Donna McClanahan grew up on the banks of the Kentucky River. She currently resides at the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest where she writes nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Her nonfiction has won the Emma Bell Miles Award, the Wilma Dykeman Award and the Betty Gabehart Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She received the 2008 Sue Ellen Hudson Award for Excellence in Writing for her fiction. Donna's work has appeared in Kudzu, Now & Then, The Minnetonka Review and has been widely anthologized.
In my tenth summer, something happened that would change forever the way I interacted with the world. I heard a calling from some inner voice, a primitive place inside me that I would come to refer to as God.
Primitive Baptists don’t believe in Sunday school, youth groups or musical instruments in the church. Those are things of the flesh. Preachers don’t prepare sermons in advance or plan mandatory baptisms at certain ages because God works in mysterious ways, and man isn’t supposed to have that much of a hand in it.
My dad was the pastor of our small town congregation, which was made up of my aunts, uncles and cousins. We were singers, poets and musicians of all sorts. Saturday nights we all got together and had a good old time, but on Sunday morning the only instruments were the ones God gave us in harmonies so tight the music alone was a spiritual experience. I knew it to be a faith-based fundamental religion that wailed up from the soul, a gift from God. Anyone could attend the church, but to be an active member in communion with God, one must have felt the ‘call’ and accepted His gift.
Although we were in church every Sunday and taught right from wrong, we were not forced into bible study or baptism. As a matter of fact, I never fully understood what we believed; only what we didn’t. Whatever I was to learn about our religion, was supposed to happen while sitting amongst cousins on hard, straight-backed, wooden pews listening to the Word that emanated from my father’s mouth.
Ladies made flat, square cushions, stuffed with old nylons to make the seats more bearable. Some decorated theirs with fancy ruffles around the edges, but other than singing, their voices were seldom heard. Many of the older couples still walked through separate doors and sat on opposite sides of the church, though younger couples sat together. Girls dressed up, sang harmony, sat straight, passed notes, read palms, told secrets, giggled silently, but rarely listened to sermons. I couldn’t quote even the simplest of scriptures. When I asked to be baptized, it surprised even me.
I was lying in bed Sunday morning in my room, which could have been a dining room for some childless couple, a buffer between the kitchen and the bathroom; so that everybody walked right past my bed like it was a hallway. Our walls were petitions. There was no actual door separating any of the rooms of our house, all attached directly to the kitchen and living room area. I first shared my space with my older sister, Barbara and then, when she went to college, my younger sister, Angela. My brothers slept on the other side of the kitchen, near the living room. I’m sure I’m not the only one who pretended to sleep while listening to our parents’ conversations.
Usually the smells and sounds of breakfast sizzling gave me a feeling of safety and warmth but not this time. I woke heavy hearted and scared as if from a nightmare, but hadn’t had one that I could remember. Though my mother usually soothed my nightmares away, I knew she could do nothing about this feeling. I was lost, homesick and helpless. It didn’t make sense because I was in my own home, both my parents were there and I was about to be fed, yet I was shaking and ready to cry. My mom was still at the stove finishing breakfast. All our shoes were lined up in front of Dad’s chair on a newspaper. I crawled into his lap. He took his hand out from inside the shoe he was shining and laid it on the floor. I whispered in his ear, “I think I have to be baptized.” We were a close family by necessity, but saying something so personal made me feel uneasy, naked even. Living in limited space made me guard my sacred privacy. I hadn’t anticipated saying those words, even as I climbed in his lap, but a primal need for relief from some unknown fear guided me.
“Tell your mother what you just told me,” Dad said. I suppose he wanted her to know he hadn’t coerced me. It seemed important to both of them that this was a ‘true calling’ but I certainly didn’t want to repeat myself. I spoke low, uneasy.
“What makes you think you want to be baptized?” Dad said.
“I don’t know, I just do.”
“Have you talked to anybody else about this? Has anybody been saying you needed to be baptized?” Dad said.
“No, I just feel scared, like that’s the only thing that will help.” Satisfied no-one had put me up to it, Dad explained I should come up and stand beside him during the altar call after church later that morning. I was nervous, but somehow knew I was on the right path. I went into my room to get dressed and overheard Mom saying, “I could tell she was more serious than the other girls. They don’t even listen, but I’ve noticed her paying more attention lately.” Mothers always want to believe the best about their children.
After the service, before Dad asked everyone to extend the ‘right hand of fellowship’, he nodded to me and made an invitation to anyone who would like to make a home in the church to come forward while we sang a hymn. I liked the way that sounded; make a home in the church. It was starting to make sense to me since I could only describe what I was feeling as homesickness. Refusing to give anyone eye contact, I walked forward and leaned against my father’s towering six-foot-four-inch frame. Dad placed his arm over my shoulder and once the song was over, announced that I had asked to be baptized.
