While educational ideas were not considered of paramount importance in Springfield, day school was a routine which the most fortunate child could not hope to escape. Religious training, however, was different, for Sunday school had to do with the attitudes of one’s family. Since ours had been surfeited with the trappings of religion, we were never forced to attend Sunday school or church but Mother sought in every possible way to sell us on the idea.
Our Welsh heritage probably was responsible for our respect for religion. Father never said ‘grace’ and we never had family prayers and we were probably more tolerant of formal religion because they avoided forcing embarrassing customs on us. Once in a long time when playmates were available Sunday morning and taunted us with our piety, we would say to Mother,
“Why do we have to go to Sunday school; Nellie doesn’t have to?” and Mother would say, “You don’t have to go either.” Then her voice would grow a trifle more gentle, and her expression would become wistful as she added, “I thought that you would enjoy going.”
If then we determined to forego the excitements of Sunday school and the companion substituted fell short of our expectations, we felt conscience-smitten and for a time, when the church bells rang, lined up without a murmur.
Cavalry Presbyterian Church was as far from home as day school, and Sunday school convened at nine-thirty in the morning. Sunday breakfast was always a little late and a trifle more hearty; our Sunday clothes a little more elaborate; so we were usually behind schedule. We had a tardy bell at day school the terror of which Mother had tried to mitigate by providing us each with a written excuse. Mine read, ‘Miss _____, Please excuse Una’s tardiness, and oblige, S. Howell.’ Each of us carried one such at all times but no excuse was ever adequate to assuage the annoyance of a peevish teacher. There was a bell in Sunday school which aroused no anxiety and the pressure of weekdays was forgotten as we ambled along the wooden sidewalks that marked our path of sobriety and fellowship.
The walk through the public square was the same one we took every day but on Sundays we lingered and loitered for reasons. The first reason was Bourgenot’s candy store where on week days Mr. B. sold us taffy and butterscotch all cracked into proper-sized lumps with a silver hatchet, assuming that where the hatchet was, there would be candy also. The proprietor of the candy store was a purveyor of taffy-tolu, rubber and black-jack chewing gum. These maxillary delights, however, were pale joys compared with the window dressing, where back of the glass and on a level with our wondering eyes, a miniature townhouse raised its turreted towers. Past and through its front door small figurines jerked mechanically and their fascination cut mercilessly into our religious education. If we were able to withstand this major temptation, by walking on the other side of the street, we inevitably succumbed when confronted by the minor lure on the next corner.
Mr. Haeckert, the jeweler threw out his bait in the form of a small gold clock that substituted a ball and chain for a pendulum and practically hypnotized window shoppers. I am still hazy as to its mechanism but I can today, in my mind’s eye, follow the unvarying rhythm of that ball and chain as it wrapped itself about a small post at the left and then with metronomic regularity unwound itself to repeat the operation in the opposite directly. It never made a mistake. Each Sunday we thought it might and stopped to investigate. The face of the clock should have reminded us that we were dilly-dallying, but I doubt if we ever saw it. By the time we reached the temple of holiness we were not only late but slightly weary and generally without nickels for the collection basket. Only when Christmas shed its expectant glamour over the dingy classrooms did we perk up and listen to our Sunday school teachers.
One of my gifts – the pigtail which reached the hem of my skirt - when unloosed had large, lumpy, ‘Sutherland Sisters’ waves. I disliked wearing it unbraided. It was hot and sticky and everybody pulled at it but naturally I adored the admiration it excited even as I regretted the nuisance of it and the possession of a braid offered perquisites not to be scoffed at. The compensation was that I was reasonably sure of being selected for the role of a fairy or angel according to the script. Then I could carry a wand and wear a spangly dress, or soft cheesecloth with wings. If we gave a cantata I was even known to pull down the singing part which I executed in a faint and thin soprano with much encouragement from the director. It was not the hair alone which cast me in the role of singer, but the fact that I was regarded as a musical child. This coupled with my small size made me more clever than I was and gave me a distinct advantage.
