One of the new ministers at our little town church had a wicked penchant on Ash Wednesday of making his more infrequent parishioners resemble Al Jolson.
Unfortunately, my family was among those who attended church only on the “important holidays”, like Ash Wednesday, Christmas and Easter, the holidays when, as my dad liked to point out, “God was paying particular attention and truly taking count.”
Which is why instead of tracing dainty little crosses on our foreheads, like was done on the foreheads of the church deacons and Bible Study leaders, our minister made our family look as if we had just been pulled free from a collapsed coal mine.
I wanted to believe, like any person of faith, that our minister had giant hands, or a touch of Turrets, or simply – like an untrained singer – bad technique, but I realized, the older I got, that he simply had a vicious streak.
I remember one particular Ash Wednesday when I was in junior high, and my mother returned to the pew, looking as though she had just crossed Oklahoma in a covered wagon.
“Are you going to work like that?” I had asked her, the contrast of her white nurse’s uniform and ashen face making her look like a photo negative.
“I can’t wash it off!” she said. “That’d be blasphemous.”
What was blasphemous, however – after years of watching our minister work – was his evil ash-decorating techniques. For the truly devout, he would always keep his left hand clean, using it to hold their holy faces steady while his right index and middle fingers swept shallowly through the ashes and then softly but deftly formed a cross on their God-fearing foreheads. He would smile proudly as they left the altar.
But with heathens like the Rouses, the minister used both hands freely, as though he were in a schoolyard fight and his mission was to blind his enemies with as much dirt as he could possibly toss.
And I swear that the man of the cloth would always smirk as my family walked back down the aisle.
What was even a bigger and dirtier slap in our faces, though, was the fact the minister always had a perfectly formed cross on his very own forehead, almost as if he had stood for hours in front of his little mirror in the rectory next door and etched it with a well-sharpened eyebrow pencil before outlining it in mascara.
This ongoing Ash Wednesday debacle was particularly difficult for me during my overweight youth because I always went to school resembling the spawn of Fat Albert and Tootie from Facts of Life.
Moreover, this seemed to create a chasm between my mom and dad.
Whereas my mom loved to attend church – she enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of dressing up, dressing her boys up, having breakfast out, the ritual and order of worship – my father never generated much interest in the notion, until later in life.
It was my understanding that he felt church was more for those who needed forgiveness, much like a shower was for those who were dirty. If you were somewhat clean – physically and spiritually – you were good to go.
My father also frequently had to work on Saturdays, thus leaving only Sunday mornings open to enjoy a big breakfast, work in the yard and complete projects around the house, before watching pro football. Church was another commitment – another meeting, if you will – to which he just didn’t want to commit.
My dad grew up going to church, every Sunday, if not more. His father was a deacon in a local church, and a much beloved member of a nearby small town community. My grandfather loved to go to church, put on his suit and talk with the townsfolk. It was an extension of his job, and one he relished. While my father loved and respected his dad greatly, I think – like most of us do as adults – he simply enjoyed a bit of distance, to walk outside of the shadow his father had created.
My father was also an engineer with – though it was never formally diagnosed – what I would term today as ADD. He used to become distracted and irritable in church, like a petulant child.
In fact, my father and I were similar in this way, though polar opposite in our obsessions. Whereas I would become riveted by women’s dresses that would flare dramatically as they sashayed down the aisle or by a beautiful bonnet (I always believed the world was an “Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet!” away from turning into a nonstop musical), my father was distracted by the noisiness of the church’s HVAC system, or whether the trusses supporting the soaring roof and steeple were structurally sound. Whenever we would begin to fade away, forget to stand, open our hymnal, my mother would often whisper our names – “James Wade!” or “Ted! Pay attention!” – in a way that sounded like sheets drying on a clothesline in a harsh spring wind. We would snap to attention for a few minutes, before I would again catch glimpse of a pretty orchid and my father would notice a gap in a window frame.
It was after one of our Ash Wednesday tire fires – perhaps our third in a row – that my father finally seemed to realize, as the white-bread Rouses jammed into an IHOP, that his family looked just like the one on Good Times.
