Fall 2014

Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright



Nonfiction

A Month of Sundays

Lee Martin


1. I was born on a Sunday morning in October. According to the old fortune-telling rhyme, I was a child meant to be bonny and blithe and good and gay. Born on the Sabbath Day, a time of rest and worship.  

My mother took me to church when I was a boy. We sat on the hard wooden pews of the one-room country church those Sunday mornings. In the winter, a coal stove burned at the rear of the church and women kept their coats draped over their shoulders. Out the church windows, I could see the corn stubble poking up through the snow in the fallow fields. In the summer, wasps flew in through the unscreened windows, propped up with the sawed-off ends of broomsticks, and I listened to the wind as it moved through the leaves of the giant oaks that surrounded the clapboard-covered church. The Church of Christ, one of two churches in Berryville, Illinois, a tiny village of a dozen or so houses and a general store. We had no piano or organ, and when we sang our hymns, we did so in voices that seemed flat and joyless. As flat as the land stretching off to the horizon, as dutiful as the gravel roads that ran straight and intersected in a grid of neatly sectioned plots, as tightly wound as the barbed wire fencing off the fields. I loved the church, in part because I was an only child who often felt lonely on our farm and there were other children to play with after the service was done, and also because I liked being away from my father and his anger. I liked feeling the heat of the coal stove in winter as I snuggled up close to my mother. I watched the snow drift down on the fields, and I let the drone of the preacher’s voice lull me to sleep. Or I followed the flight of the wasps in summer and listened to the birdsong in the oaks and felt the air stirred by the cardboard fans that the women used to cool themselves, the fans that advertised the Ingram Funeral home in West Salem. I had no reason to be on guard against my father’s temper, then—no cause to worry over what I might do or say to make him take off his belt and whip me. In church, I was with my mother, and there she could take care of me the way she sometimes couldn’t in our home where moments of boredom or joy could turn ugly in a snap if something displeased my father.  

How long had it been since he’d come to church? Not in a month of Sundays, which I knew, even as a child, was a very, very long time. 

I have to think he always believed—believed in some sort of redemption, some sort of grace, something that waited for him on the other side of the farming accident that cost him both of his hands. I write about that accident—the one that happened when he tried to clear the shucking box on his corn picker without first shutting down the power take-off—again and again as I try to make sense of the story of our days. The anger, the love, the struggle, the yearning. If he doesn’t have some sort of faith in a life beyond this one—if he doesn’t have hope—all I’m left with is the story my mother told me after he was dead, the story of what he said to the doctor when he first found out my mother, at age forty-four, was pregnant: “Can you get rid of it?” my father asked. That’s a story I’d rewrite if I could. I’d turn it into a story of joy everlasting, for I was his only son and I still wish he’d loved me intensely and immediately—loved me so much it would have been impossible for him to say those words. 

We’re sitting in a smorgasbord restaurant somewhere north of Cissna Park, Illinois, on Easter Sunday, my parents and I, because we live in Oak Forest, a southern suburb of Chicago, during the school year now. My mother lost her teaching position downstate because the school board thought she was too lax with her discipline of her students, and my father thought we couldn’t do without her salary. So we live “up north” where my mother teaches the third grade. We make the five-hour drive south on weekends in good weather to check on our farm where we spend our holidays and summers. On Sundays during the school year, we make the drive back to the apartment we rent. On this Sunday, it’s raining. We sit near a window and I watch the rain streak the glass. My mother by nature is soft-spoken and meek. I’ll inherit that from her and add to it just enough of my father’s fire to give me a temper of my own that will take some years to finally learn to control. My mother bows her head, closes her eyes, and says a silent prayer before picking up her fork to eat. My father manages his fork with his prosthetic hands. I know the other diners are watching him. Although on occasion they bother me, for the most part I’ve become accustomed to their stares. This is my father the way I’ve always known him. After awhile, other people’s curiosity starts to bore me. My mother turns to look out the window. She’s fifty-five years old and in the midst of a life she never could have imagined for herself: married, a mother, and a caretaker for her husband who relies on her for so much. I wonder whether on some days, like this one, perhaps, she dreams of a different life. Does she dream of escape? She looks out on the dreary day, and then in a quiet voice, barely audible, she says, “Guess it’ll rain the next seven Sundays.” “Why?” I ask her. Suddenly I’m fascinated by her weather forecasting. My mother, who always seemed rather ordinary to me, has turned into a prognosticator. “Because it’s raining on Easter,” she says. “If it rains on Easter, it’ll rain seven Sundays in a row.” She turns back to her plate of food. “It’s just a saying,” she says. “That’s all.” Then we all return to our meal, this odd family of a ten-year old boy and his aging parents—the father happens to have artificial hands—this family a long way from home, both the one they’re going to and the one they’ve left behind.  