Sunday school was peopled with colorful figures who moved about in mystifying roles. One of them was the clerk of the church who like many of the prominent churchmen always arrived in time for closing exercises. Mr. Patton was one of that large body of Christians who not only have no aversion to addressing the Lord extemporaneously in behalf of their brothers, but on the contrary, seem more or less eager to frame petitions to the giver of all things. He was a little man with very round shoulders and on Sundays wore a Prince Albert coat and as he spied about the Sunday school his coat tails seemed to catch the air and fly away from him excitedly. His diet list had excluded fats and his hands were very bony. As he rose to pray he would clasp his fingers like tentacles around the chair in front of him, close his eyes and lift his voice in supplication. His zeal was unsparing and his petitions poured out as from an unfailing font.
In addressing the Creator he employed an unvarying form.
“Our Heavenly Peerent,” he would say.
In the drugstore window on the way to Sunday school was an advertisement of ‘Selzer Aperient,’ and I thought he and the drug store had some secret connection. I was quite mature before I realized that he meant ‘parent.’ His prayers were punctuated with Biblical quotations that also confused me. When he would say,
“And if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me,” I envisaged an acrobatic feat quite out of the ordinary for Sunday school.
Church immediately followed Sunday school and presented the more formal aspect of religion. Since we had a nice pipe-organ and a good choir I was somewhat entertained. In fact, I didn’t mind it most of the time except for one drawback. Whenever the temperature of the church rose beyond a certain point, the wife of one of the elders was almost certain to have a fainting spell (the polite Presbyterian term for epilepsy) and have to be carried out. These interludes occurred with such regularity that the ushers were always prepared. Some churchgoers regarded them as bright spots which relieved the monotony of the service, but not I. They spoiled my zest for Sunday dinner and I could think of much pleasanter occupations.
I enjoyed looking at people’s back and clothes. If you inspected their fronts they were at the same time looking at you, while sitting in church you could see if their necks were clean, what the women’s bonnets were like and how far down the men shaved their necks. You could estimate too, the depth of their religion, whether they closed their eyes during prayer or peeped as I did.
I had no illusions whatsoever about my own piety. I knew that I was wholly worldly and secretly hoped that I would die of a lingering disease so that I would have time to go through a purifying process before Death plumped me into the ‘Bad Place.’ I wasn’t sure that I could finish with flags flying even under pressure but I was so rosy-cheeked and chubby that dying seemed remote. In case I was caught in an accident and died unexpectedly I leaned heavily on the hope that the Lord would show lenience because I was Mary’s little sister; Mary belonged to the church and was very religious. When the Sunday school offered a Bible as a prize for reciting the catechism, she won it (I meant to remind the Lord of that if I found myself in too tight a place.) For weeks before that event, as she hurried to school or on an errand, she walked to the steady incantation of ‘What is the chief end of man. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' (I learned that much myself but the reward of a Bible didn’t stir me. If the prize had been a ring or medal, I might have succumbed.)
In Mary’s case all one needed to do was to assure her that the thing was wicked and she would have nothing to do with it. It was equally effective in the negative and Maynard made free use of it.
“Mary, run and get me an apple.” he would say and when she wrathfully replied,
“I will not,” he would softly add, “Mary, it’s wicked, if you don’t.”
Mary would run as fast as her legs would carry her to fulfill his commission.
Church held another charm for me. On Sundays people smelled nice. I was very fond of perfume. All my senses were out for all they could get and my olfactories worked overtime. Father used Florida water and shared it with us and Mother had a small bottle of attar of roses. I think I must have liked heavy odors once upon a time but Mother cured me of that forever.
“Nice people use faint or delicate odors,” she said.
I liked cologne and said so.
“Did you know,” Mother said, realizing that she had lost the first skirmish, “that people who use strong perfumery sometimes do it to conceal the fact that they don’t take enough baths?”
No, I hadn’t heard of such a thing.
Then she proceeded to tell me about musk.
“Musk is the strongest, most lasting odor and it comes from the sac on a musk deer’s body.”
That sealed my doom, though I had heard her through. Up to that moment perfume had been redolent of honeysuckle and clover, of violets and May-apples in spring. Now it reeked of animals. With an inner shudder I reluctantly accepted her point of view and another beautiful illusion vanished. Suspicion was born too. From then on in church and elsewhere I stopped, sniffed, and suspected, and I shudder to think how many innocent and fine people were convicted under my suspicious nose.