When I leave the Indianapolis airport with my sister, Liz, and we go through the tollbooth where “Santa Exit” is written across the top of the lane next to us, it’s clear that I’ve exited one world and entered another.
On the way down Route 37 to Jasper, a stretch that is dotted with towns like Nineveh and Zionville and Judah, Liz points out the community church where, she says, they constructed a replica of the tabernacle in the wilderness last year in the yard. “What did they make it out of?” I ask.
“I don’t think they used badger skins.”
When we arrive in Jasper, my parents are sitting in their respective chairs watching TV and awaiting the arrival of the wrens. On television a handsome, young, bare-chested man wearing a red and white Santa’s vest is smiling for the camera, his arm around a female mall shopper. “More proof of global warming,” I say, referring to Santa’s bare chest. Next, there’s a segment on the new demand for female bodyguards. Daddy says that women might make better bodyguards. “Female dogs can smell better than male dogs.” Before I can figure out how this superior olfactory ability would serve as an advantage as a bodyguard, my sister Wanda says that she knows a woman who has two male dogs who sniff each other all the time, and she swears they’re gay. My sister Sarah, not to be outdone, says, “My dog likes humans a lot. He loves Jacob. He’s just the right height.”
My eight-year-old niece races in and asks my mother for rope, which she gives her. Daddy is looking through a family history book and reading a clipping of an obituary from 1932 for his great-uncle, Pete. He hands it to me and I read it. I’m impressed with and touched by the language that was used then in obituaries:
“In young manhood he engaged in the business of farming and stockraising, and by his close application to his vocation, by industry and thrift, he amassed a great deal of wealth, but his ideals of living were simple. He had a broad sympathy for and an understanding of his fellowman, and no taint of pride or bigotry marred his simple, straightforward way of living. Pomp and power held no attractions for him and he lived a plain, clean, honest life, coming down to the hour of his death with no blot upon his record, with friendship and kindliness tward all who called him friend…He was a man to whom all men were equal, the highest and the lowest; every one received the same consideration and courtesy, the same encouragement and sympathy; the same generosity and the same degree of friendliness. He was open and frank and the kindly helpful spirit which he showed his friends and associates will prove forever an inspiration after the great grief which his passing brings today has abated. He has passed the torch to other hands, and they will bear it proudly and carry on the work which his father and grandfather has laid down.”
Sarah returns from checking on the kids in the back room where she has discovered that the three young nieces have used the rope to tie up our nephew, Avi. They wanted to see how fast he could escape. He was a willing participant. Mother makes a comment about tying up her rowdy great-grandchildren and sitting them on the fence outside. She’s said this often enough to make us wary of leaving small children with her.
Then, it’s almost 5:30 and my parents are both intently looking out the patio door for the wrens’ arrival. “There’s the red bird, the red-headed woodpecker, the snowbirds…”, my mother is keeping track of our feathered friends. Daddy says, “Is that the wren?” and mother cranes her neck more intently. “I put the food out there,” daddy says, “and then they won’t come out. That’s the way they are.” He is disappointed by their ingratitude and fickleness.
On Sunday morning, I go with my sister, Wanda, to the Christian Church of Jasper. We sit in the front row because Wanda has never sat there before and she wants to “live on the edge.” After the Christian rock band finishes their set of songs, which I enjoy, two adults dressed in shorts and T-shirts are publicly baptized up front. Then the minister delivers his sermon which is part of the series “Life You Were Meant to Live,” and this week the message is, “Don’t be Anxious About Anything.” It’s essentially a sermon about faith, about letting go of the things you can’t control, not worrying about the future as it’s a waste of time and energy. It could be Buddhism or psychology or Alcoholics Anonymous. The minister is lively and passionate and makes jokes and I’m thinking that some rabbis could take a lesson from this minister’s ability to personalize God, to convince all of us in the church that God is intimately involved in each of our lives. But it’s when he comes to communion that I remember, again, my problem with Christianity. “As sinners, we are destined for eternal punishment,” the minister says, “but Jesus’ death redeemed us.” The premise that we are destined for eternal punishment simply because we are human and therefore “sinners” is something I never understood. If God didn’t want us to be human and flawed, then why create us in the first place, just to set us up and send us off to hell? I don’t understand the presumption that “sinning” is so terrible that it warrants eternal punishment. I pass the communion wine down.
My sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and cousins gather at my Aunt Lindy’s farm later in the afternoon, post-Thanksgiving, and I hug my aunt Susie who suffered from Guillaume Barre syndrome this past summer but miraculously is making a full recovery; there’s a lot of talk about who shot how many deer in the shotgun season that just ended, and how the muzzle loading season opens next week. My brother Ed is wearing an orange and black hat on which is written, “Hunters will do anything for a buck.” I weave in and out of conversations about our college age kids, upcoming weddings, who’s having marital problems, who drinks too much, who’s car stalled in the middle of the night, and all of the other community and familial topics. Back home, my parents are discussing the status of ice cream. Why do we only have vanilla and not chocolate, daddy wants to know? Mother points out he can get chocolate if wants to. He says I know I can, but why do you just get vanilla? He is dogged in tracking down the answer. “I had a coupon,” is her answer. Coupons are always her answer.
The following evening, Wanda and I go out for a drink at Macadoo’s, a bar owned by our cousin’s ex-boyfriend. Mac was a groomsman years ago at our cousin’s wedding, when she married her no-good husband who ran off to California to rendezvous with a woman he’d met on the internet, only to find that the “woman” was not quite what he expected. The rumor was that she had a little extra between the legs than he expected. When he returned, my cousin put up a sign in the bar they owned, “Husband for sale, comes with computer.”
In the morning, I wake up with a slight headache and pack my suitcase. My mother gives me four jars of salsa that my sister-in-law made, some cuttings from an aloe plant that originally belonged to my grandma, and some “vintage” coats for my daughter that she dug out from the deep and mysterious recesses of the basement. Wanda comes over to take me to the airport, with Daddy accompanying us. I hug mother goodbye – goodbye coupon clipping and plant cuttings.
Our car conversation includes a comment from daddy that he isn’t convinced that Barack Obama was really born in Hawaii, and that segues naturally into his assertion that Obama’s father’s job “was to spank oversexed women.” He read it in some magazine. Wanda tells daddy, “If you see an oversexed man, let me know and I’ll pull over and spank him.” In a yard, just a few miles from the church that built the tabernacle, there’s a deflated Santa and Wanda says, “Somebody must have spanked him hard. Darn it, they beat me to it.”
I hug Wanda goodbye – goodbye Santa and spankings. Hug daddy – and goodbye ancestors named Johann and Christian and contemplations on what Adam’s skin color was and who inhabited Jericho 11,000 years ago, before Adam was created.
Wanda texts me when I land in New York. Daddy got home in time to see the wrens return home to their nest.
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