A couple weeks ago I went to Floweree to spend the weekend with Karen. Our friend Luana joined us for lunch. After we ate, we piled into Karen’s car and explored the back roads, down to the Missouri and the Carter Ferry. If black clouds had not been roiling over the mountains, we would have crossed the river on the ferry, driven dirt roads to Highwood and circled into Great Falls. Instead, we back-tracked through Carter, dug out a yucca plant we spotted along the roadside for me to add to my garden, and then headed north for several miles of sightseeing along the Teton. We wound up in Fort Benton, strolled across the walking bridge, took pictures, cruised the streets. We each had memory stories of times past, some good, some bad. As darkness fell, we headed home for pizza.
Sunday morning Karen invited me to go to church with her. It would be the first Sunday she had been back to church since her husband died. The women of the Carter Methodist Church had provided strong support for Karen during Don’s lengthy illness. They catered food for the funeral held among the flower beds in Karen’s spacious yard. They kept her freezer loaded with casseroles for those first empty days alone. In this country we do know how to love with food.
If I sent you to the Methodist Church in Carter, you would identify it instantly; the little white clapboard country church with the bell in the steeple. You could cut it out and paste it into any small town in Montana. The bustling congregation enfolded Karen and greeted me with warmth, hugs and handshakes.
At the beginning of the service, Evelyn, the minister, gathered the younger children around her on the steps below the pulpit. There must have been a dozen little kids. I’m sure Evelyn intended her lesson about Heaven to be interactive because she started with questions, a tactic not without inherent dangers.
I don’t have her questions in any correct order, but this is the way I remember it.
“What do we have to do to get to heaven?” Evelyn posed.
“Die,” answered a dark-haired boy, leaning against her on her left side, wildly waving his arm in the air.
That threw Evelyn for a moment, but she gamely waded back where angels rightly fear to tread. She tried to steer their little minds in a different direction by rewording the question.
“Who gets to go to heaven?”
“People who die,” answered a little girl sitting on the step slightly behind her.
“But does everybody who dies get to go to heaven?”
“Yes,” the youngsters all agreed, vigorously.
“But what about bad people; what happens to bad people when they die?” And with this question Evelyn pointedly jabbed her forefinger downward toward the floor. “Where do they go?”
“Into the ground?” answered the little boy. He was obviously a creative thinker.
Evelyn attempted to reroute the discussion onto a safer road. “What do you think heaven will be like?”
Silence for a full minute. We adults ruminated on angels, harps, saints and clouds. The kids were mum.
“Will we need anything when we go to heaven?” Evelyn continued bravely.
“Cash,” shouted the same little boy. By now I had fallen in love with him.
Evelyn asked no more questions, wrapped up her lesson, sent the children elsewhere to color pictures, and painfully got up from her perch on the low steps.
“I’ll bet you thought I lost control there for a minute,” she said to us, revealing a wry sense of humor.
On my long drive home to Harlem, I thought about this fearless little boy. When I was his age, I certainly thought my own original thoughts. But, unlike him, I felt I had to keep them to myself. I spoke only the rote catechism I had memorized. I would not have dared be impertinent, to ask the questions I held in my mind, to risk the wrath of Sister Mary Francis or the fury of my family.
That evening I planted my yucca in a corner of my yard. I surrounded it with a blanket of gravel. It looks quite content in its new home. Maybe it thinks it died and went to heaven.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little different. Keep in touch with her at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)