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Daddy said we were moving because he was the last of an old Carolina family, and it was time he went home. Mama said it was because Daddy was tired after running the Gambling Interests out of Cutter County. I knew it was on account of me busting the nose of Jeremy Williamson Harris the Third.
The moment my fist hit his face, I guessed I was bound for trouble. Jeremy was the son of the richest man in Harrisburg, Indiana, the man who donated the new pipe organ to the church. I was the preacher’s daughter.
Jeremy deserved to get hit, no doubt. He was a mean, worthless bully. But I shouldn’t have been the one to do the hitting. Any other kid would have gotten in trouble, sure, but then that would be the end of that. Not only did I get in trouble, but my actions heaped shame upon the Lord Almighty Himself. And if causing that kind of shame ain’t the worst feeling in the world, I don’t know what is.
One week after the fight, Daddy came home with the news that we were leaving. We’d only been in Harrisburg for two years, and I finally had some good friends. After I beat up Jeremy, the boys let me play basketball at Jed Hopper’s farm. He had a regulation court set up between his dad’s barn and the fence. The last thing I wanted to do was leave.
I begged and pleaded and swore off fighting and spitting and calling names forever after. I’d never get in trouble again, no, sir. But Daddy was firm. He’d gotten an offer to pastor a church in his hometown of Jericho, South Carolina, and he heard God’s call. I myself had never gotten a call from God, but Daddy got one every couple of years, which meant we had to pack up and go.
I’d keep out of trouble in Jericho, I promised myself that hot July day as our blue Chevy groaned over the Smoky Mountains and curved through the rolling hills. I’d do all the right things and make lots of good friends and no one would care a whit about my being the preacher’s daughter. At least that’s what I hoped would be true.
We arrived in Jericho on a Tuesday. After we’d unpacked our few belongings, Mama and Daddy went straightaway to work—Mama visiting the sick and shut-in, Daddy going to church meetings to find out what folks wanted from him. I poked about, watching the town shimmer in the heavy Carolina haze and listening to the slow drawl of folks who came to visit and gossip and snoop.
I woke early that first Sunday. The sun was barely a stain in the sky, but the air was hot and clammy. My nightgown stuck to my skin. I padded to the bathroom and splashed my face with cold water. My stomach clenched in a queasy ball. I thought about throwing up, then decided it wouldn’t do any good. I’d only missed one day of church in my entire life, when I was five years old, and that was because the doctor thought I had polio and told Daddy he’d send him to jail if he exposed me to anybody else. It turned out I only had a bad case of the flu. Mama was furious at that doctor for giving her the scare of her life. I was grateful because I got to stay home and listen to the radio and drink lemonade. Now that they had a vaccine for polio, I couldn’t use that as an excuse.
Besides, I knew I wasn’t really sick. I only felt sick. It was the same kind of feeling I got every time I had to march myself into a new church.
I dried my face, then walked into the kitchen. Daddy was sitting at the Formica table, drinking black coffee and eating a piece of unbuttered bread and a grapefruit. It’s the same meal he has every Sunday morning because that’s all he knows how to cook. Mama told him years ago she wasn’t about to get up before dawn on the Lord’s day to cook him breakfast.
I sat across from him and watched as he glanced from his sermon notes to his Bible and back again. I loved Daddy’s Bible. The cover was worn and smelled like a blend of leather, sweat, and Brillo soap. The pages were marked with notes and stained with fingerprints.
Daddy finally noticed me. He glanced up and nodded. “Morning.”
“Morning,” I said.
Daddy wasn’t much of a talker on Sunday mornings. I figured he needed to save it up for the sermon and all the chatting he had to do after the service. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t much for talking on Sunday mornings, either. I walked to the counter and buttered a slice of bread.
I chewed slowly and thought how life might have been different had I been born a boy. Getting into trouble might not have been such a problem, seeing how boys get away with more of that sort of thing. I was supposed to have been a boy. Daddy didn’t even bother thinking up girl names, he was that sure. I don’t know if he ever got over the shock when I came out a girl. I would’ve been called Joseph Lee Clawson, Jr., except Mama hollered after the doctor to write Josephine on the birth certificate.
