Below is part of the new Epilogue of the memoir I’m writing. The book is about my and my family’s experiences living in Appalachian Ohio for thirteen years, years in which our children grew up, my wife, Kathy, rose through the ranks of a university, and I worked in book publishing, taught, and ran our sheep farm.
Now we’re on the cusp of leaving, a bittersweet time. My mother is ill. We’ve become empty-nesters. I’ve delivered a eulogy, in a rural Baptist church, for my farm helper, Sam. Kathy is on the job market again. I’ve sold most of our sheep. After a long ex-cathedra period—after having tried four churches in town—Kathy has dragged me to a church near our farm.
April 6, 2008. Kathy elbows me in the ribs as we sit in the pew of a country church less than a mile from our house. She has a red hymnal open to the service’s first song, “Morning Has Broken.” I’d learned its words back in Indiana so I could sing it to Tom every night as a bedtime lullaby.
I look around the sanctuary. Alexander Presbyterian Church’s crown molding is in the same local style our builders had crafted for our house from the oak we’d cut at Mossy Dell. On the church’s walls are three pictures of Jesus—my instant favorite an ornate lighted box behind the pulpit that contains a portrait of him in profile, gazing gently upward. With his soulful eyes and long sandy hair, he looks just like the actor who played him in Jesus Christ Superstar.
It’s the first time we’ve set foot in Alexander Presbyterian Church, founded in 1832, though for years we’ve admired it. With its Gothic stained-glass windows, pristine white clapboards, and red tin roof, the church is a landmark beside the Appalachian Highway that runs between Cincinnati and Athens. We’d visited its graveyard once, when Tom was in elementary school—for a class geology project he was identifying stones used for markers. I’d heard the Zimmermans [our farm’s previous owners] were buried there, but it had taken time that afternoon to find them amidst several acres of tombstones.
Keith’s and Hazel’s modest tan granite gravestones stood on either side of their daughter’s, which was three times as large. We saw from the dates that Betty had died two weeks before her sixteenth birthday, in 1943. I remembered Jim telling me in the barbershop that a softball had hit her in the stomach at school, and by the next day she was dead. Keith had lived on for forty-four more years. Hazel, who was only eighteen when she’d had Betty, survived her daughter by fifty-three years before dying at eighty-six.
In front of the family’s plot loomed a large gray stone for twenty-four-year-old Max Foster Zimmerman, who must have been Keith’s younger brother, killed in France in 1944. A hard blow that must have been, the year after Betty’s death. Standing in the wiry cemetery grass, I had tried to imagine the region in wartime. Just another rural backwater, but with stories going on—love affairs and sorrow, rumors and headlines, heat and flood, church suppers and Easter egg hunts.
Twelve years ago, in 1996, just after Hazel was laid to rest, we’d first driven past the cemetery. We were on our way to Athens. We couldn’t know that we also were on our way to buy the Zimmermans’ beloved farm. We couldn’t know that, a stone’s throw from our van, another little family’s story had just ended.
The choir enters, elderly women robed in bright blue, joined by the minister. Pastor Bob is a large, silver-haired older man with a benign round face. He wears eyeglasses and a black robe; his white stole is marked with the word Joy. We sing “Morning Has Broken,” and then pass the peace.
Everyone in the church, forty-three souls (someone records this on a signboard), mills and greets each other—no turning just to those beside you. The people are friendly and welcoming to us, too. I follow their lead and make my way to Wiley, a celebrity returned from illness, who at ninety-four remains sitting, dual canes flanking his legs. When I take his gnarled small hand I notice his firm grip, his youthful face.
“This always gets out of control,” Pastor Bob marvels. A moment before, after hearing requests for prayers for sick folk called out from the pews—too many pleas to remember—he’d mildly suggested that everyone fill out the blue prayer cards in the pews.
The scripture lesson is from Acts 16 and Pastor Bob begins by saying he has no idea why he picked it, the story of Paul’s journey through the East with Timothy. “If it fits you, listen,” he says. “Otherwise take a nap. Maybe I’m just talking to myself.” It seems the scripture’s point is that Paul had wanted to open his own church, but instead was sent or called on a pilgrimage to proselytize in the sticks.
Pastor Bob’s sermon expanding on the scripture’s theme is titled “Handling Second Choices.” He tells us how as a young man he’d been preparing to leave the four small Methodist churches he was serving in southern Indiana for Duke University’s seminary. He already had a wife, a young child, and a new baby on the way. By going, however, they’d be close to his parents and brother in North Carolina. Then he got a blinding headache one afternoon as he walked into his house. The pain was so intense—otherworldly—that finally he prayed for it to be lifted. He promised he’d do anything—even not leave. His pain vanished.
“Sometimes second choices are the right choices,” he says. “The only way you’re ever going to get over being second choice is to find people who need you and help them.”
I nudge Kathy in the ribs. She glances at me and raises her eyebrows. His story is so interesting, his mellow delivery so deft, that I want him to go on, to tell us about his seminary experience in Indiana, or wherever he’d ended up. Instead he jumps way ahead. A couple years ago, he’d been eager for retirement from the Methodist church in The Plains, north of Athens. But he heard Alexander Presbyterian had been struggling along without a minister.
“This church seemed to need me,” he says. “And I needed this church.”
His boyhood dream hadn’t been to be a preacher, he confesses. “A teacher said I had a good voice. We lived in Pittsburgh and I wanted to be the announcer for the Pirates. I hope you all don’t mind that you were my second choice.” Kathy and I would notice, as our Sundays went on, that Pastor Bob always returned his rapt flock to two principles: acceptance and forgiveness. He’d speak of his forgiveness of own harsh father, a hell-fire-and-brimstone Methodist, also a minister.
We sing “Day by Day and with Each Passing Moment,” a pretty old hymn. As we leave I shake Pastor Bob’s big hand, thank him, and say, “I think the Pirates still need your help.”
“They need money,” he says, smiling.
As we walk across the gravel lot to our van Kathy says, “There were a lot of signs.” An acquaintance of ours is always seeing signs.
“Yep. And he’s good.”
“Did you notice the congregation?” she asks.
“They really pay attention. They listened to him very carefully.”
Next: The congregation listens to Kathy.