 

 

2. When we lived on the farm, Sunday afternoons were often spent visiting. My father, who always seemed in a better mood on this day of rest would say, “Let’s go for a drive.” We’d stop at the houses of people I didn’t know, many of them elderly and infirm, folks my parents knew, and I’d try to behave myself while we sat in dimly lit living rooms with cuckoo clocks on the walls, or feeble dogs whimpering in their sleep by fuel oil heating stoves, or pianos that no one played because the children who had learned to play them were grown and gone. “It’s a misery,” a woman said once—a widow woman who lived alone in a farmhouse that smelled of the cracked Linoleum floors, the old wallpaper, the worn quilt across her legs. “Just a misery,” she said, and though she was talking about the cold she’d been suffering, I somehow knew she was also talking about a life lived alone.  

I knew what it was to be alone. An only child, I spent countless hours entertaining myself. I made up all sorts of games. I read. I watched television. I walked back into the woods on our farm to see what I could see. Sometimes, when loneliness became too much for me, I stood in the yard and looked across the field to the next farm to the north, hoping that I might see the children who lived there moving about their yard, or, better yet, setting out across that field to come and play with me. My parents were too busy to give me much attention. Even on weekends, when my mother wasn’t teaching, she was cleaning house, doing laundry, cooking, and helping my father with the farm chores. When I was very young, I kept asking her to please, please, please play with me. “Oh, Lee, I’ve so much to do,” she said, and then she promised me that soon she’d set aside the entire day to do nothing but play games with me. It was a promise that I often reminded her of until finally so much time passed it became clear to both of us that such a day was never going to come. I stopped saying anything about it so as not to embarrass either one of us. “You want something to do?” my father said in a gruff voice. “Well, Mister, I can give you something to do.” 

As I grew into my teenage years, I helped him on the farm, rising early to work on broken machinery; to tote buckets of soybeans to the planter boxes whenever he needed them filled in order to keep sowing a field; to walk the rows of that field weeks later, hoe in hand, cutting out pokeberry and jimson weed. I remember afternoons when clouds gathered over the fields and the air smelled like rain, and my father finally said, “C’mon.”  

He drove the tractor into the machine shed. I parked the truck in the farmyard and made sure the windows were up. We met on the front porch of the house, and he told me to fetch us Pepsi-Colas. We sat in folding lawn chairs and drank, watching the rain come across the fields, moving up our lane, until finally it was upon us and we had to scoot our chairs a little farther back on the porch. I remember how the rain dripped from the leaves of the maple tree in our front yard. The wind came up and the air cooled, and we had nothing to do but to sit and watch as the rain kept falling. I remember the ecstasy of it. I remember the release from labor. I remember my father saying, “Just look at it come down.” And that’s what we did; we sat there and watched it rain. Sometimes in the field, he’d lift his head and look off toward the horizon. “Hear them?” he’d say, and I’d listen to the mournful call of yellow-billed cuckoos. “Rain crows,” he’d say and then he’d be still, and in his silence, I’d feel his hope, his longing. I’d know his want. Now when I think back on these moments, it seems to me that it was a want born from that moment in the corn field when the snapping rollers of the picker’s shucking box caught first one hand, and then, when he tried to free it, pulled in the other, that moment when his life separated into before and after, that moment he’d always wish he could change. “Just listen to them calling for rain,” he’d say in a whisper those days when the rain crows were calling. “Mercy, just listen.” 

One Sunday night when we were living on the farm for the summer, a storm blew in, the rain coming in gusts that rattled against our windows. Great claps of thunder and lightning that lit up the outside when it flashed. We lost our electricity and my mother lit a kerosene lamp and we sat around it at our kitchen table while it rained and rained. It rained so hard, and the noise of it against our roof was so loud, we hardly said a word. Then my father spoke. He said, “God promised he’d never again destroy the earth with a flood.” In that instant, my father became strange to me. I had no idea that he knew anything from the Bible at all, and hearing him refer to the scripture, I glimpsed a part of him that mystified me. It would take years for me to fully know that part of him, the part that believed. I’d see it eventually when he’d start attending church with my mother and me. I’d see it on a Sunday night in winter when he’d answer the preacher’s invitation, asking to be forgiven for his sins. Now I see it in what he left behind when he died. The pages of a prayer he wrote in his shaky scrawl to he’d be prepared to deliver it in church. Dear Heavenly Father, that prayer begins. We come before thee at this time thanking you for the first day of the week. His New Testament, the corners of the pages creased from where he clamped them between the pincers of his hooks. I see how desperately he wanted to hold on to his faith. I can only imagine now that he must have let it go after his accident and it took a long time for him to find it again.  

