In my youth I was never a churchgoer. My father had no time for religion of any kind, and although I suspect that my mother would have liked to have gone occasionally, she would not defy my father’s will. The only exception to this was Christmas Eve, when our whole family attended the midnight service together. Apart from this annual event, my only other exposure to Christian worship before I moved to Canada was in school assemblies, which in my time customarily included the singing of a hymn, scripture reading, and prayer. These observances were conducted with varying degrees of conviction, depending on which of our teachers was the leader on any given day.
I had come to the habit of churchgoing in my years in Canada, and Kelly was the one who had led me to it. Her parents were devout Mennonite Christians, and Joe, Kelly and Krista had been raised in that tradition, but in her teens Kelly had rebelled, and had dropped out of churchgoing completely. However, at about the time we had met she had begun to search for a spiritual dimension to her life, and I had joined her in that quest. We had read and talked together about the issues, and gradually, as time went by, Christianity had come to make more and more sense to me. Kelly’s brother Joe was a strong and thoughtful Christian, and he and I had become very close friends. His words and his way of life had made a deep impression on me, building on my earlier encounters with Christian faith through my friendship with Owen.
Kelly and I had both been baptized as adults in September 1984, a month before we were married. Once Kelly returned to her childhood faith she never seemed to waiver in it, even in the last months of her life when her body was being ravaged by cancer. As for me, the sense of the reality of God was more of an occasional experience, although I had no doubt of the genuineness of Kelly’s faith. What I had definitely experienced, after her death, was the care of the members of our little church; it was only that, and the presence of my sister, which had made it possible for me to cope with the agony of bereavement. Our pastor, Dave Thiessen, had been my companion through my two years of life after Kelly, and under his guidance I had at last begun to feel that I was making some progress in my faith. As for Emma, she had been baptized a year ago at the age of sixteen, and I knew that her faith was very deep.
I was sure that if we went to church on our first Sunday in Northwood my father would have words to say about it; however, I also knew that if we were going to continue our habit of churchgoing, the only way was to start out as we meant to continue. So when we appeared at the breakfast table at about half past eight on that first Sunday morning, I decided to bring up the subject.
In the absence of company, breakfast and lunch at my parents’ home were usually eaten in the kitchen, a spacious room at the side of the house with a window looking out onto the courtyard and what had once been the stable buildings. Sunday breakfast was not a social occasion with my parents; my father usually read the ‘Sunday Times’, and my mother knew better than to interrupt him. On this particular morning I noticed that my father ate only half a slice of dry toast while scanning his newspaper. When we had finished our bacon and eggs and my mother was pouring the coffee, I cleared my throat and said “Emma and I will be leaving you for a while this morning; we’re going to church”.
My father lowered his newspaper to the table and looked at me scornfully; “Still participating in that rigmarole, are you?”
I glanced across the table at Emma; she had stopped eating her toast and was staring at him in surprise.
“It’s not a rigmarole to me, Dad” I replied. “It’s one of the ways I make sense of my life. So we’ll be heading along to church in a little while”.
He glanced at his granddaughter, looked back at me for a moment, and then shrugged his shoulders and reached for his newspaper again. “Please yourself”, he said; “Sunday dinner is at one”.
The sky that morning was a clear blue and the day was already pleasantly warm as Emma and I walked down to the village church together. I was noticing my six years away from Northwood; there was new construction all over the village, and a few of the old familiar buildings from my teenage years were gone. We passed the primary school that I had attended for one term after moving from Oxford, and the little corner newsagent’s shop where I had worked as a paperboy. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Emma said, “So Grandpa doesn’t believe in God?”
“Did you go to church at all when you were a boy?”
“Only at Christmas time. Remember that I only started getting interested in Christianity when I started to date your Mom”.
“Right. So have you ever been to this church that we’re going to this morning?”
“A few times on Christmas Eve, but that’s all”.
“But you’ve never been to an ordinary Sunday service with your Mom and Dad?”
She was quiet for a moment, and I felt her slip her hand into my arm. “And this is a Church of England church – that’s a little different from ours?”