“I have a couple of questions to ask you before these witnesses, and then we’ll vote whether to accept your membership or not,” he said. He hadn’t warned me about questions. I hadn’t realized people got to vote. I hadn’t even asked to be a member of anything.
“Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?” Fear filled my every thought as I searched my brain for the correct answer. I looked up at him. He bent gently in my direction and tilted his head forward in a gesture meant only for my eyes.
“Yes, I guess so,” I whispered.
“Do you believe He gave His only begotten Son so that those who believe shall not perish but have everlasting life?”
Where was this stuff coming from, I wondered.
“Yes,” I said, believing that’s what Dad wanted to hear. I wished I had paid more attention, because I didn’t know what any of that really meant. Evidently I passed the test.
The entire church congregation lined up for an official welcoming hand shake, and took turns hugging me while singing another hymn.
Our old church, built in 1828 was used during the Civil War as a temporary hospital. It had high ceilings and stained glass windows encased in an ornate mahogany molding. It even came equipped with a baptismal although plumbing hadn’t been available and none had been added. The decision to have water hauled to the church instead of a river baptism was mine to make. I couldn’t swim and was scared of creepy crawlies.
The people next door let us run a water hose from their house on the day before the baptism, no charge. It wouldn’t be warm, but it was July so I didn’t think it would matter. I invited my favorite uncle who made the drive south from Richmond, Indiana, four hours. The church was full. I wore my favorite dress, a wash-and-wear in a soft teal color that wasn’t itchy. The white lacy collar made it look dressy. My mom packed dry clothes for after the service.
Doors on either side of the altar led into small rooms, each connected to the baptismal which stood between them. A sliding panel opened to the congregation, exposing the baptismal to the crowd. After the last song, my father motioned for me to join him up front once again, and he spoke of the importance of baptism, then went through the door to the left of the altar to prepare himself. In the room on the right, my mother pinned my dress together between my legs so it wouldn’t float up in the water and opened the small door leading down into the pool. The steps disappeared into the darkness, and though my father stood only waist deep, I knew the water would be high on my chest. Mom said she’d stay right by the door. Dad extended his arm toward me, spreading his large hand for me to take.
The two people who had spent a considerable amount of time keeping me out of the water were now leading me in. I descended the stairs reluctantly, teeth chattering, dress clinging to my belly. Cold water pressed hard against my chest as I concentrated only on breathing. Dad spoke loud and fast, though I cannot recall what he said. He took out a folded handkerchief, placed it over my mouth and nose and dunked me under the water for what seemed like eternity.
It was my first real lesson in faith.
The sensation of water that filled my eyes and ears made my brain go cold. When I came up, a smothering blanket of wet hair covered my face and I struggled for breath and footing before I realized my dad was practically carrying me toward the steps where my mother waited with a towel. She helped me get undressed, dried and then re-dressed. My hair was so thick and long, it would be wet all afternoon. With the weight of the water off my chest, my breathing was light and easy. At ten years old, I didn’t know much about sin, but it was as if that water filled every crevice of my soul and washed away all my worries.
“Well, now that it’s over how do you feel?” Mom asked.
“Completely relieved,” I said, “Like I’m not lost anymore.” I had never felt cleaner or breathed easier.
“You won’t ever have to do that again,” Dad said. “Once is all it takes.”
I was a college freshman sitting in a room full of students, fingers hovered over the home keys of a manual typewriter. Along with my books, I had carried to class the weight of guilt that my father would soon stand before his congregation and ask for my excommunication.
I’d seen it happen before. Being a member of the Primitive Baptist church entitled me to vote at business meetings, even as a youngster. It was at one of those meetings, soon after I joined, that I was asked to see the rightness in the sad but necessary churching of one of my favorite cousins. She had begun attending another denomination; looking for her own home, she had joined the Eastern Star. It hurt my father to stand against her, I could see that. But he felt it his duty to uphold the laws of the church against a secret organization. This not only affected the church. It changed our family. The harmony I had grown to believe in began to crumble as others, too, left or were forced out due to various sins.
At eighteen, my number was up. The daughter he had so many hopes for was now living in sin.
Our teacher had instructed us to complete a free write typing exercise for thirty minutes. Today, it is nothing to type well over one hundred words per minute on modern keyboards, but in 1980, fingers had to mean what they said. It was too hard to change your mind once your mark was indented on the page.
I sandwiched purple carbon paper between two sheets of white onion skin, careful to line up the edges. Then, I placed all three pages in the black roll and turned the knob to feed the canvas to its starting point. My fingers worked slowly with deliberate punches on the round buttons.
