I WAS AFRAID THE THIN and drenched cotton gown would cling to my bony haunches as the preacher led me up the steps of the baptistery. In the faith of my upbringing, the Church of Christ, baptism was the most important moment for me: If I upheld my end of the bargain, it promised to carry me through eternity. But I was twelve or thirteen, a budding teenager, and I thought and behaved like one. The steps up the tank of the baptistery could be clearly viewed from the front right pews of our little congregation in Wichita Falls—seats always claimed by pals and peers and maybe, if I got lucky, a girlfriend or two. I should have been praying in gratitude for my spiritual breakthrough. Instead, I fretted about showing my ass.
I don’t remember which preacher baptized me, much less the sermon that broke down my resistance. As chapters and verses of Scripture piled up like driftwood on a shore, I habitually tuned the sermons out; eventually I was snatched back from my daydreams by a shuffling commotion of songbooks being pulled from slots on the pews and opened to the page of the invitation hymn. Those songs—“Just as I Am,” “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” “O Why Not Tonight?”—are the part of the faith that abides in me still. But I don’t recall which one inspired me to walk down the aisle to have my sins washed away.
My mother was sick that night. Daddy, a Baptist who then seldom went to church, was working at the refinery. When neighbors dropped my older sister and me off at our home, she marched me into our parents’ bedroom and announced that I had something to tell Mother, who eyed me with an apprehension all parents know. “I got baptized,” I blurted.
Tears glistened in her eyes, and she said, “I’m so proud.” But I wasn’t proud. I was mortified by the emptiness I felt. I knew I had only succumbed to the pressure.
I don’t dredge up these memories out of apology, nor to harbor some grudge. My parents are gone now. The preacher who put a folded handkerchief against my mouth and gently bent me backward and dipped my head beneath the water has almost certainly passed away too. That little congregation no longer exists. A few years after that, I rebelled against much of my upbringing, and I never came back to the faith. I like to think that the tenets I retained became my ethics and that my treatment of other people is Christian enough. But applied to me that’s a loose adjective. I’m an agnostic adrift in respect, doubt, and wonder. All I know for certain about religion is that the one my mother tried so hard to pass on to me just didn’t take. The contest of wills hurt us both, but the time came when we put that strife behind us. Love found a way.
MOTHER’S NAME WAS ELSIE. Her dad was a Shelton, her mother a Nichols. They were part of the so-called Scotch-Irish immigration that poured across the South into Texas, Oklahoma, and points west during the nineteenth century. Born in 1916, she grew up on tenant cotton farms in East and North Texas. She had five brothers and sisters, and since two Shelton brothers had married two Nichols sisters, her first cousins were as close as siblings. Mother never lacked family, but she grew up without much else. Fascinated, I never tired of asking her to tell me about the harvest season when they lived in an earthen dugout and hired out as cotton pickers on another man’s farm. What it meant was that my grandfather’s crop failed. The Depression imposed a terror on Mother’s spirit that never really let go.
She had her own youthful rebellion, and like mine, religion lay near the heart of it. Everyone in her family was a Baptist. Going her own way as a girl, she was baptized in the Church of Christ. The sect grew out of the Restoration movement that spread among American Protestants around the start of the nineteenth century. With their strongest bases in Tennessee and Texas, the leaders of the church believed that the mushrooming number of denominations was as grave a threat to Christianity as the ultimate bogey, Catholicism. So they created another one, forever denying they had. The people who converted Mother from the Baptist faith were scriptural literalists who believed that the first-century church built by Jesus and the apostles had to be re-created, and its only blueprint was the New Testament.
Mother graduated from a tiny high school in a cotton-gin hamlet called Bluegrove, then moved to Wichita Falls to find work as a dime-store salesclerk and live with an ailing grandmother. She met my dad, whose name was Charles, at a church outing; they married in 1940. Daddy was a burly, athletic, red-haired man who had started college aspiring to be a coach and a teacher, but the Depression made him take up his life’s work punching a clock at oil refineries. Because his job was defense related, he wasn’t drafted in World War II. They spent the forties in an austere burg called Lueders, out by Abilene, where I was born. In 1950, when I was five, Daddy’s employer transferred them back to Wichita Falls, and they built a small house just four blocks from where he’d grown up. Not far away were the lavish mansions of oil millionaires—I went to school with their kids—but our neighborhood presented row upon row of small frame houses, some with brick veneers and asbestos siding, sycamore and pecan trees providing a little shade. Across the street from our house, dividing us from those of the richer folk, was a railroad track.
It must have been a daunting task for Mother to take on the religious guidance of two children entirely on her instincts and faith, but she made it clear that that was how it was going to be.