There wasn’t any chance of a boy baby coming after me, either. Something happened to Mama’s insides when I was born that made it so she couldn’t have any more babies. Mama said it was Daddy’s prayers caused the Good Lord to let her live. His prayers must not have been strong enough to talk the Good Lord into making me a boy.
It wasn’t until I was done eating my bread and finishing off the last sips of orange juice that Daddy closed his Bible and straightened his sermon notes. He fiddled with his tie for a minute, then smoothed his hair with the palm of his hand. Daddy always looked proper and polished on Sundays, just the way a preacher should look, save for the scar running from his temple to his jaw. He got it fighting the Nazis in the war. Daddy had a handsome face, but it was the scar I liked best.
Daddy looked me over. “Wear something new to church this morning, Josephine. Something pretty.”
“And have your mama fix your hair.”
I touched my hair, trying to smooth it straight. I could never make it look just right, but Mama had a way of combing the wild curls so they tucked under neat and respectable.
“Do you know your memory verse for Sunday school?”
“Yes, Daddy,” I said, feeling my stomach clutch. Daddy had gotten my lesson in advance and made me learn it. It would have been much easier if I could have just remained ignorant and anonymous on the first day.
“What is it?”
“Daddy, I know it!”
“Well, what is it, then?”
I sighed and clenched my jaw. I was willing to bet no one else’s father cared this much about a Sunday school memory verse.
“Esther 4:14,” I said through tight teeth. “‘And who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’”
“Do you know the first part of the verse?”
“We don’t have to memorize that part, Daddy. Just the last bit.”
“You should memorize the entire verse, Jo. It doesn’t make sense out of context.”
“Makes sense to me,” I muttered.
“Good morning,” Mama said. She stood in the doorway of the kitchen and smiled.
Daddy glanced at his watch, then stood to give Mama a kiss. “Morning, Maye,” he said. “You look wonderful.”
“Thank you,” Mama said. She did look pretty. Her dark hair was combed into a twist at the nape of her neck, and she wore a blue velveteen dress that matched the color of her eyes. I glanced at her feet. They were bare. Mama hated wearing shoes and wouldn’t put them on until the last possible moment.
“Maye!” Daddy stared at her feet. “What if somebody stops by and sees you?”
“Why, darling, I’ll simply tell them I am standing on holy ground.” She winked at Daddy, but he didn’t smile. “You going over to the church?”
“Yes. Thought I’d go and make sure everything is ready. You’ll be there soon?” He kept glancing at her feet and twitching his jaw.
“I’ll be there.”
“Jo, too.” He glared at me. “Don’t be late.”
I’d never been late for church a day in my life, but before I could say anything, Mama clutched my arm. She held on to me as we watched Daddy walk out of the parsonage and across the street to the brick and pillared church.
“Don’t pay him any mind, Jo,” Mama said, finally letting go. “He’s just nervous.”
What did he have to be nervous about? I wondered. I was the one about to be marched into the lion’s den. But I didn’t say it out loud. Mama was pretty and polite with everyone. She wouldn’t know what it was like trying to make new friends. We finished getting ready, then followed Daddy.
Brother Barnaby Baxter introduced us to the congregation during opening announcements. “This Sunday, August the fourth of 1957, is an auspicious day in the life of this church. We are blessed with a new pastor and his family.” Brother Baxter spoke in long, drawn-out tones, stuck in slow speed. I swallowed a yawn. “I am honored to introduce and welcome our new reverend, Joseph Clawson, who many of you know grew up right near here; his beautiful wife, Maye; and his daughter, Josephine.” We all stood to polite applause. No one ever introduced me as beautiful, the way they did Mama. Mama said it was only because I hadn’t grown into myself yet. I didn’t mind. It was bad enough folks expecting me to be perfect because my daddy was the preacher. It’d be even worse if I was hung with the problem of being beautiful, too.