To the Members of the Little Bethel Primitive Baptist Church: It is with sadness…
I slapped the metal spatula to return the carriage. It sounded like a tiny gong signaling the start of a boxing match. I was transported back to the day, in my father’s church, when my aunt’s husband stood before the crowd, pointing fingers at his in-laws, accusing them of hideous crimes because they wouldn’t let him preach, a day when I and all my first cousins were sent into the yard while the grown-ups duked it out. We promised never to turn against each other like our parents had, but ultimately, we each retreated to our corners.
…that I must resign my membership. Please know it is not a lack of faith that brings me to this decision, but an honoring of that faith and knowing that the life I live is one of…
I wondered what kind of life I did live. I had moved in with my boyfriend, hoping he would marry me. My parents were hurt, angry, disappointed, scared. I was in love with love. I put my faith in that.
…love. I have not changed my feelings or my desire to be close to the Lord, and I feel He is with me now. I am glad I was baptized here, by my father. However, I understand according to the rules of order, as your pastor, he has a difficult task before him, and it is my wish to remove that burden from his shoulders.
Each time I heard the typewriter’s return bell, I returned to the day when I voted, along with my parents, to shun my cousin Jordyn from the church.
I was not called to be a member of that church. I was called as I continue to be, to answer to my own life. On some level I knew this in my heart on the day of my baptism, which is why I didn’t need to know the answers to my Dad’s questions. I am not sure I could answer them today.
Your Sister in Christ…
Dad preached we must fear the Lord. I never understood that. Even in my earliest days, I claimed God as my best friend, the one with me at night in the dark when I was alone.
Tears streamed down my face as I pulled the pages through the rollers like a shirt from a ringer washer in an attempt to cleanse myself of guilt.
It was true about the baptism. I’ve never had to repeat it. It was an outward sign of what was happening deep inside me and would continue for the rest of my life. It would be years before I attended another church.
Sister Alice Rohe, Order of Saint Francis, changed my stereotype of nuns. Coming from the Bible Belt, I had many misconceptions about Catholics: they were closely akin to communists, they had so many children simply to produce more Catholics, they prayed to Mary and worshiped idols and called a man “Father.”
“That whole thing about priests and nuns not marrying is just plain unnatural,” I had been told. “They’ll pull you in to their fold, brainwash you and you’ll never get away. Plus, they can drink on Saturday night and confess on Sunday.”
There were rules to becoming Catholic, but I learned that being a sinner wouldn’t keep me out. I converted.
Although I realized that the Church had a long way to go regarding women’s rights, girls could be altar servers. I was asked to read scripture from the podium on Sundays, something that never would have happened in my father’s church.
Sister Alice walked humbly among us at St. Elizabeth’s. We called her Sister, which served as title and familial kinship all in one. Under her guidance we ministered to the sick and shut-ins, provided food, clothing and gifts to struggling families at Christmas and throughout the year. She implemented a back-to-school program to provide underwear, socks, backpacks and school supplies for children in need. Sister Alice purchased gift certificates from Payless so mothers could take their children shopping for shoes. A spring seed program was started that provided bedding plants, seeds and fertilizer to folks who were physically able to garden.
Most were not Catholic and she did not try to convert them. It was her way to help people help themselves. She understood the dignity of the soul. She didn’t ask questions nor did she ever turn down someone in need.
Instead of asking the popular question What would Jesus do?, I often asked myself, What would Sister do?
I was aware of the Church’s stance on gay rights, abortion and birth control but had not fully accepted them as my own. “Sister?” I asked. “Look at Josh there playing with the other children. Tell me, do you believe homosexuality is something that is born or man-made?”
“Oh, no doubt in my mind, they are born,” she said. “God made them.” She spoke from her heart, not the official church stance. I, too, had taken a buffet style approach to religion, taking only what I wanted and leaving the rest. Both of us had adopted a mix of eastern and western philosophies that seemed more congruent than conflicting. A thread of truth to follow.
After ten years with us, Sister Alice moved back to her hometown of Baltimore. Our little mountain mission church suffered greatly after she left, cutting back programs and doing less outreach. Eventually, I left as well, though I remained close to my spiritual sister and bore her witness during each leg of my faith walk.
I was driving when I got a call from Kim, another good friend from St. Elizabeth’s, who was equally attached to Sister. We hadn’t talked in a while, as I was no longer attending services.
“Sister Alice is sick,” she said.
“How sick?” I asked. She couldn’t tell me, or maybe I couldn’t hear. I pulled the car to the side of the road and took deep breaths as she spoke. Sister had been planning a trip to Kentucky. Kim was to pick her up from the airport, I would take her back. She thought she had a cold, was short of breath and went to the doctor before catching the plane. She called Kim to cancel her plans. Leukemia had taken her completely by surprise. She had received a clean bill of health at her last physical less than a year earlier.
