooong story, so I spun it out. It's a good bundle of today's reading.

My telling that story likely weakens the whole thing because, as I already said, this narrator (who is a kind of me, I guess) is far too interested in talking and not interested enough in telling the story. 

There are conflicts galore here, which, I'm sure was part of the reason I so loved the story as it was told to me: a young preacher, being obedient to what he thought was his own special calling as preacher of the word, and angry, angry men who thought what the parson said about their old man was just plain wrong, even if it was, gal-dang-it, right. Conflicts galore, but the narrator just keeps talking around it. Maybe tomorrow he'll get to it. I hope so.

Amazingly, this section ends with Cotton Mather. I can hardly believe it myself.


Three weeks later all the boys—Herm, John, and Randall—showed up at a meeting of the church board to demand Heerema's resignation. Julia would have been there with them if there were room for women in the kind of work they were up to that night. It's a mark of her Branderhorst nature that she didn't go, because it wasn't that she didn't want his scalp as badly as did her brothers. She did. Going to the church board was simply a man's job. It was something that needn't have been said.

I remember saying to her that night, "If you want his hide so bad, why don't you go too?" But she looked at me as if what I'd said were dumb was a box of rocks, as if I had no understanding at all of the way things were.

Things have been cold between us ever since that sermon. Silence builds itself into the kitchen and family room. You end up letting the kids do all the talking at meals. You each ask the kids questions about school and play independently, as if you are rival journalists doing an interview and vying for the same story. There's no touching, no intimacy at all. Sex is perfunctory, a totally physical act handled as if it were an obligation to each other's animal instincts, part of a written contract that for whatever reason should not be broken.

But the three of them finally came to the church board a couple nights ago. I guess I expected that it wouldn't take two months, but it has. I knew they would come eventually. Even if I hadn't been privy to some of their anger, I would have guessed as much.

That neither Earl nor his boys have ever been on the church board is a fact that has always given me some reason to believe in God's abiding presence in his church. No one doubts the influence of the Branderhorsts in Goshen, but everyone understands that their kingdom has been built on something more than simply their own family's sweat, and for that reason the church seems to feel them unqualified for leadership. They're tainted by those very smears of corruption which have enabled them to reach what authority they have established in the community. Something wonderfully tragic exists in that paradox, and some few in Goshen probably get it.

It's possible, I suppose, that not being on the church board was one of Earl's last angry thoughts the day he died, because nothing upset him more than not being elected to leadership in the church. It's the custom here to install the new members on New Year's Day, so what he'd seen at church the morning before he died was another searing reminder of his own failure. Simply put, people in Goshen knew him too well to elect him to an office they respected.

The boys grew up with the ring of his constant resentment in their ears, but they never shared his frustration because they didn't seek the office. Somewhere in Earl's blood there must have been a vestige of the old faith, enough at least to make him aspire to the significant call­ing of holding church office, some remnant aspiration which he didn't pass on to his boys.

There's an old story about Emil that the boys are fond of repeating. I've heard it at least a dozen times, often when the Beagle's grandsons get old enough to understand it Herm's own way. It seems that Emil once employed a particularly irritating character named Jacob Smits, a cranky grain hauler everyone knew was a pain in the ass. The story goes that one day while threshing Emil became so mad at Smits that he almost buried him with one blow from his huge right hand. The boys laugh when they tell this one, of course; Herm gets up from the table and swings away as if he wishes he could connect himself.

But Emil apparently had something of a conscience. Smits went home once he picked himself up from the ground, and all day long Emil shivered away by himself out in the field, feeling guilty for decking the guy. Emil was a big man, the original Branderhorst.

So the story goes that at night he got to feeling so bad about what had happened, that his conscience gnawed a hole in his pride. He got out the horses and went over to Smits' place to apologize.

There he stands, at Smits' door, feeling sorry and guilty for what he'd done. Smits comes to the door, growls a bit, and they start to talk. The way Earl himself tells it, it took no more than five minutes and Smits was out cold again, right there on his front step.

It's a lovely story, Emil's great-grandchildren's favorite legend. But I think they read it all wrong. The reason they tell the story is to glory in its bravado, to relish a time and place when men handled problems with fists, and to exalt the masculinity of their own lineage. 

What they forget is that the old man had a conscience. What they forget is that if what happened to Emil in the field had ever happened to them, not one of them would finish the story the way Emil did. Beagle himself was never outfitted with his grandfather's conscience; even if he had the old man's sheer power. 