“Yes, the service will have a written liturgy that the congregation and the pastor recite together. It’ll feel quite a lot like a Catholic service”.
“So why did you decide that we should go to this particular church today?”
“Well, it’s the village church, and I haven’t had time to find out if there’s a church like ours close at hand. But I wanted to set a pattern with your Grandpa the first Sunday we were here. If I put off going to church for a week until I could find exactly the kind of church I wanted, it would be harder to stand up for our family custom. He can be quite scornful about this sort of thing, as you’ve already seen”.
“I noticed that”.
The familiar bulk of the village church was looming ahead of us now, set in a spacious churchyard dotted here and there with old gravestones. We entered the church through a large pointed doorway; inside, the floor was polished stone, the walls were high and covered in off-white plaster, and there were thick pillars supporting the upper walls on either side of the nave. The altar seemed far distant, standing under the stained glass windows at the eastern end of the building.
The dark wooden pews were beginning to fill up, although I could see that there were many empty spaces. An elderly lady with a big smile greeted us and handed us our books, and we took our seats near the back, just across from the porch where we had come in. I looked around, noticing that most of the people assembling for the service were dressed more formally than we were; Emma was in jeans, and I was wearing cargo pants and a summer shirt.
Emma was looking up at the latticework on the ceiling. “This is amazing, Dad!” she whispered. “How old is this church?”
“If I remember correctly, a lot of it is fifteenth century”, I replied. “Most of the woodwork is Victorian, though”.
A few minutes later the service began. Some of the rituals were indeed strange to us, and occasionally we had to watch our neighbours for our cue as to what was expected of us. However, the minister preached a fine, practical sermon with plenty of food for thought, and I quickly found myself warming to him. After the service ended there was a moment of quiet while people knelt for prayer; our church at home had a similar custom, and Emma always bowed her head for a long time at this point; I suspected that she was talking to God about Kelly, although I had never asked her about it. When the organist started to play the postlude, people began to rise gratefully from their knees and greet their friends and neighbours. A few people smiled at us, and at the door the minister shook our hands and greeted us cheerfully.
Outside, the sun was now riding high in the sky, and people were out enjoying it. Couples were walking with their children, and the road beside us was busy with cars and bicycles. I took a detour on the way back to my parents’ home so that we could walk beside the river; several boats were moving on the water, and I pointed out to Emma the little wooden jetty that Owen’s family had used for their canoeing during our teenage years. Emma and I both enjoyed canoeing, and we agreed together that we would beg or borrow the use of a canoe as soon as possible. “Owen’s got one”, I said, “and I won’t be surprised if Becca has too”.
“Didn’t you teach Becca canoeing when she was little?”
“I did – she was eight years old the first time I took her out on the river”.
“She told me about that once. How come you guys didn’t go punting or rowing – aren’t they the Oxford things to do?”
“I’ve been punting, but I don’t like it as much. I’ve never rowed; it was always more of a competitive sport, and I was never really into that. I liked exploring, so a canoe felt just right”.
“And very Canadian, too!”
“Yeah – that was a happy coincidence”.
I was curious about her reaction to the service we had just attended. “What did you think of church this morning?” I asked.
“Like you said, it felt a lot like a Catholic service. If I’d been more used to it, I’m sure it wouldn’t have felt so awkward. But there were some things I missed”.
“Well, I like it in our church when people get to share about what’s happening in their lives and bring prayer requests. And I like that there isn’t just one person leading; it feels more like a community when people are getting up from the congregation to lead parts of the service. I didn’t get the sense that the folks this morning were really all that interested in each other. And then I also wondered about the ornate building, you know, and the things Jesus says about not storing up treasures on earth and all that. Still, it wasn’t bad; I liked the minister’s sermon”.
“So did I”.
“I don’t know if I want to go there all the time, though”.
“No – after we get a place of our own we’ll have a look around and see if we can find something a little more like our church back home”.
