Grandma parked her polished black Chevrolet under the big hickory by the corn field on the east side of Shiloh Church. Inside, Opal Tanner was already playing the piano. Her husband Donald the deacon stood solemnly at the pulpit. He called Sunday school to order at once and we went our respective reading groups. The women gathered in the pews to one side of the isle as the men shuffled downstairs. We young folks congregated next to the windows with old Musa Whitacre. The rest of my class were the two Rogers girls, Carolyn and Blanche, who were prim and quite pretty, though I was too young to be very interested in them. Besides, they were distant cousins.
Mrs. Whitacre was a frail old lady in her eighties, who smelt faintly of lavender or maybe violets. She was calm and patient and was particularly fond of new lambs. She would not have us read from our Sunday school quarterly, but had us read directly from King James. I was not one bit interested in what we read, but I always followed the passages closely out of respect for her and awe at her ability to quote them instead of reading when it was her turn.
When we had finished reading, she waited for us to get quiet. “Now,” she said. “What new things have come about during your lifetimes? What wonderful new things that never was before your time have you seen to come along? Blanche?”
“Well…” said Blanche, fingering the bright fuzzy yarn wound about her boy’s high school class ring, “we’ve finally got our satellite in space now. I’ve also read that we’ll have an oral polio vaccine sometime soon.”
“How about you, Carolyn?”
“Television,” she said, fiddling with the zipper on her white leather New Testament. Daddy and the hired hand just put up an antenna, and now we can get programs almost twice a week.”
“And what has come along in your time, Tom? What do you allow is new under the sun?”
“Oh, self-propelled combines. We saw one a-running north of town, this last fall. And stock choppers that mount on tractors like giant lawn mowers. And everybody’s taking out the hedges, now.”
“Yes. I suppose they must…” she said. “Well. I found this here journal of Mother’s when I was a-rummaging through a trunk. She was born in 1828. When I was little, she would tell how she’d curl up in her momma’s lap a-riding the wagon when they first come to Illinois. They’d pull the wagons together at night and she’d be so afraid when the wolves would set to howling.
“Well. When she had graduated from the eighth grade and had her teaching certificate, she commenced this journal. She tells in here what it was like when they had the first coal oil lamps, and how theah was an improvement come along in gun locks which allowed the men to go out into the wet. Now here, she tells about the first steam locomotive she ever saw… Uh, oh! We’ll do this next time. I see Don’s come up.”
Mom went to the piano. The men filed into the pews in back, whilst I slunk off to the short pew in the corner at the foot of the vestry closet. The congregation hushed. The deacon discussed some trivial matter of church business. I studied the backs of the women and their Sunday hats and dowagers humps, some fanning themselves placidly. I let out a loud snort at the thought of a particular ladies’ aid meeting. I covered my mouth and looked at my shoes as Carolyn turned to scold me with dancing eyes.
“Tough old hens,” I thought. I remembered the meeting where all the old dames were sitting about with napkins on their laps, cookies and saucers, conversation humming right along, when one of them discretely passed the very hairiest gas I had ever smelt in my staggering young life. There was no noise of course, But man! Did it ever stink! How was I to breathe? “Whose mean old behind was that?” I thought, searching the faces in the room for some flicker of stumbling aplomb. But there was none to be found. They went right on nibbling and sipping as if it were merely lavender sachet.
Mom played a song on the piano and then old Reverend Horace Bachelor came to the pulpit. he was tall and very dignified, with white hair and a large face which smiled easily with few wrinkles. He addressed the congregation in a conversational tone which sounded mostly like our Appalachian dialect, except for his rolled Rs, which had not quite vanished in all his years of being minister to rural churches after coming here from the Pennines in England.
He was well into his sermon and had reached a point where he was mostly reading Scriptures. The sashes of the church’s windows were all raised completely. The women fanned themselves. The cardinals and robins outside were singing. A woman clad in a bright yellow bikini drove up near the church and parked her new convertible. She got out and slammed her door, heading for the grave yard. At that, the Right Reverend looked out the window and lost his place.
“Uh…” he said, clearing his throat, flushing slightly. “Uh…” he said again, raising the crook of his finger to his nose whilst glancing up at his parishioners with wide eyes. The moment he commenced reading again in absolutely the wrong place, the congregation roared with laughter. He turned scarlet. Then he looked at us with a smile and said: “Not all the Lord’s miracles are to be found in the scriptures,” and returned to his delivery.