The boys miss the point of the story completely. I don't remember the exact words anymore, but once I remember reading something Cotton Mather wrote in describing the degeneration of New England piety: "Faith gave birth to prosperity, and the child devoured the mother." It went something like that. I'll have to look it up again sometime.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Land of Goshen V

When I read through this section of this long story, I realize I'm talking about a time that's largely come and gone, a time when it was possible--and it happened--that people maintained a relationship to a church even if they actually had little faith and little or no spirituality, when, in fact, "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" was, well, suspect. 

Institutions of all kinds have taken a hit since then. We all value liberty more than commitments.  I sound like an old man, I guess, but when I read what I'm saying about old man Branderhorst, I wonder if people like him exist anymore. Don't know.

"You turn men back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, 0 sons of men. For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.’” 

Today, prairie towns are full of old people. The Branderhorsts have built a kingdom out here, but most families lose their kids; they're ex­ported, often unwillingly, by the scarcity of jobs, and what's left are so many old folks that any new preacher learns funeral homiletics in­side of a year.

"You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning-though in the morning it springs up new, by even­ing it is dry and withered."

Heerema was unpracticed at funeral preaching. Maybe that inex­perience contributed to what happened. If you stick to the text, there's often no need for application because the Word itself delivers its message with a power that no preacher, not even the greatest of orators, needs to compliment with relevancy.

"We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence."

With that verse Heerema looked up and into the faces of the people.

He stopped momentarily as if he needed to build up his own courage, and he leaned over the pulpit, his right hand coming up over the front and locking there. "We all know that Earl Branderhorst's life has been full of financial success," he said. "He's supported this congregation generously throughout his lifetime."

One could feel the beaming from the boys down the bench. "We all know that he has a strong family who loved him dearly, a family that will miss his presence, generous as he was in love for them.”

I can't remember the words exactly, but the sermon itself began with that kind of homage, a testimony to the kind of powerful image that Earl had built and maintained in the community. But then things changed.

"But for Earl Branderhorst, life itself was war."

I remember that line because it struck me as perfect.

"The man found himself, throughout life, at odds with his fellow believers, angry, sometimes even belligerent with those with whom he prayed on Sunday, here in this church."

At that moment, my immediate impression was that what he said was inappropriate. I never once doubted its truth or his sincerity, but the truth made me uncomfortable, sitting there with the family.

"He never lacked means to pay for his joy, but as long as I knew the man, he seemed forever seeking true happiness, contentment, the kind of peace that comes with love and forgiveness."
Julia has this way of rocking the baby in church, back and forth, back and forth, her whole upper body swaying against the back of the bench. When I glanced at her just then, she was at it, her face tucked up close to the baby, as if she were whispering something in his ear.

"Earl Branderhorst's life should be a lesson for us—for you and for me, for all of us in this church. Let us come to understand the prison of our own guilt when we can't settle our old scores. Let us see for ourselves the way in which a lack of forgiveness rides each of us, keeps us from the kind of peace we all search for throughout our lives. My prayer is that each of us may feel the heat in our own lives when past sins-our own and those of others-are left to smolder in our souls."

By that time I knew that Heerema would be in trouble. He had never once said a word about Earl Branderhorst's salvation, but what he had done was proclaim the truth and he’d done so publicly. That was the deadliest of his sins. He took his cue from the Word and set my father-in-law's secret sins in the light of Goshen's presence.

“His death is an opportunity to all of us, because it serves to teach us something about ourselves, our motives, and our lives. Earl Branderhorst's life and death is a mirror in which we can see the strife on our own faces, a story in which we can feel our own unburied ani­mosity; a portrait of rock-solid pride that is rooted too deep to admit weakness.”

There's a story about the old Calvinist Jonathan Edwards. When he took the pulpit at his grandfather's church for the first time, he spoke in an almost effeminate way, clutching the sides of the pulpit, his voice strained to reach the corners of Northampton church. But the congrega­tion waited breathlessly for every word. That's exactly the way it was with the folks in the Goshen church. The fact is, the man spoke the truth.

“God is Earl's judge, just as he is ours. God's mercy rises so far beyond our own that we can't but feel humbled at the measure of his grace. But let's use this man's life to change our own. Let us all learn in patience the lifelong task of forgiveness.”

Forgiveness is what I remember, the linchpin between Earl's death and our lives. But I kept thinking then of how they were hearing it, the boys and my own wife. Even at the time, I was measuring the effect of his words in their lives. I thought even then that it was a perfect ser­mon for them. They're hearing what they need to hear, I thought.