That afternoon Emma and my mother were both busy in other parts of the house, and I found myself alone with my father. He looked tired and pale after Sunday dinner, but to my surprise he suggested we take a walk around the garden. The afternoon was warm and muggy; he was wearing a white shirt and a pair of old grey trousers, and I had changed after dinner into shorts, tee shirt and sandals.
Gardening was my father’s only real relaxation. Growing flowers has never held any real attraction for me, although I quite enjoy vegetable gardening. Nevertheless, I strolled along beside him and listened as he pointed out the various plants in their beds and described the processes by which they had been raised to their present state of maturity. I knew from long experience that he was rarely happier than when he could talk about his plants.
After taking a turn around the garden, we went back to his greenhouse and sat down together on a wooden bench outside the door. He took off his glasses, wiped them with his handkerchief, and dabbed at his sweating brow. “The heat’s a bit too much for me”, he said.
“How have you been feeling?”
“Oh, fine, fine. A bit tired, of course, but that’s only to be expected”.
“So, you’re having chemotherapy once a week?” I asked hesitantly.
He shot me a suspicious glance, put his glasses back on, and said, “That’s what’s supposed to be happening, but it doesn’t always work out; the damn doctors can’t seem to get things right”.
“Your white blood cells don’t build back up the way they should?”
Again he gave me that sideways glance. “Yes, I suppose you know about all that stuff. Did your wife have chemotherapy too?”
“Chemo, and radiation – not that either of them did her a lot of good in the end”.
“Well, I’m not going to let this thing lick me”, he asserted. “I’m sure I’ll be fine once the doctors get my treatment right”.
“What exactly are they saying?”
He looked up at me sharply; “What’s your sister been telling you?”
“She says they gave you two years at the most”.
“Then why are you asking me? I know you and Becca are as thick as thieves. I suppose you’re looking forward to a nice fat inheritance; that’s why you’ve come scurrying back after all these years”.
I stared at him; “You think?”
“Well, it seems quite a coincidence that after staying away for all these years, you’d decide to come back just when you think I’m dying!”
I was quiet for a few minutes, hoping that my silence would ease the confrontational tone the conversation had taken. But he had another issue he wanted to raise with me, and after a moment he said, “I’m surprised that an educated man like you still carries on with churchgoing; I know your wife introduced you to religion, but I had hoped that by now you’d have been able to see through all of that”.
I paused, suppressing my initial gut reaction. “I just see things a little differently, that’s all. As I said this morning, it isn’t just a rigmarole to me; it’s how I make sense of my life”.
“So you actually believe all that stuff?”
I sat silently for a few moments, dreading the continuation of this conversation. I knew very well the form it would take; I would trot out my reasons for believing in God, he would demolish them with faultless courtroom logic, and then be absolutely unable to understand why I refused to abandon my beliefs because of his arguments. He would get more and more worked up about it, I would retreat more and more into my shell, and the controversy would end with him losing his temper and storming off in a rage.
“I’m not quite sure why you feel the need to have this conversation”, I said.
“What’s the matter – are you afraid I’ll talk you out of your faith?”
“I didn’t come to my faith through arguments; I came to it through a sense of need”.
“That’s pure wish-fulfilment, and you know it. You’ve adopted religion as a crutch for your weakness”.
“Well, sometimes when you’ve got a broken leg, a crutch is a good thing”.
“So you admit that you’ve only adopted religion out of weakness?”
“Would it make you feel any better if I did admit it?”
“Of course not; I’ve always known you preferred to follow sentiment over reason, but I don’t have to like the fact”.
“Can we just accept that I believe in God and you don’t, and leave it at that?”
“You’ve allowed sentiment to twist your logic again, just like you did when you decided to become a teacher because of your sentimental attachment to George Foster. Sentiment is all very well, Tom, but you need reason and common sense if you’re going to be able to deal with the real world, not some make-believe fantasy”.
“Make-believe fantasy? That’s the life I shared with Kelly, is it?”
“Now, there’s no need to take it personally; that’s another weakness of yours”.
