Few words have more connotative power in the English language than “father” and “mother.” When any of us reads a memoir or autobiography, we consciously, and subconsciously, compare our own relationships with our mother and father with the author’s parental relationships. That’s just the way we’re wired.
“So-and-so’s mother did that to him? So did my mother!”
“So-and-so’s father said that to her?” So did my father!”
But there is also this common reaction: “So-and-so’s father taught him that…took him there…gave him that?”
A spate of memoirs have been published recently, most of them ghost-written, many of them tone-deaf, almost all of them salacious. Not many of these will stand the test of time, as has Edmund Gosse’s memorable “Father and Son,” first published in 1907. The subtitle to his memoir is “A Study of Two Temperaments,” and indeed it is a character study of two “eminent Victorians,” as Lytton Strachey might have described them, a father and son who struggled mightily with many things but, most tellingly, with their very different Christian beliefs.
The memoir begins, “This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs.” With love, tenderness, and heart-wrenching descriptions, Edmund Gosse tells his family’s story with a distilled prose style that contrasts sharply with his era’s prevalent prose style and which enables his work to transcend its time.
From the beginning pages, many memories from my personal past flew off the pages in pairs with Gosse’s memories. All the while I read Gosse’s story, I was inundated with waves of personal nostalgia, and those common pains that memory often brings.
As I experienced this strange, dual rendering, I was simultaneously aware of Mary McCarthy’s famous rejoinder, “A book is not a pious excuse for reciting a litany of associations.” At the risk of becoming yet another example of McCarthy’s cautionary remonstration, I’d like to share with our book club a few personal anecdotes from my religious upbringing in the hope that one or two or three–or more of you–might do the same to help us unravel, together, the Gordian knot of the “god” in our lives.
At about the same age as Edmund was when he lost his mother to breast cancer, I “lost” my father through a divorce when I was six. Harry Powers was born in Chicago in 1925, and just after the end of World War II in the Pacific, he passed through Puget Sound Naval Ship Yard in Bremerton Washington, where he met my mother, Verlie McCary, born in Bremerton in 1922, who worked as a payroll clerk at the shipyard. After a whirlwind romance that lasted only a few months, they were married in February, 1946, in San Diego. My mother had followed my father’s ship down the coast, by train, to marry him.
My father was a devout Catholic, and my mother was raised in an evangelical protestant home, which probably should have been their first clue that there might be a stormy future ahead of them. After their marriage, my mother agreed to move to Chicago to begin her married life with my father in his home town, after he was honorably discharged from the United States Navy in the summer of 1946.
The children came quickly: a son, Harry Ronald, born in May, 1947; a daughter, Gema Marie, born in June, 1948; and a daughter Paula Louise, born in July, 1950. May, June, July births. Baby boomers, and each of us spiritual experiments.
My earliest memories of my father include watching with him a seven-inch, black and white Emerson television set for the Gillette Friday Night Fights; his stylish salesman’s suits; his admiration for new Buicks; and the Catholic prayers he taught me when he put me to bed each night.
My earliest memories of my mother include watching that same Emerson television set when a pianist named Liberace came on his Tuesday night program; her stylish house dresses, high heels and lipstick worn for especially for my father’s return home from work each evening; and the Protestant prayers she taught me when she came in to tuck me asleep after my father did each evening.
I was born asthmatic and suffered from horrible asthma attacks each of the years we lived in Chicago. Finally unable to take much more of my year-round ill health (I missed almost the entire year of kindergarten because of asthma), my mother proposed to my father that she would take the three children by train to Washington to live with her mother while my dad finished the upstairs, two-bedroom, one-bath addition to our post-war brick two story home on the South Side of Chicago. Then, after he sold our home, he would drive out to Washington State in his 1953 Buick and join us to begin a healthier life for us all.
Unbeknownst to my father, and to his three children, my mother wanted a divorce from him, for reasons never made clear to all of us. When my dad arrived in Washington in the spring of 1954, my mother immediately asked him for a divorce within days of his arrival, and I distinctly remember him taking me by car to the school bus stop, one last time, when I was six years old and in first grade at Pleasant Valley Elementary. After he drove away, I saw my father, infrequently, for the next twelve years of my life.
The four of us lived with my grandmother and grandfather on a seven-acre farm just outside of Port Orchard, Washington almost the entire year I was in first grade. My grandfather was Dutch, a logger, a smoker but not a drinker, and he always smelled of sawdust and pine. My grandmother, a short, matronly woman, had eight children, seven of whom survived to adulthood, including my mother. Grandma was a devout Christian who attended an evangelical Free Methodist Church in Bremerton, Washington. From the day we moved in, she made sure that my sisters and I knew that we would attend church with her.
Every Sunday morning when we lived with my grandparents (and then until we moved from Bremerton, when I was ten, in 1958), my grandmother would load her youngest daughters, Darlene and Linda (my grandmother was 47 when she had her last child), my sisters and me, and my cousins, Pam and Jimmy– who lived just down the hill from us–into her beige Henry J Kaiser compact, and all eight of us would barrel over to Bremerton, much faster than we should have travelled, for a Sunday School class at 10:00 A.M. and then the 11:00 Morning Service.
My memories of the appearance of the Free Methodist church are still distinct: a white clapboard- sided sanctuary with modest bell tower located on a quiet side street in a middle-class residential area filled with well-maintained yards crisscrossed with sidewalks. Inside, the walls and altar were white, and the pews were polished oak. The walls and oak glistened in the morning sun that came through the stained glass windows. The overall appearance of the church gave no warning of the terror that was to be found inside those walls.
