(About a 9 minute read)
We used gold star stickers in Sunday School. You licked them and stuck them to you. I always wanted my teacher to lick them — because I would over-lick them — and I always wanted her to stick them to my forehead.
It was almost the only good and decent thing I could fathom came of attending Sunday School.
When we three sons would ask Mom why we could not stay home to play on Sunday mornings, she would tell us that “Christianity is your cultural heritage and you should be exposed to it.”
That was mildly confusing because not only did I fail to fully understand what “culture” and “heritage” were, but it also seemed to contradict Mom’s almost scandalously old fashion notion that we were not to make up our minds about religion until we had “reached the age of understanding”. That is, until we were at least 18 and “preferably 21”.
This was in the early 1960s and, of course, attitudes were changing. All my peers had parents who encouraged them to believe.
But Mom had been born in 1918, she was as old fashioned about religion as her own mother herself had been. Children were to be “exposed” to it, but were forbidden to make up their immature minds either one way or the other on the grounds that any such immature commitment or rejection could not possibly be other than null and void.
Mom would not even tell us what she herself believed on the grounds that it might sway and thus corrupt our thinking. She was highly skeptical of what she called “modern thinking” when it came to religion. Highly skeptical.
I am all but certain now that some of her views of Christianity predated Paul’s. “A suspiciously modern thinker, son. Be careful of him.”
Mom had daringly advanced far enough down the road of modernity to have us baptized as infants, but that was it. That was as far as she saw fit go beyond her borders and into no man’s land.
Although there was no way Sunday School stacked up to play time in my heart and mind there once — and once only — came a day when I spent the whole week looking forward to it. For one week, it could not come around fast enough.
Monday morning of that week, I tore the palm of my right hand on the barbs atop a chain link fence. Five stitches later I was the proud and thrilled possessor of a “top-this-guys”, status-winning story to tell my peers. I just knew my time to shine had come.
I was the only child in my third-grade class who lived in my part of our small town. Everyone else had neighbors, and thus had friends. I certainly knew the holy and sacred significance of those five stitches. Suddenly I was going to be everyone’s favorite kid!
Only it was summer, and school was out.
Golly darny nations! What bad luck to have a king-crowning story without any properly awed and friendly subjects around to crown you! The date for my coronation was pushed back to the coming Sunday.
On Black Friday, I received the shocking news. “No way, Dr. Schaefer!”
“What can I say, Pauly?” The good doctor beamed at me, quite ironically urging me to be proud, “You are a fast healer. Congratulations! We can take those awfully itchy stitches out today!”
“Why is your son bawling, Mrs. Sunstone? Please reassure him at once that it will not hurt.”
A few minutes later…
“Put them back!”
“PUT THEM BACK!”
Dr. Schaefer to Mom: “There’s a child psychologist in the City…”.
I broke him off to explain that I needed the stitches to show my future subjects and thus effect my coronation as their rightful monarch and overlord. Only you know, I was using real words, and not adult ones.
Good Dr. Schaefer was immediately sympathetic. “Not a problem, Pauly! I’ll tell my son Mikey tonight. You remember he’s in your class, don’t you? I will instruct him to tell the other children you had stitches. Five of them, no less.”
“But Sunday School!” I protested. “Mikey hasn’t told you? Your son is a Catholic and a Christian and Mom says we are not Christians because we’re Pres… Presbee… Presbyterians. And Sunday School!”
“Not Christians?” A quizzical glance at Mom.
“I must take Pauly home and get back to my office, Dr. Schaefer. Immediately!”
On the drive home. “I can’t take you anywhere, Pauly. I can never take you anywhere. And please quit bawling!”
Blessedly, the end of Sunday School came just a year later. The clues began to add up, you see. Specifically, I began to notice that each time I came home from Sunday School to ask Mom what she had done for the past hour or so, she always beamed and said, “I took a bath. A long, long bath. And then I read a book. Without any interruptions at all, I managed to finish a whole chapter!”
It had taken me years to figure it out — precious, long years in exile from valuable play time — but at last, at a nine years of age I had grown wise in the cunning ways of adults.
Of course, I could not at all imagine at the time how much self-sacrifice goes into parenting a child. The thought simply did not occur to me that, as a widow and single parent trying t raise three young sons, Mom had gone years without so much as the luxury of a long bath — unless she scheduled one for when we were all asleep.
Sunday mornings were her “me” time. About the only “me” time she had when she wasn’t tired from her day’s work as parent, homemaker, business CEO, and (often involuntary) community leader.
“I want to stay home and play tomorrow.”
“You cannot. You must go to Sunday School so that you can absorb your cultural heritage like a sponge. You shall always have plenty of time to play after your class.” Mom seemed a bit alarmed.
“But I’ve already absorbed it. All of it. I know everything there is to know about Christianity. Everything now. You don’t know it because you never go, but Mrs. Denton and Mrs. Lounsberry just repeat themselves. I know it all! There’s the Father, the Son, and the Holy Dove Soap Bar. Jesus lives in Heaven, but watches you to make sure you’re a good mom and allow your kids plenty of play time. It says so in the Bible.”
My joke instantly put Mom in a better mood, but she wasn’t about to relent just yet. “Careful who is around when you say such things, Pauly The wrong people might not know you and think you are committing blasphemy.” Her voice lighter now. “Learning is your duty, Pauly, and it would surprise you, young man, how much you don’t yet know about Christianity and the customs and traditions of the Church.”
“I know you just want to get us out of your hair to take a bath!”
Mom looked at me. I looked at mom.
As was her tradition and habit, she chose to level with me. “There is some truth in that. It’s not the whole truth, but there’s some truth in what you said.”
I immediately sensed I had hit Mom’s Achilles’s Heel. By nine I was fully aware I could change her mind by reasoning with her. “I’m old enough to play alone. I play alone all the time now. There is no one at the creek most days except me and maybe a couple other kids. I don’t have to be sent off to Sunday School just so you can waste away your life in a bathtub. You can send me off to the creek instead. I don’t mind. I’ll tough it out.”
“Promise me you won’t interrupt my reading.”
“What if I’m dying? What if a robber shoots me? What if an aircraft lands on my head? What if a…”.
“In those cases, you have my full permission to notify me after you have died, so I can send flowers. But promise me you won’t interrupt me in the bath or while I’m reading just to show me a garter snake, or ask me to remember a word that you’ve forgotten, or beg me to watch you jump off the roof to your death.”
“YES! YES! YES!”
“I’m serious, Pauly.”
A few protracted seconds later, I put on my solemn face in order to offer her my word of honor. Even by nine, I had absorbed Mom’s teachings about honor. I gravely aimed to keep my word.
In case you are curious, Mom’s eldest son grew up to become a militant agnostic (“I don’t know and neither do you”). Her alarmingly handsome middle son turned out an agnostic mystic (“I don’t know, but I had a great time one night when reality flipped poles”).
Only her youngest son ended up a Christian. But a Christian who never — never — attends sermons.
How one of her children ever got it into his head that he should sit in a comfortable chair in the Church library reading inspirational books while his wife and kids listen to droning sermons is quite beyond me to explain. It’s almost as if he considers “me” time more important than being preached at!