“Thanks, Dad”, I responded icily; “I really need you to point out my weaknesses!”
“There you go again! There’s no need to get so upset about it!”
I got to my feet and turned to face him. “Dad, I really don’t want to continue this conversation. I don’t feel the need to set you straight about your atheism, and I don’t understand why you feel you have to set me straight about my faith in God. I’m going to go find Emma and see what she’s doing”.
As I went into the house I was mentally kicking myself for losing my temper with him and for allowing him to intimidate me with his barrister’s logic. What sort of a believer was I, when I couldn’t even assemble a rational argument for the existence of God that would be convincing to my father? Was my faith so feeble that I was afraid of even entering into a discussion with him?
No, I decided, it wasn’t. The problem was that, with my father, it would not be a discussion. It would be a courtroom debate, and for forty years his livelihood had depended on winning such debates. I had once had the opportunity to watch him in action in a courtroom. His logic had been flawless, his rhetoric persuasive, his command of the English language masterful. I could see immediately why he had made such a success of his profession as a barrister.
One thing he had never been good at, however, was a genuine discussion; the one consideration that would never enter his mind was that he might be wrong. I knew that if I was ever going to persuade him that there might be some validity to faith in God, it was unlikely to happen by the avenue of logic, because by that avenue he could wipe the floor with me every time. I had experienced that unpleasant sensation too many times in my childhood to relish the thought of its repetition now that I was in my forties.
My body had still not adjusted to the time difference between Saskatchewan and England, and later in the afternoon I went up to my room to have a nap. When I woke up after an hour’s sleep I could hear the sound of guitar music somewhere in the house. There was a small sink by the window in my bedroom; I went over to it, splashed some water on my face, combed my hair, and slipped quietly downstairs. The music was coming from the living room; I put my head around the door and saw Emma and her cousin Eric sitting on easy chairs across the empty fireplace from each other, playing their guitars. Eric was a pale young man with short dark hair, and this afternoon he was wearing jeans and a plain black tee-shirt. I could see immediately that he was a lot less accomplished as a guitarist than Emma, but I assumed that, being a little younger than her, he had not been playing as long. They were playing a song together that was unknown to me; Emma was singing, and also picking out a nice fingerstyle accompaniment. I stood at the door listening until they were finished, then applauded quietly as I slipped into the room and sat down opposite them.
“How long have you been standing there?” Emma asked with a smile.
“Just since the beginning of the song. How long have you been playing, Eric?”
“A year. I’m not very good yet; Emma’s a lot better than me”.
“And my Dad’s the best of all”, Emma added. “Do you want to play, Dad?”
“No, I’m quite happy to listen. Are you here by yourself, Eric?”
“No; the others are out behind the house having lemonade”.
“Play something else; I’m not really awake yet, so I’ll just sit here and wake up while you play”.
Emma laughed; “Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t we supposed to play you to sleep?”
“What else can you play?” Eric asked her. “Do you know any newer stuff?”
They compared musical notes for a minute, agreed on another tune I had never heard of, and started to play again. This time they both sang together; Eric had a fine voice, but I noticed again that his playing was not as smooth as Emma’s. When the song ended, he apologized to her for fumbling some of the chords, but she smiled reassuringly and told him it had sounded fine.
He gestured toward her guitar; “What sort of guitar is that?” he asked.
“It’s a Seagull; it’s a Canadian make, from Quebec. Dad got it for me; you should see his guitar, if you want to see a really nice one. It’s a Larrivée”.
“Mine’s just a cheap guitar”, Eric observed with a shrug. “Perhaps one day…”
I sat with them for about half an hour, listening to their music and joining in their conversation between songs. Eventually I got to my feet; “Sounding good, guys”, I said. “Keep it up; I’m going to find the others”.
