Smells Like Church Spirit #1
(Warning: Long post - 2200 words)
(Disclaimer: I mean no disrespect to my parents and they know this is here. So much of this post is about years ago. To say things are different these days is quite the understatement. As my mother say, "people mellow with age." This statement rings true for both of my parents. )
The worst part of going to college 850 miles away from home was that the days of smelling roast when opening the door to our house after Sunday morning church were over. Nothing, I mean nothing, smells better than the savory aroma of my mother’s roast beef on Sunday afternoon after church. It was a reward for being good in church. It was a respite from the struggles of life. That smell was the promise of good things to come. Where there is aroma there is roast beef. Along with roast there was sure to be buttery mashed potatoes, as much as I wanted, with some delicious veggie on the side – peas were my favorite. No matter how long the sermon was, no matter if we sang dumb hymns like, "Mansion over the Hilltop," or hymns with the word "yonder" in it, no matter what Gilbert said during his unusual prayers, those experiences were erased at a single whiff of mom’s roast. That glorious scent of beef roasting in the oven was enough to compel me to do outrageous things. I was known, on occasion, to set the table and pour everyone’s drinks in preparation for the Sunday meal. Vacuuming the floor or peeling some potatoes was even in play if it meant getting to the good stuff. Those, my friends, were amazing feats for me. Certainly I would do these kinds of things under the threat of grounding, I’m not crazy, but it was the wonderful smell that compelled me above all other things. I think I need to say it like this: My mom’s roast beef had the power to heal.
It’s a good thing, too, because there was much to heal. I wish that I could say my church experiences were the worst of my problems, but they were not. My family was born in turmoil. My mother was pregnant with my older brother when she married my father. They were both seventeen years old. Dad had been living on his own for a year already because anything was better than enduring one more minute with his father. It was either move out on his own or kill his father. He chose wisely. Mom’s parents nearly boycotted the wedding because they were opposed to her marrying a "Black-Mexican." The cause of their objections were not only weird, they weren’t even accurate. If my father were, as they said, a Black-Mexican (whatever that means), who cares? I mean come on, this was Minnesota in the 1960’s. We all know that there are no racist people in Minnesota. Furthermore, dad was half Mexican, with a splash of Norwegian and Danish. The Black part didn’t even make sense. However, when you’re a Norwegian racist, I guess anything you don’t like is Black. I can’t be too hard on my grandmother. though, as she comes by it honestly. It’s like my great grandmother said once: "If you’re not Norwegian, you’re not nothing." How can you argue with that?
Usually when just-married couples leave the church house, people gather and throw rice or bird seed, even blow bubbles. The couple is smiling, excited, and can’t wait to head off for the honeymoon. Well, according to the wedding pictures I saw, mom was looking nice and sweet decked out in wedding garb while dad (wearing a suit for the first time in his life) was raising an angry fist to the photographer. I think the picture with his middle finger extended got edited out of the photo album.
Yes, my family was born into turmoil. After a couple years of marriage, my mom became a Christian and ruined everything. She was baptized while pregnant with me. When she gave her life to Christ and dad learned that this was for real, the puke hit the fan. Everything got worse. It was the beginning of family wars. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to cure these things, not cause them? Little did I know that the way of peace sometimes comes through the heat of fire.
One of the enduring wars in my family was determining who and what received family status. We always had pets - cats and dogs. There was a time when we had a bird, but after someone forgot to feed the cat for a week, Pussywillow learned how to open the cage and get some feathery food. The pets' family status changed from time to time. Sometimes they were very much family and sometimes they were prisoners destined for the kitty cat concentration camp. The dog was often exiled to the back yard in January – Minnesota January. Cuddly cats got family status, at least until they used the corner of the living room behind the couch as a litter box. Do you smell something? That was cause for pet demotion, usually a unilateral decision made by my dad. He would overstate his case (something he still does from time to time) by saying something like, "we’re getting rid of all these animals tomorrow, and we will never have another pet in this house again, ever, end of discussion!" in a loud and don’t-you-dare-oppose-me tone of voice. Do I need to say that this was actually the beginning of the discussion?
The problem with my parents’ relational chemistry was that when my mother heard that tone in dad’s voice, it was her invitation to defy him, not matter what he said. So the three kids sided with the pets in order to save their lives, mom sided with the kids, and dad was alone to fend for himself. You could see the storm brewing on the horizon, and then you heard in the distance something like:
Let’s get ready to rumblllllle!
When dad realized it was four cats & a dog, three children, and one wife on one side and only him on the other, it should have given him pause to rethink his position. It should have launched him into negotiations and the pursuit of solutions. It should have at least conjured up a let’s-talk-about-this-tomorrow posture in the corner of his mind. It should have, but it didn’t. Rather, we saw a look in his eye that let us know we were about to experience one of the Four Angers of My Father.
