Ansel Head’s father stepped into the doorway to his son’s bedroom, “Rise and shine!”
Unlike most mornings, Head jumped right up. It was Sunday, and he was looking forward to his Sunday School at South Highland’s Presbyterian with the Formans. He was still residing in the middle bedroom with the light blue walls and brown trim. His mother had just completed the change from a nursery look into something more suitable for her youngest son’s self image. Head had approved the redecoration and had even tried to help the painters complete their task while they were on a lunch break, but his work went unappreciated. Fortunately his Male Ego Interuptus Syndrome was already well established so the adult criticism did no permanent damage to his self-esteem.
Head carefully removed his Lone Ranger six-shooter from underneath his pillow and returned it to the holster hanging on the back of the armless, upholstered chair next to his wooden toy chest. The ghosts in white sheets with holes for eyes, the ones who had circled his bed one night, had never returned once Head started keeping his peace maker close at hand. His mother’s “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep” routine had proven ineffective in keeping the white devils at bay.
The collarless tweed jacket, ruffled shirt, and hideous short pants, which had until his grandmother’s intervention been so much a part of his Sunday costume, were now permanently incarcerated in his closet, never again to see the light of day until that fateful hour when they were bound up and led away to the Junior League’s Nearly New Shop.
He put on his new long dress pants and light blue, button down collared shirt. His father had taught him how to tie his tie: Wide end to the right then twice over the narrow end and down through the outer loop. It took him several attempts to get the narrow end to be just above and behind the wide end, but the young Head made up for his lack of intellect with dogged persistence.
When Head came downstairs, his father was just putting toast and bacon on the kitchen table. Mary was off on Sundays, so the breakfast duties fell upon him. Head noticed right off that his father had on his tie. It was only on Sunday mornings that Head ever saw his father without his tie so the change caught even his habitually inattentive eye. He said nothing, but he had an uneasy feeling that something was amiss.
Then his mother arrived, fully dressed. It was her habit to remain in bed until after her husband and children were off on their daily routines. This radical departure from the norm raised immediate alarms. Head thought he had better ease into the situation. “Are you going to church?” he asked his mother.
“Yes,” she replied.
“And Dad too?” He amazed even himself with having deduced the obvious from the presence of his father’s tie.
“Yes,” she answered.
He bit into his toast, then in a casual tone asked, “How long before Jane and I have to leave to get to the Formans?”
“Don’t’ talk with your mouth full! You’re not going to that church anymore. We are all going to St. Mary’s.”
Using a reasoned approach, Head stated his objections to the sudden change in his religious education. Unlike his past experience at Canterbury Methodist, he actually looked forward to his courses at South Highland’s Presbyterian; and the collegial atmosphere with his best friend, Ross, was an essential ingredient to his finding his own pathway to salvation. He closed with a legal point, “Why would you deny your son his constitutional right to pursue religion in his own manner?”
When that argument failed to move his mother, he resorted to weeping and wailing and gnashing of baby teeth. That too had no effect except to tear soak his toast.
Into the back seat of his father’s 88 Oldsmobile he and his sister were herded. It was cold so the windows were rolled up tight. The penetrating scent of Joy perfume, freshly doused behind his mother’s ears and on her wrists, permeated the atmosphere making Head’s eyes water and his nose run. Her last cigarette before being confined in the church’s close, smoked all the way down to the filter, made him cough and gasp for fresh air. When he opened the window, his mother objected, “Close the window, you’re blowing my hair.”
Even the non-Ivy League bound Head was rapidly learning that his passage towards the gates of Heaven was to be a difficult road.
The family went up the stone steps, squeezing past the youth choir which had formed a queue in preparation for their singing procession, and entered the sanctuary through the main door. They walked to the center aisle, turned left, and entered the fourth row back on their left. Although there were no name plates, it was to become the family’s personal church pew for the 9:15 Family Service.
This was Head’s first experience with an Episcopal ceremony. Nothing in his previous courses had prepared him for what followed. In unison, people were standing, sitting, kneeling, praying, singing, reciting, and listening with solemn faces. Everyone around him, including those his age and younger, were already playing in this game at a varsity level; and as for the slowest learning Head, he didn’t even know what the game was about. Between the frequent nudges from his father, Head asked himself, “What does any of this have to do with getting to Heaven?”
The service ended with the choir singing their way out of the main door. Head was relieved that his confusing lesson was over. Even though his head still ached from the concentrated intake of Joy and second-hand smoke, he looked forward to the car ride home. But it was not be. He was taken to a room with folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle. There were a dozen or so boys his age already seated. He was the new kid; they had been together since the beginning. And as is often the case, they made the new boy feel even more of an outcast. He missed the collegial atmosphere with Ross. “How,” Head reasoned with himself, “could I be expected to find God in this discourteous assemblage?”
He said as much on the car ride home. But the next Sunday, he was forced back into the Olds full of Joy and second-hand smoke, followed by standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, reciting, and listening in the family pew. His outcast status in the school room remained unchanged.
Ansel Head’s religious education had suddenly taken an unsatisfying and unfulfilling turn.