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.

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.

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