I slipped out of the living room and crossed the hallway toward the back of the house. There was a large room there which at one time had probably been used for formal dances; it was almost empty now, with only my mother’s upright piano sitting in one corner, and a couple of armchairs scattered around the room. At the back, French windows opened onto an enclosed garden surrounded by a brick wall; beyond the wall was the orchard. My parents were sitting out there on the stone patio with Alyson, a jug of lemonade and some glasses on the table in front of them; there was no sign of Rick’s two younger children. Alyson was dressed for the heat of the afternoon in a loose sleeveless dress and a white sun hat. She was the first to see me; she gave me a warm smile as I slipped out onto the patio and dropped into a lawn chair across from her. “Still getting over your jet lag, Tom?” she asked.
“Apparently. Where’s Rick?”
“Unfortunately he had to go in to work for a while this afternoon”.
“Does he often work on Sundays?”
She shrugged; “I’m afraid so”.
“Are Sarah and Anna here?”
“They’re swimming in the lake”, my mother said. “Did you pass the musicians on your way out?”
“Emma plays very well”, Alyson said.
“She’s been at it for about four years now”.
“Did you teach her?”
“Well, it started out that way, but she had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to learn, and after a while I just got out of the way and let her learn it”.
“What sort of thing does she like to play?”
“She’s picked up some of my taste for folk music, but she also likes some light rock. She and her cousin Jake play bluegrass and country music, too, so her tastes are actually quite eclectic”.
My father had been listening quietly; he was wearing a panama hat to shade his head from the bright sunlight, and I noticed again how pale and tired he looked. “What are Emma’s plans?” he asked me.
“She’s planning to look for work once the summer’s over. If she can’t find paying employment, she’s quite happy to volunteer in a seniors’ home; she’s done that sort of thing before. But I think she’s hoping we get to do a bit of travelling before the summer’s out. I’d like that too, if the house hunting goes well. Emma likes history, so I’d like to show her around a bit”.
“You’re going to look for a house, are you?” Alyson asked.
“Yes; I’d prefer to be in walking distance of the school if I could be”, I replied, “although I know that might not be possible”.
My father shook his head; “Headington’s expensive”, he said; “You won’t find much in your price range”.
“Are you going to buy or rent?” Alyson asked.
“Either would be fine”.
“Buying is always a better idea”, my father said; “When you rent, you’re just pouring money down the drain with nothing to show for it at the end of the day”.
My mother changed the subject; “Have you got any definite ideas about places you’d like to go on your holiday?”
“Nothing definite yet. Becca’s been talking about a trip to York, perhaps by way of Lincoln. She’s hoping to get a week off some time in August, I think. If it’s later in the month, Becca and Emma will go by themselves; if it’s earlier, I’ll go with them”. I leaned forward and poured myself a glass of lemonade. “Are your kids doing anything for the summer?” I asked Alyson.
“We’ve got no concrete plans either”, Alyson replied. “We’ll probably do some day trips. Eric’s just started working at a greenhouse since school ended; it’s the first time he’s had a summer job. And Rick’s having trouble getting out of the office at the moment. Not that that’s an unusual situation, of course – there are very few times when he doesn’t have trouble getting out of the office”.
“Occupational hazard for a barrister, I’m afraid”, my father said.
“It makes family holidays a bit difficult, though”, Alyson said. “I get a month off in the summer, but we rarely manage to get away for more than a week together. Do you and Emma take family holidays together, Tom?”
“Ah, well, I’m a teacher, you know, so I’m used to long lazy summers. When Kelly was alive we used to take family camping holidays a lot; we’d pack a tent and a canoe and take off for several weeks each summer. Emma and I still like to do that”.
At that moment Emma and Eric appeared in the doorway; I noticed that she had put her hair into a ponytail and had donned a baseball cap to shade her face. I smiled at her; “Come to join the old folks?” I asked.
“We’re getting thirsty”, she replied.
“Come and sit down”, my mother said; “The lemonade’s almost finished, but I can easily go in and make some more”.
“I’ll do that, Mum”, I said, getting to my feet and reaching for the pitcher; “You stay right where you are”.
“Are you sure? Do you know where to find the mix?”
“Oh yeah; I’ll be back in a minute”. I gave my mother a smile, then turned, slipped into the house and made my way back to the kitchen.