"Listen to the words of Moses, the man of God," he said. "'Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

With that he came back to the text again and ended with the last verses of the Psalm: "May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us-yea, establish the work of our hands.”

He left the text for no more than five minutes, but the sword he wielded for that short time cut to the quick.

Politically, I suppose, Heerema was wrong. But he wasn't thinking politics at that moment. He was speaking in ways he thought, I am sure, to be prophetic. Nothing in what he said wasn't true.

When it was over and the long line of cars headed out to the cemetery for the graveside service, Herm and John didn't even go. Someday they may regret not standing there at the open grave, but I'm sure they'll always blame Heerema for what they didn't do. Around here people say, "The apples don't fall far from the tree."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--The Man of Peace

Consider the blameless, observe the upright; 
there is a future for the man of peace. Psalm 37

Once, years ago, in Rio, I was motoring down a freeway when my hosts pointed, to an effigy policeman sitting in a makeshift booth high above the highway. The cop was a manikin. He was there to throw fear into speeders, they said, giggling. But at that moment it was impossible for me not to think, oddly enough, of South Africa, where a few years before, something happened which I never forgot.

We were on our way to Sin City because our South African hosts wanted to show us the place, a Las Vegas in the middle of one of the impoverished “homelands” created by apartheid. I was driving, following our hostess, who was also driving a vehicle.

Out in the middle of nowhere, I was pulled over by a policeman, and I knew—I had no doubt—that I had been speeding, as had our hostess, I knew, since it had taken all the courage I could mount simply to keep up with her, driving as I was from the wrong side of the car. When I pulled over, I never opened my door, but she barreled out and went directly back to the black policeman, chewed him out but good, gesticulating angrily. I didn’t get a ticket; neither did she.

I’ll never forget that because what happened on that lonely stretch of highway through the veld would not have happened here, in the U.S. I don’t know that our hostess, a woman I admire greatly, a fine Christian, a loving mother, ever understood how I read that event; but the truth, to me, was clear: a white woman exercised total control of a black policeman. By my translation of those events, she was sure that she was above his law.

Those two experiences taught me something about the society I live in, something I’ve never quite forgotten: in America, unlike many other countries, one does not laugh at the law—and because that’s true, because I am blessed to live more safely, period.

Injustice abounds in this society; we’re no utopia. I’m not about to break into “America, the Beautiful.” But reading a verse like this one makes me think that somewhere along the line, in my Christian upbringing, I was taught too well that the word “redeemed” applies to only a few; the blameless, the upright, the righteous—that’s not a lot of folks.

I think I still define the narrow way as a needle’s eye, when in fact I’ve learned in almost sixty years that it’s far more expansive than I’ve ever believed. After all, here, as elsewhere, there are many who are upright, men and women of peace. I live in a land which believes of itself—correctly, for the most part—that we all live under “the rule of law.”

Blameless?—on that one I’ll take a pass. Nobody’s really blameless, except one—that one was born in a manger.

It seems to me there’s an argument in this verse that doesn’t require revelation: you want trouble?—just make it. You want peace?—build it.

There are likely far more visible saints than my mind, steeped in Calvinist theology, likes to admit. Thank goodness, God almighty admits far more.

But here again, David likely scribbled better than he knew because the promise is the trump card: “there is a future for the man of peace,” he says.

There is eternity, no manikin cops, no highway patrol, not even a speed bump.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Land of Goshen IV

And now, finally, the funeral. It's taken a while. Writing in the first person, as I did here, generally risks being way too talkative, at least it does with me. I'm sort of embarrassed to say that we're finally getting to the precipitating incident of this whole, long story--the sermon. But we are.  

As former colleague whose father was a pastor told me, long ago, that his favorite services were funerals because a parson almost always had full attention, or at least as much attention as he (back then only he) would ever get. "I just read the word," he told his daughter, my friend. "That's all you need to do."  

His favorite, he said, was Psalm 90, one of the greatest poems in the English language, methinks. That's why it appears here.


Jeff Heerema, is a youthful thirty-five; he's a late-sixties type who spent half his life being altruistic-first the Peace Corps, then several years in a hospital for kids with emotional problems-before taking on the ministry. He grew up in a manse himself, but he claims he fought the call to the ministry with a raised fist for a nearly a decade. He says he finally left the hospital and went to the seminary because he grew so tired of trying to work on symptoms that eventually he became confi­dent that God was telling him to retool and go for the disease itself. I've been around the Calvinists long enough to know the language-disease means sin. What he meant is that the best way of handling the emotional problems wrought by broken homes is by wrestling pride itself to the canvas.

