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 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.

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