Sometimes I wake on Sunday mornings with the feeling that there’s somewhere I’m supposed to be. I call back the memory of the churches of my childhood:  the hard wooden pews, the dusty smell of the hymnals, the thimble-sized communion cups half-full of Welch’s grape juice, the Saltine cracker from which the believers broke a piece of the body of Christ, the red-edged pages of New Testaments, the preacher extending the invitation to salvation— Jesus is waiting. Won’t you come to him now? I was fifteen when I accepted the call, and I still remember the feeling that filled me after my baptism, this feeling of life starting again, of all my wrong steps being cleansed, of every sin forgiven. This was love, my mother told me. This was Christ’s love. Although I eventually dropped away from the fold, and remain outside it even today, I never forgot that lesson. I never forgot that when you truly and wholly love someone, you forgive them for falling short, forgive them the injuries they bring you, forgive them for being less than what you want them to be. All the while I basked in the warm comfort of this new life after my baptism, I began to see how my mother’s faith—her refusal to stop loving my father no matter the ugliness of the temper that sprang up in him after his accident—might just be enough to save us.  

In the last years of my mother’s life, when I lived away from her, we had the habit of talking on the phone on Sunday afternoons or writing letters to each other. My father was dead, and she’d moved into her widowhood. I know she would have preferred to have me closer to her, but she rarely complained about the distance. Instead, she stuck to the facts of her life after my father’s death. In letters and during phone calls, she left me with an indelible impression of a life lived alone: a boy from the church was mowing her yard, she was having new countertops put on, one of her friends had taken her to Vincennes to do some shopping and to eat at the Sirloin Stockade Steakhouse. Only rarely did she make reference to the fact that I’d left the church. “With my heart full of love,” she wrote in one letter, “I will say if you could only really get interested in church, things would be perfect!” My mother wasn’t a woman who spoke or wrote in sentences that deserved exclamation points. Her use of one in this letter is evidence of how much she longed for my return. When she was finally aphasic in the nursing home, my aunt and uncle and cousin would visit her on Sundays. When they were ready to leave, they would stand in a circle, hands clasped, and recite the Lord’s Prayer. My mother, who could no longer put words into sentences, would recite every line without a glitch. Even then, her faith endured. 

From one of my mother’s Sunday letters to me:  “The little garden I have planted just stands there. No potatoes ever came up. I don't know if it will grow when it warms up or not. If it does we might have some spinach or lettuce when you come home. But I can't promise any. I've been using onions from those I set out last fall. I want to get some cabbage and cauliflower as soon as the stores get their plants.” 

What I hear beneath her words:  My life is barren, but still I hope. I see the truth of my days, but still I have faith. Always, faith.  

 

 

3. And then in the middle of my life, on a Sunday in September, a blood clot travels to my brain. I know right away that I’m having a stroke. My vision closes in at the periphery. My right arm and right leg become dead weights I can’t move. My tongue is thick in my mouth and the sounds I make are nothing like the words I try to say. I give myself over to the attentions of others. My wife calls 911, and as I try to stand, she says, “Stay there. Don’t try to get up. They’re coming.” The EMT asks me my name, and I hear a strange, strangled voice respond. “Lee,” I say. “My name is Lee.” At the emergency room, the neurologist says he wants to start the clot-busting medicine, tPA, which carries with it the risk of causing a brain bleed, but is, he assures me, my best chance for recovery. I give him a thumb’s up. I’m in the hands of the doctors and nurses now. I know that, but I can’t help wondering if I’m also in my mother’s hands—if the stir of air I feel around me is her spirit come to tell me everything will be all right if only I’ll believe, if only I’ll call upon God to heal me. And so I begin to say a silent prayer. “Please, dear God,” I say, and then I stop, unsure of what should come next. Then I remember what my mother used to tell me those days when I felt lost within my father’s rage: “Tell God what you want. Ask him to help you, and he will.” 

