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. Mother scouted around in our neighborhood and found the congregation at Twenty-third and Grace. She chose that one because its membership was drawn from blue-collar people like us and because it was in convenient walking distance; she never learned to drive. But, boy, could she walk! A small woman, she skimmed over the sidewalks like a plover on a beach.
Weekends and summers out in the country, my grandmother would take my sister and me down a red dirt road to a Baptist church in Deer Creek. But that and vacation bible school amid a throng of cousins was as far as Mother would let that go. I couldn’t tell that much difference between the Baptists and the Church of Christ. Except I never saw anyone baptized by the Baptists, they didn’t take Communion every Sunday, and in that church at Deer Creek, the hymn-singing was accompanied by a woman playing piano in a style that would flood back to me, years later, when I first heard Willie Nelson’s band. Those differences were a great divide.
Our leaders argued that baptism was meaningless unless you were old enough to know you had sinned and could repent. And it wasn’t enough to be sprinkled with water; you had to go down to the water and be immersed, just as Jesus went down to the River Jordan with the prophet in camel hair, John the Baptist. Another defining trait grew out of a controversy over instrumental music. Some congregations believed the hymn-singing would sound better if a trained musician provided tempo and flourishes on a piano or an organ. No, the other side countered, read your Bible. Though tambourines, lyres, harps, flutes, and cornets abound in the Old Testament, the New Testament has only Paul’s direction to the Ephesians to worship by “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” The result was the schism of 1906, a split that also divided the church along class lines. The faction who wanted the pianos and organs became the more upscale Christian church of today, the Disciples of Christ. The scriptural literalists who sang a cappella established the Church of Christ, which was more associated with the wrong side of the tracks.
One might think that people so completely focused on the language of faith would have a benign social reputation, but we were always rubbing our neighbors the wrong way. Because we professed to be re-creating the church of Jesus and the apostles, the deduction often followed that if Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, and others of faith did not see the light and get baptized into our vessel of truth, just like criminals, communists, and atheists, they were all going to hell.
IN 1955 THE HOTTEST MOVIE among ten-year-old boys was To Hell and Back, starring Audie Murphy. Adapted from Murphy’s autobiography about his heroism in World War II, it showed the baby-faced Texas actor propping a machine gun on his hip and strewing the terrain with dead Germans. Mother was no pacifist. Her brothers, cousins, and brothers-in-law had fought and served all over the world; Daddy, who had done a hitch in the National Guard, would have gone if called. But she said I wasn’t going to see that movie. It was just wrong—sinful—to glorify war and killing. My cousins and I were clamoring to munch popcorn and cheer the patriotic shoot-’em-up at the Saturday matinee. I threw a fit and cried, trying to get my way. It didn’t work.
We went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. The years when Christmas fell on Sunday were like punctures of a balloon. I leaped from bed at daylight and rushed to the tree to tear into my presents, but instead of running out to play with my new toys, I had to put on dress clothes and go to church, where the preacher said not one word about Christmas. We didn’t even sing the carols. There was nothing about a Christmas holiday in the Bible.
The end of my childhood was marked by “the age of accountability.” Church elders knew that if the message didn’t get through to us in the emotional topsy-turvy of our teens, they would likely lose us. The pressure was orchestrated and skillful. And after we were baptized, the compulsory hours increased. Tacked on now was Young People’s Meeting, on Sunday afternoon. The father of one of my friends volunteered to teach those sessions. He declared one day that not only was there just one true faith, there was only one true Bible: the King James translation. Smart alecks set in reminding him that Jesus spoke Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. The English we read was that of scholars who’d translated the Bible at the direction of King James I of England in 1611. Growing agitated, he brandished his Bible and raised his voice. “This is how people in the Lord’s time talked.”
These people read, studied, and reflected on the Bible all the time. But the church in those years maintained a persistent bias against too much formal education. One Sunday afternoon we watched a filmstrip that the church had bought as a teaching aid. The narrative stated matter-of-factly that God created the world in 4004 B.C. I blinked in amazement. I knew about the dispute between those who embraced the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and those who accepted Genesis as a literal account of creation. I thought there was room in my belief for both evolution and God. But in school I was learning about carbon 14 and other radioisotopes that dated earthly matter as far back as 4.5 billion years. Here was an argument endorsed by my church that dinosaurs, ice ages, and saber-toothed tigers had come and gone over a course of 6,000 years. The strange precision of that date, 4004 B.C., stuck with me. Years later I would learn that it was a chronology proposed by an Anglo-Irish archbishop named James Ussher in 1650. More than 300 years later, it was still offered as gospel in my church.
An oft-stated verity in our church held that Christians should be in this world but not of it. As Jesus said to the Pharisees about paying taxes to the Romans: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The church of my rearing seemed almost apolitical. Then came the presidential election of 1960. John F. Kennedy was Catholic, and the Vatican was given to rhetoric that the papacy had divine authority over governments. Our preacher was a volatile Italian American and a convert from Catholicism. He swore that if Kennedy won, the pope was going to take over America. He scheduled a Sunday night sermon and urged the faithful to fill up the church with family, friends, and neighbors and let them hear why they had to vote for the Protestant Richard Nixon. At fifteen I was moving toward Kennedy’s politics, but more than that, I thought that hauling the church into the fray was just wrong, in Mother’s words. I had a big row with her and refused to go hear the preacher’s sermon. She clenched her jaw in the face of my defiance and went without me, and she never brought it up again. My dad, a union Democrat, wanted no part of Nixon. Mother often said that 1960 was the only time they ever canceled each other’s votes. It was the only time she ever voted for a Republican.