Goshen was his first charge, even though there are no broken homes around. It's a record people are proud of. I've been a member of the church council long enough to know that there have been more than a few indiscretions, but divorce is unheard of, for the most part, because the price one pays is simply too high. Where such heavy pressure to stay together exists, the real problems, quite literally, go away-that is, families in significant crises simply pick up stakes and move to Sioux Falls or Denver or Phoenix, where the divorce occurs, out of sight, at least, if not out of mind. Thus, Goshen stays clean.

Heerema began his ministry in Goshen with the objective of minister­ing straight for the sinful heart; what my wife's family felt at the funeral was an outsider with an education going for the jugular. Heerema grew up in Michigan, in a time when a preacher was still looked upon like Moses the law-giver, just descended from the mountain with an arm­ful of God-ordained truths; and he came to the Plains full of righteous passion, and found Aaron and the Israelites dancing around a golden calf-which is the perfect image for Goshen's kind of idolatry. But understanding Heerema is easier than that; simply, Heerema still has a rookie's zeal. I remember teaching with the same kind of emotion.

What he never understood was that in a little church like Goshen, the power battles have been fought long ago and will never be forgot­ten. Today Goshen doesn't want a Jeremiah; all they want is someone to perform their religious rites, a witch doctor maybe, a voodoo man—someone to baptize their children and dole out the bread and the wine, someone who can deliver sermons that harmonize with their own sense of truth.

Heerema operated under the mistaken notion that he could change things in Goshen, when the natives needed him only to perform their tribal rituals. I don't want to misstate all of this. Maybe I'm getting too sarcastic. I've been "in-but-not-of" the land of Goshen for so long that sometimes its strengths and weaknesses become indistinguishable. My own wife is so thoroughly "Goshen," that she hasn't a clue what I mean when I tell her she is.

And perhaps I'm overstating the case. What I'm trying to explain is why Heerema said what he did at Julia's father's funeral. If you under­stand the man himself, what he said was consistent with his own ap­proach to the problems of life itself. And if you can see that, you'll ac­cept his explanation. His sermon was in no sense at all vindictive.

The church was packed, of course, full of family, friends, and enemies. Even if some folks hated the very ground Beagle worked, they would show up to see him off. It was a matter of common courtesy.

At the family meditation downstairs before the service, Heerema was soft and loving, empathetic and gracious, meek in a New Testament way. Herm, Julia's oldest brother, sat next to his mother, who had balled-up handkerchiefs in either hand but wasn't crying. She spent most of her life in silence. It took me ten years to understand that she wasn't a vic­tim, some caricature farm wife with no power outside of the kitchen. Silence was her power and her witness, her means of illustrating to her children that her husband's way, all shoulders and elbows, demanded a counterpoint. At our fifth anniversary, she took both my hands when we were alone for a minute in the kitchen. "I'm so happy that Julia got you," she said. That's all. I've always thought that there are only X-number of words in her, which means that everything she says is carefully measured.

The rest of the boys—John, Adrian, and Randall—followed down the row with their wives and the little kids. Behind the kids sat the older grandchildren, and the aunts and uncles and cousins, anyone who counted themselves among the Branderhorst clan, even those who had fallen from grace. Uncle Pete was there from South Dakota. Thirty years ago he had left Goshen because he couldn't compete with his brother Earl. Beagle never hated his brother really, he just wrote him off for the lack of bite in his blood. They never talked again that I know of. Of course, Pete had a bad back. "You can't trust nobody with a bad back," Beagle used to say.

But downstairs in the church, Pastor Heerema didn't say anything the family didn't expect, so everything went smoothly. "We have confidence in the Lord's promises," he said. What he did was leave the door wide open for Beagle's salvation. He didn't try to judge that way, because he knows what he can't know. What the family doesn't remember was that Heerema never once said that Earl Branderhorst wasn't saved, not even when he got upstairs for the funeral sermon.

Downstairs his words had the traditional ring of a Calvinist eulogy, and the boys sat there approving, as if what he said were the patter of soft rain in mid-July, the time the corn gets thirsty enough to whisper in the wind. Upstairs, the public filed in solemnly, Earl's own favorite organist playing through familiar hymns that came through the floor as if the whole church was a wood-framed speaker.

