Full Circle: Religious beginnings at Central Pres

Published 9:41 am Friday, August 21, 2015

The old Central Presbyterian Church. Photo provided by the Mower County Historical Society  

The old Central Presbyterian Church. Photo provided by the Mower County Historical Society

Whenever I think back on my old childhood church, something inexplicable happens. For some reason, my memories of the old Central Presbyterian Church are all in gray. I mean gray as in ashen gray! This is odd because I, like you, am able to remember other things in technicolor, so why all the gray when it comes to this? The only explanation I can come up with is that pretty much everything about that church was gray. The exterior, the interior, and even many of the people!

Don’t get me wrong. Just because my memories are colored in this fuliginous hue does not mean that my life there was dreary. Anything but! Why, that glorious church was the beginning of my communal life … my first social headquarters. For sure I had toddler friends at home, but I didn’t have to get all gussied up to play with them. And I didn’t have to be quiet and sit still either. Church demanded all those things, thereby elevating my toddlerhood to a higher plane.

To begin, I remember the tall rising front steps (built of gray cement) were cracked, and I with my infantine legs had to climb up and up — a tricky maneuver on an icy December morning, although exiting was even trickier. The walls were stone (also gray) and seemed grand to me, although even as young as I was I could see they were showing wear. Then as I stepped through the doors, the sunshine disappeared and everything suddenly dimmed to a dusky somberness as if the church couldn’t afford light bulbs. (I figured that God liked being in the dark.)

Email newsletter signup

I’ve mentioned before in this column that my three siblings and I (like peas popping out of a pod) were born in less than four years. Pop, pop, pop and pop! This spelled serious trouble (with a capital Tribulation!) when it came to church. Imagine my folks there with four stair-step youngsters. Attempting this each week required all their tolerance to keep from pulling out what remained of their hair. What were they thinking taking us four — all at once — to a sanctified place of worship? Yiiikes!

Every child was always required to join the congregation for the first quarter hour of the service after which we were dismissed to the basement — the place where the fun began! For us McLaughlins, this 15 minutes of penance would have gone more smoothly had my family not always sat in the very front pew. Why in heaven’s name we did this, I’ll never know, for by anyone’s estimation it was an extremely poorly thought-out location, leaving my siblings and me — and our antics — in full view of everyone behind us. Get the picture?

A church strategy

To counter our anticipated poor behavior during those moments of captivity, my folks’ strategy was to place themselves between us where we kids were unable to touch each other. This was quite effective for the child on each end, but quite honestly they should have done a re-run of this plan before they ever gave birth to No. 3 and No. 4, because no matter who organized us, it always left two children in the middle — touching! Child, parent, child, child, parent, child — a lamentable scenario and one which surely begged for our shenanigans to begin.

Hands down, the worst Sundays for my folks (and the best for us kids!) were baptismal Sundays. I cannot explain it, but for some unknown reason, we four thought the names people chose for their babies were side-splitting funny. Whenever Rev. Reginald Coleman announced them, we would go into gales of laughter which, of course, had to be severely ceased by our parents’ hands over our mouths and/or by a stern look from them that was so threatening it rendered us immediately sober.

The agonizing minutes dragged on as we sat there in our pewed pen of misery. We could neither poke at each other, draw in the margins of the hymnals, kick the seats in front of us nor stand up to check out the people behind us. It was, after all, the Lord’s Day and on His special day we knew we were expected to be good children … a behavior bewilderingly foreign to us.

Then one day in 1944, everything changed. It was the first cold Sunday in November and Mom decided to wear her full length seal skin coat. Upon seating herself in our front pew, she found the church to be a bit warm. Thereupon she slipped off her coat and laid it beside her … next to me! I’d never touched it before and immediately realized that seal skin was softer than anything I’d ever known. I began caressing it. That’s when I discovered the fur had two colors, one appearing when my fingers went up and another appearing in a deeper tone when my fingers went down. I was instantly captivated.

It was fantastic. Like bordering on a miracle! Imagine finding an Etch-A-Sketch in, of all places, a Presbyterian pew … even before Etch-A-Sketch was invented! Suddenly having to remain in my seat took on a whole new meaning. I could create! I stuck out my pointy finger and slowly ran it up the sleeve. Then down. Soon stick figures of assorted sizes appeared. In the meantime Mom, who was completely in thrall to the holy message, was unaware of the budding artist at work beside her. Blissfully, I filled up one sleeve then the other with twig-like figures abounding all over the place.

Tic-tac-toe on a coat

And that’s when I made an even bigger discovery. The back of the coat! The Big Kahuna! It was like a vast billboard begging for illustration. Tired by now of dwelling on stick people, I studied the huge empty canvas, finally concluding it should be filled with a more brainy pursuit. Hmmmm, let’s see. What could it be? Why, of course … tic-tac-toe!

In the time of a single prayer, I had finished playing several games with myself. Then following his amen, Rev. Coleman asked the congregation to sing. Feeling a sudden chill, Mom reached for her coat as she stood and placed it over her shoulders. Now, you must understand that in those strict 15 minutes of our kids’ hostage experience, hymn time was the one liberty that belonged to us. We could either stand with the adults or remain sitting. That day, due to exhaustion from my artistic renderings, I sat.

As Mom stood — for all behind her to see — drawings and tic-tac-toe games covered her backside from furry collar to furry hem. For me it was a proud moment as I leaned back to admire my talent. As for the congregation it was something else. Stifled laughter broke out as folks put their own hands over their own mouths so as not to be heard, attempting to cover giggles with song. Unaware, Mom twittered away in her pleasant alto then sat down, the plopping action collapsing the coat and erasing my artistry.

By now our demanding 15-minute sentence was over. Suddenly unshackled, children everywhere shot up from their seats. Freedom at last!

Next up, Sunday School. I had found it daunting when I first started a few years earlier. After all, it had been the first time in my life I had been asked to be scholarly — or at least try to be for 45 minutes. This worked fairly well when I was 3 and sincerely working at it, but by the time I turned 4, I found that Sunday School kids — even when all cleaned up — could still be a barrel of laughs. Miss Dovenberg, a valiant teacher devoted to reining us in, tried her best to instill in us a reverence for the Bible which by anyone’s measure was not an easy task. It probably explained why she, too, had turned gray.

Thus in the silver tint of the Central Presbyterian Church I began my first structured relationship with God. I could always find Him there waiting for me in the dark.

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of “Potato In A Rice Bowl,” which outlines her experiences living in Japan in the 1960s while her husband was in the military. Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing pggyknr@yahoo.com. Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”