THE SERMONS AND INVITATION hymns didn’t summon us only to baptism. If you were feeling exceptionally sinful, you went down front to be restored. The preacher handed you a pencil and a card, and you were supposed to write down why guilt was consuming you. After reading your confession aloud, the preacher would lead a prayer. When I was in high school, the frequency of my journeys down the aisle began to embarrass me. One Sunday night, two hours after being restored, I was tussling in the back of somebody’s old Mercury, trying to wriggle my hand inside a girl’s pantyhose. Rejected, I threw my head against the back of the seat and thought: I am a hypocrite. This is not working.
When I wasn’t in school or church and all attempts at athletics had failed, my adolescence was consumed by riding around: nights spent drag racing in somebody’s fast Chevrolet, dinners on the greasy mush of a chili cheeseburger, my first drunk on an especially nauseous spirit, cherry sloe gin. I stepped carefully around my dad, who was large and had a hot temper, but with Mother I could be such a jerk. I bullied, manipulated, and lied, thinking I could make her believe anything. As graduation approached, Mother told me that if I’d go to college at Abilene Christian—the intellectual point central of the Church of Christ—they would somehow find the money to send me. I declined. Then they told me my only other choice was Midwestern, the small state college in Wichita Falls. They really didn’t have the money to send me away to school. Self-centered and resentful, still living at home, killing time between classes playing Ping-Pong at the college’s Church of Christ Bible Chair, I bolted after a year and followed a friend’s lead into the Marine Reserves. I admired his tan and uniform and the way he’d filled out when he came to church one Sunday. I soon learned that Marine boot camp was as brutal and hellish as advertised. I moaned and groaned in my letters. The last few months, when I was assigned to an artillery unit at Camp Pendleton, in California, Mother would send me cans of her moist, cellophane-wrapped cakes. A sergeant and my fellow privates raised a hooting jeer when these packages arrived at mail call, but many crowded around to share the goodies. I went back to Wichita Falls thirty pounds heavier and, for the first time, possessed of a violent temper.
One of the strongest memories I have of my dad is the slammed door of resentment when he had to leave the house late at night and take a hated turn on the graveyard shift. But it was his job, and a good one. Not long after I came back from California, the refinery shut down. He had to take a big pay cut, a loss of seniority, and a transfer to another plant in an East Texas town, Mount Pleasant. For several months he lived alone in a garage apartment while my mother worked in a dime store and managed the sale of their home, required by a notorious attempt to widen a nearby expressway. Lonesome for company, he started going to the Baptist church again. Eventually, she was able to join him in Mount Pleasant. In their marriage and standard of living, they were almost back where they started, in 1940. That was a wrenching time for them, and my burst of wildness couldn’t have helped. But they shed old routines and fell back in love.
While they pinched pennies in the pine forest, I went to college and lived in our condemned house, which the city had not yet scraped off the foundation. Mother sent me her paychecks from another variety store where she worked in Mount Pleasant; I had a series of part-time jobs from which I was fired with cause. I hosted loud parties. One night I watched a stoned twerp grind out a cigarette in their carpet as if it was a chore she just had to finish. One weekend at my reserve meeting, we were given immunization shots; some friends and I killed time playing darts with unused hypodermic needles. At home I was putting my fatigues in the laundry bin when I noticed I had a couple of the plastic-cased syringes in my shirt pocket. Without thinking, I stuck them in the medicine cabinet. The next time Mother came to visit, she confronted me, quivering with anger. She had put up with a lot, but had I sunk to shooting drugs in my veins? For once my preposterous explanation was true.
I eventually came out of my sorry years as a pool-hall lout, but not through prayer and faith. I took an interest in reading and writing—and I just grew up. For a while I continued to go to church, changing my membership to a suburban congregation that was less charged with personal history. My mother was hurt; in cutting my ties with our neighborhood church, I’d insulted her in some way. “I’m going, Mother,” I told her. But more and more, that was another lie. One day a member of the new church came by to see if anything was the matter. That was probably the end of it. I went to the door shirtless, a beer in one hand and a bowl of chili in the other. All either one of us could do was smile.
WHEN I WAS AN ADULT, Mother left me to my own beliefs, and I respected hers. She pressed too hard with me when I was a child, but she never imposed her opinions on her neighbors. I am so weary of the anger and browbeating that pervades much religion now. Mother’s was a quiet and very private faith that sustained her in a life that never got much easier than when she was living in unplumbed farm shacks in the Depression. Daddy was baptized into her Mount Pleasant church when he was about seventy. He said he was playing golf with a group of men that included her preacher, and they started talking. He knew by then he was staring down the black hole of Alzheimer’s; I’m certain his long-resisted conversion was in part a gesture of love for her.
She made up her mind she was going to care for him at home. She managed that almost to the end, and it broke her own health. From Austin I drove up to see them as often as I could, and I started taking a coat and tie with me. After my dad got so ill, he stayed with a caregiver who was Mother’s last best friend while I took her to church. I didn’t feel comfortable singing the songs, but she and I held the hymnal, and I enjoyed hearing her. When she sang, she sounded young again. As always, I drifted off during the sermons. After the invitation hymn, men offered prayers and passed the Communion trays. Though my faith was gone, I took Communion with her, breaking off nibbles of the unleavened wafer that in the sacrament symbolizes Christ’s flesh. Then we took sips of the grape juice symbolizing his blood from the jiggers in another tray handed down the pew. I didn’t do that to make some promises to her I couldn’t keep. It was just a way of honoring the way she raised me.
Afterward people would come up to her to say hello and ask about my father. “This is our son,” she introduced me proudly. The little woman who once sped along the sidewalks was hobbled now by osteoporosis and the onset of Parkinson’s. It wouldn’t be long before I walked with a cane myself. We made our way slowly, with her holding onto my arm. For a moment the world was again as she wanted it to be. The sun was high up and gleaming. It was a Sunday morning, and we were on our way home from church.