Dad had different angers for different situations. There was "generalized family anger." This anger included decisive overstatements, a raised voice, and mild profanity. He never dropped the F-bomb in front of the kids, but he was known to say things like: "Jesus H. Christ" in a frustrated tone. This exclamation mystified me completely. How did my dad, a man who didn’t even go to church, know Jesus’ middle initial? My preacher didn’t even know that. Although dad never told me, I just figured Jesus’ middle name was Horatio. It fit the pentameter. On rare occasions, dad would get all Catholic in his generalized family anger and would end a sentence with, "Mary, mother of God!" like some people say, "For crying out loud!"
Dad reserved a more intense anger which he kept securely within the marital unit, meant only to be spent on mom. I will call this "you kids get out of here" anger. There was a richer, more creative usage of profanity behind these closed door fights. Although it rarely happened, something could get broken, like a door or the wall, when he used this kind of anger.
My favorite of dad’s angers was his "anger at inanimate objects." In no other context could dad string together profanity that was so blue, so streaky, that it wove an almost beautiful verbal tapestry of vulgarity that could have easily landed him a role on the Sopranos. More often than not, this anger was unleashed on one of the many International Harvester Scouts (AKA "Route Trucks") he used for his other job, that of a newspaper route driver. It was dad’s sworn commitment never to buy a vehicle less than a decade old and fix it himself with only duct tape and bungee cords. So, the odds of a vehicle teasing out his rage was about the same as the sun rising. What was simultaneously hilarious and humiliating was that we would weave his tapestry of profanity in the drive way at 3:00 AM without any volume control whatsoever. If I could hear him from my basement bedroom, then the neighbors could too.
Finally, there was one more anger. I will call it the "arm wrestle and drink beer" anger. When dad needed to blow off some steam or fire some gun powder, he would enter arm wrestling tournaments at bars. This riled up my mother so badly because it was the opposite of her Christian faith. The worst was the time when dad won a tournament he was in and brought home the first place trophy. The trophy had to be 2 feet tall adorned with a gold cup propped up on top of a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He was quite proud of it and determined to showcase his prize in a prominent place in the house. Somehow my parents negotiated a compromise and settled on a spot in the basement TV room.
So, of the four angers available to my father, it first appeared like he would choose generalized family anger. This was not so bad because it all it amounted to was yelling. However, mom was our representative in this rumble and it quickly became a marital cage match - you kids get out of here! Pets and kids would only be called upon in extreme cases. Then the rumble began. It raged and raged, and all eight of us heard it like thunder through a canyon. When dad would cuss in a high pitched voice, which didn’t happen very often, we knew there was a chance something could get broken. When we heard that pitch, that almost-out-of-control wail in his voice, a wave of panic came over us similar to the feeling you get when you hear the tornado siren in the middle of a thunder storm. It’s the fear that, as bad as things are, they just might get worse.
As luck would have it, we did not hear the high pitched cussing. We felt great relief, when it was all said and done, as mom saved the pets. Mom won the battle and the pets stayed. Mom was our hero.
But dad would never admit defeat. Rather, he would find another front on which to fight. As much as the kids wanted the pets to have family status, dad wanted the TV to have family status. I learned of the depth of his commitment to his position one Sunday over roast beef.
Mom was determined to preserve the family meal around the table. She had pictures in her head of a happy family of five sitting around the table (pets under the table), passing the potatoes, smiling at each other, conversing about the important things in life – like you might see in the first five minutes of a Jimmy Stewart movie. Dad, however, was more interested in the Minnesota Vikings game on TV.
The horizon darkened again as we realized that today was the day when this ongoing battle was going to be decided once and for all. Would we be a sit-at-the-table family or a sit-in-front-of-the-TV family? After much fighting, fully leveraged with guilt, intimidation, manipulation, dad said, "Fine, I’ll sit at the table."
Although his heart was not the least bit into it, he did agree to sit at the table, and at that point, it was enough for mom. We all sat at the table ready to pray, roast on the platter and mashed potatoes steaming topped off with a pool of melted butter calling out to me. My older brother, Jay, said the prayer as we held hands around the table. I didn’t hear a word he said because I wanted to get into that roast.
"…in Jesus name, amen." The prayer ended and I reached for roast and everyone started passing bowls and plates of food. Everyone except dad, that is. He left and no one saw him. He returned in a minute with a sixth chair and set it about three feet away from the dinner table. This confused me and my younger sister and older brother. It did not, however, confuse my mother. She sighed with a frustrated sense of defeat. I learned why about five seconds later.
Dad left the room again. I didn’t care what he was up to; I was already into my second helping of mashed potatoes. He returned again with TV in hands. He placed the TV on the sixth chair, plugged it in, adjusted the rabbit ears, and tuned in the Vikings. After sitting down, dad gave mom a smug smile and invited the kids into the game. The TV had achieved family status and that made dad the hero this time. Mom knew she had been beaten and couldn’t lure the kids away from the game. This was not a battle she could win. So, after that we were a sit-in-front-of-the-TV family.
What was amazing, despite all of the turmoil our family got ourselves into, was the remarkable consistency of the glorious aroma of the roast. Its promises were never compromised. It was a recurring sense of security for me. It made enduring some ugly things not so bad because I could count on it.
Of all of the memories that could have poisoned me forever, it is the smell of roast that overpowers them all.