From the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  

I remember when I was a very small child, my mother read to me from A Big Golden Book, Dale Evans Prayer Book for Children. Dale Evans, “Queen of the West,” the wife of Roy Rogers, the square-dealing, “King of the Cowboys.” They stood for all things decent and right, and as hokey as that may seem these days, I still look back at the boy I was and my mother’s attempts to keep reminding me of everything that was good in the world, with great affection. She was no Dale Evans, mind you. She couldn’t do rope tricks, couldn’t ride, couldn’t sing worth a lick. But she was a mother who wanted her son to know he was loved. From this book, I learned my first prayer of gratitude: “God is great and God is good/And we thank him for our food.” And I learned how to ask God to take care of me: “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” No matter how far I’d eventually travel from that simple faith, I’d never be able to completely forsake it. I’d carry it with me through everything that lay ahead. I wish my mother were still alive so I could tell her this: her efforts weren’t in vain; I can still hear her gentle voice reading from that prayer book, as she sat on the edge of my bed and I repeated the words she said, taking them in, feeling the goodness of her love.  

That first night in the hospital, I lie awake, pole-axed by the fact of my stroke, stunned beyond belief that this has happened to me. Even though the tPA has done its job, dissolving the clot and giving me back the power of speech and the use of the right side of my body, I’m in a very strange place of being “the man who had a stroke,” and I don’t know how to deal with that. I know that tomorrow I’ll have to let my colleagues and students know what’s happened and that grieves me because I’ve never wanted to be the person who needs help or sympathy. I don’t know how long I’ll be in the hospital or whether I’ll fully recover from the stroke. I don’t know what the tests that are to come will reveal. I’m vulnerable now and uncertain. I’m even afraid to go to sleep for fear that another stroke will come.  

I think of my father at the moment when he knew his hands were caught in the rollers of that picker’s shucking box and no one was nearby to help him. I think of my mother living alone in her widowhood and suffering who knows how many small strokes, the TIAs that nibbled at her brain until she slipped into dementia and became lost to me forever. I think of how we were a family—always a family even when it appeared we were coming apart—and how much faith it took in one another to keep believing that one day things would be better. “Your father loves you,” my mother kept telling me in those dark teenage years when he and I were always fighting. “And you love him.” It took this faith in our better parts to give us confidence in the future; that’s what my mother was telling me. “You wouldn’t get so angry with each other if you didn’t.” I think of all of this as I lie in my hospital bed and ask a God I’m still not convinced is there to watch over me.  

A patent foramen ovale, that’s what caused my stroke. A hole between the atria of my heart that allowed a blood clot to shunt from right to left, as it wasn’t supposed to be able to do, and to travel up an artery to my brain. We all have this foramen ovale when we’re in the womb, a hole in the atrial septum, the muscular wall between the atria of the heart. A flap of tissue allows blood to flow from the right atrium to the left. Since we get our oxygen from the placenta, we don’t need the blood to pass through our lungs. We have a layer of tissue that acts as a valve over the foramen ovale. After we’re born, the pressure in the right side of the heart drops when the lungs start working, and this decrease in pressure causes the foramen ovale to close entirely. In approximately twenty-five percent of the population, though, the foramen ovale doesn’t seal, and then it’s known as a patent foramen ovale. I listen to this explanation from a cardiologist. He tells me he can close it. He can correct this congenital defect. He doesn’t know that I have an affinity for puns. He doesn’t know that I’m keeping myself from saying, “Gee Doc, are you saying we should fix my holey heart?”  

