Ashland, Alabama, where the spouse’s grandmother lived, felt like the South for many reasons. One was its number of churches. There were a lot, but I am used to that. Wherever I am in Brooklyn, I am almost always within three or four blocks of a church, but in Ashland, as far as I could tell, they were all Protestant ones, and probably more than half were some sort of Baptist or Methodist. I don’t remember seeing a Catholic church, and the nearest synagogue was a county or two away. Mom’s house was literally surrounded by churches. Out her front door and across the street was her Southern Baptist church. (Mom was clearly pleased that I, although not a Southern Baptist, was raised in the Baptist tradition. (See post of June 22, 2020.)) Out her side door and across the street was the Methodist Church.
One Sunday when we were visiting Ashland, that Methodist Church was welcoming its new pastor. The spouse and I were out and about that afternoon and cutting through the Methodist parking lot on our way to somewhere when we realized we had been spotted by the new minister and his wife. The couple looked like a caricature out of certain kind of movie. Neither seemed old enough to drive. Both were thin, and I expected to see acne on him as he approached with what appeared to be a brave smile. His white shirt might have had some cotton in it, but it was too big and gapped at the neck. His suit was also too big and looked as if it had been bought two days before from the southern equivalent of whatever was two steps down from Robert Hall. And if the tie was not a clip-on, it sure fooled me. The wife was tiny and retiring, but also had a brave smile fixed in place. They looked like a newlywed couple dedicated to the new path on which they had embarked. As he approached, he started to introduce himself, but we interrupted saying with big smiles, “We are from out of town. You don’t need to spend time with us.” It was as if a wave passed over them both, and in an instant they looked more relaxed but also incredibly tired. They thanked us and told us that he had performed his first service as the new pastor and had been meeting people all day. After a few moments of pleasantries, we parted. I had wanted to tell them, “You look like you need a drink.” But this was neither the right town nor the right couple for such a suggestion.
Perhaps we would have chatted with the new couple in town longer if their church had been Mom’s church, but on Sundays Mom headed out her front door. I only remember one time that the spouse and I went with her to the Baptist church across the street. The spouse’s sister and her husband were also in Ashland at the time. The brother-in-law is Jewish, although not religious, but he looked quite nervous as we all got ready for the morning service. I told him to relax, no one was going to know about his religious heritage, explaining that probably they all thought Jews had horns, and they would not see them on his head. I added, however, that perhaps his quite luxurious head of hair was hiding them and perhaps I ought to give him a trim first. He did not see the humor in my tremendously clever wit.
I remember little of that service, not the sermon or the Bible readings, but I do remember the hymns, or really the introduction to them. As we got to the point where we were to rise and rejoice in song, the minister announced that the usual choir director was away and was being replaced by “Shotgun Miller.” I was only half paying attention and was not sure that I had heard it correctly, but “Shotgun” just seemed to hang in the air. What looked like a solid Ashland citizen stood up and led us in song. At the second hymn, the minister merely said, “Shotgun,” and I could not help smiling. At the third hymn, when he said, “Shotgun,” I had to restrain myself from chuckling out loud, and I thought to myself, “Are they just messing with this northern boy, bringing out the clichés, and giving a good show?” But I knew they weren’t.
I shouldn’t mock Mom’s church, however. She was a wonderful person—warm, caring, amusing, charming, tolerant, accepting. She seemed at peace, and part of the reason for that was her religion. When I think on some of the bad aspects of religion, I think of the spouse’s grandmother and what her religion and her church gave to her. From her, I know that for some people religion is meaningful and life-supporting.
I don’t want to seem as if I am mocking Ashland, the South, or small-town life in general. Mom lived until she was 97, and at least in the last twenty years of that time, she resided about half the year with the spouse’s mother in Florida and the rest of the time by herself in Ashland until her final illness, which was short. She could live by herself in her house because she was not really alone. Every day people from the town would look in on her, make sure that she was all right, and ask if she needed some lemons from the grocery or aspirin from the pharmacy. Many people cared about her enough to make efforts on her behalf in ways that I do not expect will happen for me in Brooklyn. She could remain where she wanted to be in a place that held memories.
The visits to Ashland, however, did not make me want to give up my big city life. On the first day of our first visit to Ashland, the spouse and I were heading off to the town square. Without thinking Mom said, “Now y’all be careful. It’s Saturday. It’s market day. There’s a lot of traffic.” And then she stopped and smiled and said, “But you live in New York,” and laughed at herself.
After seeing the courthouse, we wandered around the square and went into a few shops. In each and every one, an owner or clerk said, “You aren’t from around here. Who are you visiting?” We would answer and explain our relationship to Ms. Herren. They would ask where we were from. Each one of them would comment on how far away, how big, and how foreign New York seemed, but how much they liked seeing it on the Today show. And when we were leaving, all of them said, “You all have a blessed day” or “You give Ms. Herren my best.” By the fourth or fifth exit, I started muttering expletives when I got to the sidewalk. Their sweetness, their niceness was getting under my skin. I knew I was a Big City boy. I was longing for some of New York City’s curt anonymity.