Memorial: Childhood church

I can’t think about that church without thinking about my father.

It was built 35 years ago when I was in kindergarten. We lived next door, and every day during the build my dad and I would walk around the building site inspecting the progress. First footings, deep in the earth. Then the forms for the concrete, rodded down the centers with rebar. I was there the day they poured the forms for the basement walls. When they pulled the forms away, the walls, not yet back-filled, looked spindly and unable to support the weight of a whole church.

The main level walls were made of brick. My dad and I watched the bricklayers in fascination. Daddy expounded on the characteristics of gothic arches as the skilled hands of the workers created them before my eyes. The windows set into those brick arches were my father’s pride and joy: gorgeous eighty-year old stained glass beauties salvaged from a church being torn down in inner-city St. Louis.

So much of my childhood was spent within those walls. Not only on Sunday where my father stood in the pulpit and my mother sat at the organ, but all my school days through 8th grade as well. The basement of the church was a 3 room schoolhouse. There were twenty or so kids in the whole school, 3 or 4 of whom were my siblings. The teacher? My dad. I suppose it is not surprising I’m a homeschooling parent now –I was practically homeschooled as a child. Except every morning I walked next door with my tin lunch box and spent the day with my dad.

We learned reading and writing and lots and lots of math. We drilled the rivers in Europe (the Danube, the Tiber, the Poe?) and the cities that St. Paul visited on his missionary trips (Thessalonica, Berea, Corinth). We learned parts of speech and German vocabulary. On Wednesdays after lunch we all put our heads down on our desks in the darkened classroom and listened to classical music for 20 minutes, sometimes in silence, and sometimes punctuated by comments from my dad. “Hear that? That’s an oboe. And there’s the flute….”

Friday mornings my mom and another mom arrived to teach art so my dad would have time to get his sermon written. Friday afternoons we cleaned the church top to bottom in preparation for Sunday mornings. The oldest boy and girl in the school had the dubious privilege of cleaning the bathrooms. Younger ones dusted and vacuumed and cleaned chalkboards and straightened hymnals

Recess time consisted of wiffleball played on the church parking lot. Along with the typical parking space lines used on Sunday mornings, bases were painted on the asphalt. I loved my father for letting me bring a book in the ‘outfield’– he also was an obsessive bibleophile and understood the urgency that makes you want to turn another page and another and another. But when I was up to bat, the book was tossed aside.

Daddy stood on the ‘pitcher’s mound’, tip of his tongue peeking out the corner of his mouth, all concentration, to deliver just the right pitch to each child. Gentle 3-feet-away lobs to the kindergarteners. His best sliding outside fastball to the 6th-grade Little League stars. Thanks to years of practice at recess time, I learned to hit a ball just fine. Still can.

In the summertime, our back yard was cooled by an ultra-practical cattle trough swim pool. Hours were spent there, swimming punctuated by runs around the church, part of an elaborate game that we called ‘around the world’. The north side of the church, right next to our house where oaks made deep shade, was Siberia to our swim-wet bodies. We hugged ourselves as we ran, shivering. The south side, where the heat collected and bounced between brick and asphalt, was Africa. Blessedly warm for the first 20 feet, but then your feet started to heat up. Run fast, or risk burned feet. Back we’d run to splash in the pool and do it all over again.

The church was initially built without a steeple, I suppose as a concession to the budget restraints of a tiny new congregation. But when I was 10 or so, the steeple came. It was cause for great excitement. I was disappointed that it didn’t have a real ringing bell, like on my beloved ‘Little House on the Prairie’ TV show. But bell or not, the steeple was the crowning touch. A few days later my dad took the whole school across the street for art class. We sat on the sidewalk and drew the church. He talked about perspective and shading, all the while drawing away himself.

My dad wasn’t content to let that building be only a church and a school. His ambitious creative brain led him to learn everything he could about printing. Then he proceeded to turn corners of the church basement into a full print shop, complete with a huge camera, a dark room, a three color offset printing press, and a lethal looking paper cutter. The printer took big metal plates that had been burned with images. His goal? To resurrect and reprint old books and Sunday school materials, and ship them to churches all over the world. Sometimes when print orders stacked up, the students in our little school were pressed into service to do ‘assembly’: walking around a big table picking up one each of a semester’s worth of Sunday school lessons. And repeat. And repeat. I remember being fascinated with the foreign addresses that my dad slapped onto the white cardboard boxes. I dreamed of going some of those places some day.

In the summertime as a young teen, I sat with my best friend on the church steps, boom box plugged into the outdoor outlet as we listened to Van Halen and Survivor and REO Speedwagon. Loud and bold until my dad would emerge from the house, then quickly quiet.

When I was 16 we moved away from that church and came out west to live near my mother’s family. I was too busy mourning the loss of my best friend to think about it back then, but it must have been hard for him to leave the little church into which he’d invested so much of himself. Somewhere I still have the drawing he did of the church that day we had art class across the street on the neighbor’s sidewalk.

I didn’t know that I only had four more years with him. That in four short years I would be married, with a baby, and that suddenly he would be gone, killed when a car fell on him, leaving us grieving the loss of him.

I went back to Missouri a decade after I’d left, five years after he died. I entered that little church, walked up the aisle to the pulpit and went to my knees in grief. The church was full of his spirit, thick with memories of him. It had been years since he’d died, but in that church that day it was as if he’d died the day before. As I knelt there weeping, with my best friend patting my shoulder and a confused key-keeper standing at the back of the church, I welcomed the sharp stab of pain.

Time tends to dull the ache of loss, which is mostly good. But it can make you feel like your loved one has been gone forever. To feel the agony afresh was welcome reminder, proof of all my father meant to me, of all he taught me and all the time he poured into me. Of all the precious memories he gave me.

I can’t think about my father without thinking about that church.