But everything changed upstairs. My point is that he spoke the truth, no matter what anybody says. The Beagle was my father-in-law, and I think it's fair of me to say that no one knows his strengths and weaknesses as well as I do, not even his own flesh-and-blood-perhaps least of all his children. He was a loving father, a handsome provider, a grandfather my own children will forever remember fondly. But he was a bigot and a chiseler, a man who knew the law so well he could turn it with a flourish to his own advantage. He despised weakness, scorned the powerless, and never forgot-or forgave-those who trespassed against him. He was a giant of compassion to those he loved; a despot and a crook to those for whom he had no regard. Everything Heerema said that day was true.

"Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God."

He took his text from Psalm 90. Traditionally, funeral sermons stick tenaciously to the text. Comfort is the antidote to grief, and to Goshen people nothing brings comfort like the Word itself.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Land of Goshen III

In-law relationships are almost always fraught with tensions. This one sure was, at least in the eyes of the narrator, who believes, I think, that his wife's admiration of her father is becoming, with his death, deification. Their divergent points of view are central here. There's a love triangle--father, daughter, and daughter's husband; and both daughter and daughter's husband sort of know it. Father's death has only made it worse. Dead, he's capable of being something he never was when he was alive: human.

What interested me here, I'm sure, is tangled love. It's perfectly impossible for people who know writers not to assume that they (writer's friends)really get it--they understand where all of these confused emotions are coming from in the life of the writer.

You're wrong. All the spit and vinegar in this scene arises from my imagination, not my experience. 

In January, darkness spreads over the plains long before supper, so it had been dark for hours before the family left the home place that night, the moon already up in silver over the glowing ribbons of snow between the empty fields' stubbled rows. Kevin and Shelley sat in the back seat in silence, old enough to know that the world had grown smaller with the death of their grandfather, and larger, more complicated, more dangerous than it had seemed just that morning when the holiday began.

"Grandpa's with Jesus, isn't he?" Buddy kept saying. He sat up be­tween Julia and me with his hands stuck between his mother's arms. "Grandpa died and went to be in heaven."

His mother unloosened his arms and took her son up on her lap, even though she held Rudy, the youngest, already sound asleep, in her right arm.

"Everybody sings in heaven," Buddy said. "It's just like Sunday School.”

The clock on the dash said it was just before ten.

"Grandpa went to heaven in a chariot,” Buddy said. For the first time that day I thought about what Buddy had imagined when the EMT's wheeled the body out of the house. I remembered the whirring red lights dancing off the sides of the machine shed out back.


I poured us both some brandy before we went to bed, so we sat at our kitchen table with most of the lights out in the house, listening to the constant whirr of the furnace fighting the press of cold against the outside walls.

"I wish I had known somehow that I was going to be the one to find him dead," Julia said. "I mean, I never thought of anything like that happening to me. I just wish I had known somehow."

The smears around her eyes that were there in the afternoon were long gone by that time. If anything, she looked somehow younger than she had, her eyes sharp and jumpy, as if she were walking slowly through a field of alfalfa, looking for something small but important she had lost.

I stood with Julia at the births of all our four children. She wanted it that way. But after the first, I had little desire to be there again, because I hated the uselessness of my own presence. Who knows what some analyst would say, but I stood there and hated myself because it seemed to me that what she was fighting was so much of an individual battle, her body writhing to release this new child, while all of her sense fought the searing pain that simply had to be. All I could do was stand there and hold her hand.

What I hated then was exactly what I felt that night, the horror of hav­ing an immense, solid oak door locked up tight between you and someone you love, and the frustration of having no means-no possible way-of opening it. Julia's grief, like her pain, was ultimately a private matter, and every word I could offer seemed nothing better than what any do-gooder had ever said in scenes like this—bland and chilled. My greatest gift, perhaps, was the brandy.

"If I'd have only known this was going to happen," she said again.

Every one of a dozen responses sounded frivolous when I rehearsed them in my mind.

"What do you do with a dead father anyway?" she said. "I mean, what's there to do now?"

"Probably you just remember," I told her.

"It doesn't seem like it's enough," she said. She turned the glass in her hand so the brandy rode the sides of the glass and left a tinge of bronze. Some tight Branderhorst emotion stretched itself thin at her lips and cheeks.

"You never really loved him, did you?" she said.

There was a lawyer's dispassionate ring to the question, as if she were only searching for a fact, not a criminal indictment.

"He gave me his daughter," I said. I thought it was as good as I could do.

"But you never really loved him, Howard. Admit it. You never really understood him at all."

It was no accusation, merely a statement of fact.