She had been officially retired for one week, had been on the beach with her ninety-year-old sister. After her intended visit to Kentucky she would go on a cruise with another sister. There wasn’t a gray hair in her 79-year-old head. Her energy was like a child’s. The last time I’d seen her, we’d had a picnic in the woods, hunted Easter eggs with the kids and dangled our feet in the creek.
I called Sister Alice. She could barely talk for catching her breath. She said she regretted not seeing me one more time.
“You will,” I said.
“Do you promise?” she said. The phone line was quiet for a few seconds as we both struggled for composure. “You’d better hurry,” she said. “They say I don’t have much time.”
Kim and I were on our way the next day to Philadelphia where Sister had been placed in the Assisi House, a retirement center located at the Mother House for the Sisters of St. Francis. It was a hard journey, knowing this would be our last real face-to-face visit with the woman we had grown to love and admire
“No mushy stuff,” she warned us as we entered her quarantined room. The sign on the door had said to leave hugs and kisses outside. They were afraid she would catch something in her weakened state. Kim and I read each other’s minds as we choked back our reactions. Even though we knew she was dying, we hadn’t allowed ourselves to imagine she could barely raise her head off the pillow. “Come over here and give me a hug,” she reached a hand toward us.
“But, the sign says not to touch you,” I said.
“What’s it gonna do, kill me?” Leave it to Sister Alice to try to make us feel better. We all laughed and held each other. We talked about the fun things we had shared together, trips with our friends, mishaps we could laugh about, quirky priests we had known, all the times we sang together, the fact that my daughter had mistakenly called her Saint Alice when she was little and how we all thought it more fitting anyhow. She remembered how the children used to sit at her feet during church and rub her legs because they’d never felt panty-hose before.
I had worried the whole way to Pennsylvania that I wouldn’t be able to tell her everything, what she had meant to me, what she had taught me.
How do you narrow down what is important when you know it is your last chance?
I looked at her longingly. Like her, I was being called to a new part of my life. I was scared. I wanted the wisdom of someone so close to God, someone about to be with God. I had left the church and was thinking about leaving my marriage. I wanted so much to know the truth of what I should do, what I should believe.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I want to know what you know,” I said. “I want universal truth. I want to be at peace.”
“I am not at peace just now,” she said. “I am mad as hell. Jesus has tried to be with me, but I won’t let Him.” She raised her hand and pointed. “I plastered Him over there on the wall and put Acceptance right next to Him. I dared Him to come near me. I have things to do. I’ve worked my whole life and was just getting ready to play. I have a cruise paid for already.” A dark-headed nurse with deep dimples popped her cheery face in the door.
“You ready for some more morphine?” she said.
“Yes, I think I am,” Sister said. “You girls go eat dinner and rest, I’ll need to sleep a while.”
We held ourselves together until we left the room, then broke down. The nurse with the morphine walked us up the hall.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We don’t let the sisters suffer.”
Kim and I walked around the grounds of the mother house, felt the embracing peacefulness of the place and tried to capture and hold some of it inside us as a balm. Sister had brought us back together in a time we both needed it, like a miracle rising out of sorrow.
The next day, we brought her gifts. She asked me to read from some of my work, and I left her an audio recording of stories by Silas House. One of the stories was about a time when Mother Teresa came to Appalachia. Both stories were about faith. Kim brought her homemade grape juice and other canned goods to entice her appetite.
Sister Alice had gifts for us as well. She took off a gold cross from around her neck and gave it to Kim, then asked me to go into her closet, find her black ministry outfit and remove the simple wooden cross, strung with leather. It was the one she wore as communion minister for 63 years.
“It’s not gold like your compadre’s,” she apologized, “but it means more. You have a lot of decisions to make and I want to be with you when you do.” She stretched her legs, wiggled her toes and looked at the wall where Jesus and Acceptance had been plastered.
“It has been so good to see my girls. You don’t know how much it means that you came all this way to see me again. I think it was good for you, too, to be together again.”
She gave us $50.00 and made us promise we’d have dinner together after she was gone and talk about her…no husbands allowed. We didn’t want the money, but we promised and told her how we felt she had given us such gifts in our lives, including bringing us back together at a time when we both needed it.
“I’ve been thinking how my illness has brought my family together,” Sister said. “Some of them haven’t spoken in years, but they all circled around my bed this week, in the same room together, and helped me plan my funeral. I gave them each a job. They were holding hands. It was a miracle. If I had to get sick to see that, I’m okay with it.” She reached out to take our hands one more time. “You should go now. I think I’m ready to let Jesus come sit on the bed.”
We are each called to the service of our own lives. Each time requires a letting go of something we hold most dear, another piece of our humanity. As the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Each time, the stakes get higher until, finally, we are ready to be back in full communion with God. Our challenge, then, is to listen. To lay down the fear, release our attachments and follow with faith. I wear Sister Alice’s cross every day as a reminder of her courage.