Pajamas well past dawn. Coffee, toast and jelly. Time to read the paper, listen to classical music. Write a little. I love Sunday mornings.
I don’t get to church much these days, but that wasn’t the case when I was a kid. I grew up in a little Lake Wobegone-ish town in southwest Minnesota where churches were still known by the nationality of its founders – Dutch, Polish, German.
Being the good Scandinavians we were, my family worshipped at the Norwegian Church (a.k.a. the American Lutheran Church). It was built of Jasper Quartzite, stone quarried in the town’s backyard. My aunt Mavis was the organist and Uncle Vic was head usher and every Sunday my family sat on the right side, sixth row, in the same order with my brother and I separated by Mom. It was my dad’s job to bring the Life Savers or Certs to give us something to do during the sermon. If he forgot or if he only had wintergreen flavor he gave us Rolaids.
We weren’t allowed to look around or behind us, ever, especially when the pastor was speaking, so instead of listening to the sermon I’d examine the age spots on the old women sitting ahead of us and the cracks of their lips filled with dried lipstick. I’d watch the pastor’s kids goofing off in the front pew and wonder if Pastor really had sex or if his children were conceived in some other way. I’d be involved in these thoughts until my dad nudged me with the offering plate and it was my turn to put in my envelope containing the two quarters my mom gave me earlier.
After the benediction and the pastor and the choir exited the sanctuary, we didn’t stand up and walk out of church at our leisure. We were dismissed, row by row, with a nod from Vic while Mavis played some obscure baroque piece on the organ until everyone shook hands with pastor. My family would walk slowly up the aisle behind the people excused before us, taking us almost as long as the service to get out because so may people stopped to chat with Pastor or introduce him to visiting relatives.
I’d make may way up the aisle looking around at all the people I wasn’t allowed to see earlier. I’d give both my grandmothers a little wave and they’d smile and nod at me. I’d mouth “hi” to my friends. Then I’d walk past the aisle where Louis and Betrie Bakke sat. They were my favorite old people in Jasper. Louis had diabetes and his legs were amputated so he sat in a wheelchair, his pants flipped up and pinned to his pockets. Bald as a cue ball and strong as an ox, he and his wife always gave me such a warm handshake and hello that I thought I was the most important person in their world.
Every year, the Sunday evening before Christmas, the Sunday school classes put on the Christmas pageant. We’d practice for six weeks preparing for our big night. I always had a speaking part because I was the best reader in my class. But when I was in sixth grade I wanted more than anything to play Mary. I wanted to put on the blue robe and look holy and act like I was Jesus’ mom. But, as you can guess, I got stuck being the storyteller. When I complained to my parents they said it was more important to tell the story than to play Mary anyway. Shows how much they knew.
Pageant night was magical. The church had a high peaked ceiling and 20-foot stained glass windows on either side. The choir loft was up front perpendicular to the altar where on that one night we kids were allowed to sit. On Sunday mornings the church was lit with daylight, but at night, the candles and ceiling chandeliers sparkled and glowed in a way that could make even the staunchest skeptic believe a child was born in a barn and angels sang to a bunch of farmers.
After the performance we each got a bag filled with peanuts, candy and an orange. We’d exchange gifts with our Sunday school teachers. It was the only night we were allowed to talk and laugh in the sanctuary.
The church looks the same today as it was 35 years ago. I was married there, my husband’s funeral was held there, our daughter was baptized there, and within two years of each other I said goodbye to my grandmothers there.
Even though I live 1,000 miles from my beautiful Norwegian church, it is just as much a part of me as my family because it helped raise me. It gave me roots and an appreciation for God and spirit and home.
My Sunday mornings are very different than they were 35 years ago. But in many ways, the ways that count, I’m not. I’m still just a Norwegian girl who wonders at the mystery of faith and ritual and age spots on the backs of old ladies’ heads. I just don’t do it in church anymore.