In Sunday School, we studied Bible stories, mostly from the Old Testament, as I recall now, that reminded us that we were all sinners and fell short of the glory of God unless we asked for His forgive-ness. He was a mighty and vengeful God, who created the world in seven days, banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for disobeying Him, destroyed sinful cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, brought misery to people like Job who questioned Him, and sent a son named Jesus to earth to save us all from an eternity of damnation in Hell’s fires. I remember being cold and frightened in the dank basement classroom that we retreated to every Sunday morning at 10:00 A.M to learn of these mysterious things.
When I went upstairs for the 11:00 service, my grandmother always had her daughters and her grandchildren sit beside her in a pew that was selected in the middle of the church. Many of the hymns that we sang before the weekly sermon I can still remember: “Rock of Ages,” “In the Garden” and “We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations.” On some Sundays, my aunts, Darlene and Linda, were the featured singers. Once, I played a violin solo, “Whispering Hope,” while my aunts accompanied me vocally. I was terrified.
But our music was always a more joyful interlude before the fire and brimstone arrived. We were all sinners, we were told weekly. We needed to repent of our sins. We would burn in Hell if we weren’t washed in His blood. During the sermon, men and women would speak in a language I had never heard before, a practice I discovered later in life was called “speaking in tongues.” They wailed; they shook; they sent frightening sounds into the air. The minister preached right over their sounds. When he preached, he always looked directly at me. He knew that I was a sinner. I knew that I was a sinner. I watched the clock on the wall in the sanctuary, wishing that time would go by faster. It didn’t, even when I prayed that it would. Some Sundays the minister would be so worked up, so angry, so enraptured, that the service would go on long after 12 noon.
Every Sunday, there was a call to the altar. The service could not end until all those who went forward to ask for forgiveness for their sins and to ask Jesus into their hearts were tended to. Some weeks there were so many people at the altar that the minister needed an assistant to get to them all. Many weeks I saw the same people returning again and again to the altar. Apparently Jesus didn’t come into their hearts as they had asked Him to.
Even after we moved from my grandmother and grandfather’s house in the spring of 1954, my grandmother would come by our rental home in Navy Yard City to pick us up for Sunday School and church services. For years this is how my sisters and I spent every Sunday morning. Some weeks, my grandmother would pick us up in the evening for the evening service as well. My mother made sure we were always dressed up for these services, but she seldom attended any of them with us. In retrospect, it was the only time a single mother had time for herself away from raising three children.
Finally, about to enter my tenth year and just before we moved to Mountlake Terrace, Washington, never again to return to the Free Methodist Church, I could bear my mental pain no longer. On a Sunday evening, I knew that that service was directed toward me and my sins and my unwillingness to relent and ask Jesus into my heart. In near hysteria when the altar call was announced, I walked forward to kneel at the altar and to ask forgiveness for my sins.
It so happened that the person who was asked to assist the minister that evening with the many parishioners who were repenting was my grandmother. When she came to this sobbing soul, she asked me to rise up, and when I did she said, “Why Ronnie, it’s you!”
There was much gladness amongst the elders of the church that I had finally asked Jesus to come into my heart. I experienced a sense of elation that evening, knowing that I would be saved and would experience true eternity, compared to the eternity of those Sunday morning services that went on and on.
As I said, unlike Edmund Gosse, I had no father I could share this experience with. I was offered no guidance in this experience by my mother, who, as I said, didn’t attend church. I was left on my own, as I was through most of my growing up years, to figure out my religious thoughts, and other maturation issues, on my own.
Edmund Gosse says in “Father and Son,” “My public baptism was the central event of my whole childhood.” Indeed, I went on with my religious experimentations even when we moved to Hawaii in 1959 where I joined a Baptist congregation in Honolulu and where I was baptized when I was twelve-years old. I had been wooed by the church’s sixty-something-year-old-minister for months to “get right with the lord.”
After my baptism, it was as if I didn’t exist any longer in that church. I felt like a cipher. The minister paid little or no attention to me, for he was always looking for new “unwashed lambs” to baptize. I could see through time, even at that age, that the act of baptizing others was this minister’s life goal. Not scriptural education. Not enlightenment. Not putting Christian beliefs to practice in community service. Just immersing people into that aqua pool behind the altar of a Honolulu church and then raising them back up to the light, and hopefully The Light. That was his one fixation.
At twelve years of age, there was no “Tom Cringle’s Log” that “more than anything else” gave “fortitude to my individuality,” but a slow, steady progression of teachers, friends, and life experiences that lead me away from those who lived, as Edmund Grosse described it, in a “sort of trance of solemn religious despondency” toward a more humanistic, more loving, less vengeful response to life’s spiritual questions.
The inscription to “Father and Son” is by Schopenhauer, and it translates to, “Faith is like love; it cannot be forced.” When we understand that description of faith, it is like leaving a foreboding forest and walking into a sunlit meadow that opens to a clear horizon.
When I was eighteen, in 1965, my father allowed me to move in with him and my step-mother, Rose, in their Tacoma home so that I could attend college in Tacoma. I found work, thanks to him, and put myself through college, graduating in 1969 from the University of Puget Sound. I moved out of their home that year. My dad and I had finally been able to experience a truer father-son relationship, a relationship we worked on until his death, at 83, in 2008.
During those years, he never stopped asking me to attend Catholic Mass with him, which I did on occasion. He continued to hope that I would give my life to the Lord, which I never did again after that evening in Bremerton, at the Free Methodist Church, when I was ten.
I never told him this story. He died, disappointed in me, I am sure, for my religious failings.