That’s when I decided to test my theory, as my mom excused herself to the bathroom, and as my brother crammed a mile-high stack of Belgian waffles and whipped cream into his mouth.
“He’s doing it on purpose,” I said, wiping my face clean. “’Cause we don’t go enough.”
His eyes twinkled. “That’s an interesting theory,” he said.
My father loved theories. He loved to test them. It’s what his career in engineering was all about.
Which is why my dad announced – as we yanked the foil off our TV dinners the next week, my corn embedded in my Apple Brown Betty – that he had invited the preacher over for dinner the following Tuesday.
As my mother aspirated a kernel, my father winked at me.
Our preacher, a middle-aged man with hair that looked like it had been made from modeling clay, arrived on a cold February night, carrying a Bible and a long box I know my dad hoped was wine.
“What have we here, minister?” my dad asked, before pulling out a pillar candle we all instantly knew he had simply “borrowed” from the church.
“Just a little gift,” the minister said. “A token of appreciation. I have to admit, I was just so surprised to receive this dinner invitation from … you know … the Rouses. I see you so … infrequently … Easter, Christmas, Ash Wednesday.”
And it was here – when he said “Ash Wednesday” – that he let out a boisterous belly laugh, a guffaw more devilish than godly.
My father smiled like the Grinch. He knew instantly my theory was right.
Game on, my dad’s eyes seemed to say.
“Wanna help me get this fire started?” my father asked the preacher, laughing. “I always have trouble getting one started. I think I need an expert on fire and brimstone.”
The minister chuckled heartily, and slapped my dad on the back.
Now, my dad was an expert fire-builder. If Survivor had been on back in the day, my dad would have kicked Richard Hatch’s big behind. And yet, he stood back as the preacher lowered himself in front of our massive stone fireplace, with a hearth big enough to serve a picnic on and a grate large enough to hold a pickup. Within minutes, he had built a roaring fire, and also inhaled more smoke than Susan Blakely in the Towering Inferno.
“I’m so sorry!” my dad said. “I must have forgotten to open the flu.”
The minister turned and coughed. He looked like Nipsey Russell.
“Could you point me to the bathroom?” he asked.
My father winked at me.
My mom, a very smart woman, already knew what was happening. “Ted!” she whispered, as she did in church. When he walked away, she turned to me. “James Wade!”
But the minister walked out with a freshly washed face, and my mom had no choice but to serve the pot roast, carrots and potatoes she had carefully prepared.
“I’d be honored if you would say grace,” my mother said to the minister.
But before he could open his mouth, my dad said, “I’ll do it!”
“That would be a nice change of pace,” the minister said.
“Good bread, good meat, Good God, let’s eat!” my dad said.
My mother gasped, and stared at my father as though Linda Blair had rotated her head and puked pea soup on the preacher.
“Does the job, doesn’t it?” my father said, nudging the minister.
“Well, it all smells so wonderful,” said the minister, adding something along the lines of, “I just love a slow-cooked pot roast on a cold winter’s night.”
As my mom served the minister, my dad followed up with, “And who can eat pot roast without ketchup?”
The poor preacher didn’t stand a chance, as my dad handed him an upside down bottle. “Hit it smack-dab between the ‘5’ and the ‘7’! That’s how to get the goodness out!” my dad commanded.
As planned, the preacher looked as if he had been shot, as if Damien himself had exacted revenge with an iron gate.
“Excuse me, folks,” he said once again, heading to the bathroom.
“Ted Rouse!” my mother whispered.
“An eye for an eye!” my father replied.
“Oh, Ted!” my mother said, strangely excited. “You do know your Bible!”
“Nobody screws with our family,” my dad said.
It was all very Mario Puzo in the Ozarks: Family came first.
We attended a bitterly cold Easter sunrise service a month or so later, and our family was among the first to receive blankets from the minister. My dad wrapped his arm and the blanket around me, happy our theorem had been tested and proven, and it was then I realized I’d just had a religious experience, a higher calling, if you will, a moment in my life that that bonded me to my father more than church, or watching football or Three Stooges movies.
Nobody screws with our family, I thought as the sun rose over the little park.
And, though it was frigid, I felt very warm indeed.