After announcements the kids marched down to the basement for Sunday school. My class was in a big cement room divided into smaller rooms by partitions. The sixth-grade partition was filled with rickety chairs, a cracked blackboard, and a fuzzy flannel picture of Jesus. It smelled like chalk and mildew, a smell I knew from other Sunday schools in other churches.
I chewed on the edge of my thumb, studying over the classroom. I chose a seat in the back row next to a boy wearing a starched white shirt that appeared to be choking him.
The teacher walked to the front of the class. “Children! Children!” she said, clapping. “Good morning, children.”
“Good morning, Miss Hasty,” everyone sang.
I scrunched down in my seat, hoping against hope that Miss Hasty would just get on with the lesson and mercifully ignore my presence in the back row. But it wasn’t to be. What I couldn’t figure out was if Sunday school teachers didn’t know the impact they had on my life or if they just didn’t care.
“We have a very special friend with us this morning,” Miss Hasty said. “Our new reverend’s little girl, Josephine. Welcome, Josephine.” She clapped again vigorously, then made a great show of peering over the other kids to look for me. I prayed the floor might open and swallow me whole.
“Come on up to the front, Josephine. You don’t need to be hiding out in the back. I’m sure you of all people have learned the Sunday school lesson and aren’t shy about answering Bible questions.”
I stood reluctantly and shuffled to the front of the class.
“Don’t slouch, dear,” Miss Hasty whispered.
Someone laughed. I felt my face flush.
Miss Hasty steered me to a seat front and center, next to a girl she called Bobby Sue Snyder. Bobby Sue looked me over. I smoothed my skirt and tried to smile. Bobby Sue just arched her eyebrows. She was wearing a quilted circle skirt of pink satin. The skirt looked so shimmery, I wanted to reach out and pet it. But I didn’t. I chewed my thumb instead.
Miss Hasty pursed her lips and stared pointedly at my thumb. I snatched it out of my mouth and clutched my hands in my lap.
Miss Hasty drilled me with questions all morning. I felt obligated to answer every one so Daddy wouldn’t be shamed on his first day. Then she praised my Bible knowledge and set it up as an example to the class.
“She’s like a Bible encyclopedia,” someone whispered.
I knew I would never live this down, no matter how many kids I clobbered. And I had already promised I wouldn’t do any more fighting.
After class I trooped upstairs to church and huddled next to Mama in the wooden pew. We sang some and prayed some, then Daddy got up to preach. He had a glint in his eye, and his voice thundered across the sanctuary. In every town he’d ever preached, Daddy had found a cause to take on—be it gambling or smoking or cursing. He sure knew how to use his words to fight against the evil and the depraved. I wondered what kind of cause Daddy would find in Jericho. It seemed such a proper and sleepy-type place.
I didn’t so much listen to Daddy’s sermons as let them wash over me. His words resonated and flowed and made images come to life in my mind. Most of the time I didn’t quite know what he was talking about, but I always came away with the thought of something—a dove or a cross or lakes of burning fire. That seemed to be enough to satisfy Daddy that I’d been paying attention when he quizzed me after church.
Today’s sermon got me thinking about our new home at the parsonage. Not the faded chintz sofa that smelled like old ladies or the cracked vinyl kitchen chairs that made my legs sweat, but the good things. Things like the flowers Mama planted in front of the wraparound porch, and the white eyelet curtains in my room that fluttered in the breeze, and my very own bed with the blue star-burst quilt.
I could tell the other folks were liking it, too, because no one snored or let their head droop on the pew in front of them. They waved their fans provided by Moore’s Funeral Parlor and nodded. At the end of the sermon everyone shouted, “Amen!” which for Baptists is a lot like applause.
“Hometown boy makes good,” Mama whispered. I looked at Mama, then glanced up at Daddy’s face as he looked over his new congregation. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. It didn’t look like Daddy would be getting a call from God to leave Jericho anytime soon, which meant I’d better figure out how to make some friends.
Copyright © 2002 by Kristi Collier