One Sunday night, a few weeks after I was baptized, my father went forward at the invitation. He stomped up the aisle, determined. His coming forward was surprising and yet it somehow seemed inevitable. I’d come to church that night, not expecting this at all, but once my father took that first step, it seemed to me like the last steps of a journey that he’d been on for years since his accident. I recalled the night of the storm when I was a much younger boy and the way my father made reference to God promising never again to end the world with a flood. I remembered a moment sometime after that night when I was riding in the truck with my father and he began singing the old hymn, “Rescue the Perishing.” I thought of the recent evenings he’d spent in conversation with one of the church’s elders when my mother invited him and his wife to supper. My father asked questions about Heaven, about redemption, about how faith could be a certainty. Now he was coming forward. My mother kept singing in her timid, off-key voice, giving no sign that what she had long hoped for had finally arrived. She kept her eyes on her hymnal. The song was “Just as I Am,” and there was my father giving himself over to the preacher who put his hand on his shoulder and leaned in to say something to him. When the singing ended and the preacher asked my father if he’d come to accept Jesus Christ as his savior, my father said, “Yes.” How odd it was to watch the preacher immerse him in the baptistery and how unusual it felt in our home later that night when we were all lying down to sleep. I remember the sounds of that house—the click of the wall furnace; the popping of the roof joists, disturbed by the cold; my mother and my father’s voices making a low murmur behind their bedroom door. What did they say to each other that night? Did my father say he was sorry for how angry he’d been over the years? Did he say he knew my mother deserved none of that? Did she tell him to hush, to not give it any worry, to go to sleep? I imagine the two of them, just a little older than I am now, these two people who had survived so much, turning now toward the last years of their time together with renewed hope. The next morning, when I woke, my mother was in the kitchen, her radio playing softly. My father’s eggs were in the frying pan. My Cocoa Wheats were ready. Outside, the watery light was breaking in the east. “Twelve degrees,” my mother said. “Better bundle up for your walk to school.” Just like it was any other day.  I saw no signs that our lives had been transformed. Then my father joined me at the breakfast table, and he stopped me before I could start eating my hot cereal. “I reckon I should say a prayer,” he said. Then he bowed his head. My mother closed her eyes, and, finally, so did I, and I listened to my father’s voice—that voice I’d heard filled with anger so many times—saying a prayer of thanksgiving, thanking God for the food my mother had prepared and asking him to be with each of us through our day, to offer us guidance and to forgive us of our sins. “Amen,” he said, and I wanted to stay there forever, gathered around that table with my mother and father, the three of us, a family.  

I know I’m a lucky man. When I leave the hospital after my two-day stay, the nurses at their station all watch me go with smiles on their faces. “This just doesn’t happen,” one of them told me when she was going over my discharge orders. “Once someone comes to us, they hardly ever leave without some sort of impairment.”  

Another nurse told me, “I know you didn’t want to have a stroke, but the doctors, the medicines, everything we know now? It’s a time when we can do so much.” 

Luck? Modern medical science? A little of both? In my more rational moments, I listen to what the nurse told me about the advancements in the treatment of strokes that came to bear in my favor. I listen to my family doctor who tells me everything happened just the way it should have, from the 911 call, to the ambulance transport, to the tPA. I tell myself I was saved by this proper sequence of medical care. I’ll tell myself the same thing nearly three months later, when my cardiologist will close my PFO by inserting a double-ringed mesh occluder on each side of the atrial septum, thereby repairing the defect with which I was born. But as I watch the screen where I can see him deliver the occluder via a catheter threaded through a vein in my groin—when I watch him tug on my heart—I say a prayer just in case he needs a little extra help. 

 

 

4. Just this morning, I woke, imagining that I heard the sound of my mother’s wringer washer churning as I often did in our farmhouse on Saturday mornings those days when I’d yet to start school and had to spend the weekdays with my grandmother while my mother was teaching. The sound of that washer was a comfort to me because it told me my mother was home and would be all that day and all the next one, those blessed Saturdays and Sundays. Suddenly, I’m remembering how she called each load of laundry “a rubbing.” “I did three rubbings of clothes,” I might hear her tell someone at church. Three rubbings of clothes, I’d say to myself. Now, twenty-five years after her death, I say it again—Three rubbings—just for the pleasure of imagining her saying it, and it’s as if she’s just on the other side of the door. For a moment, I feel I can open it and step through a veil of time between my bedroom and the kitchen of our farmhouse where my mother is putting my breakfast on the table and telling me to bow my head. “Say your prayer,” she tells me, and because I trust her, because I believe she won’t let anything bad happen to me ever, I do. God is great, God is good. I say the words my mother gave me, her bonny child, her Sunday’s child. I say the words, and for a moment I’m blessed with faith, blessed because she’s left no room, no reason, for doubt. 

There will always be a part of me that will wish for the certainty of the boy my mother taught to believe. Even now, in the months after my stroke, I say my prayers and want to believe that God watches over me, keeping me safe and free from harm. I can’t forget, though, that my parents’ faith, nor their prayers, could save them in the end. My father’s heart stopped while he was mowing the grass on a hot day at the end of July. My mother, who rarely gave into emotion, wept over his casket. “I’ve always taken care of him,” she said. “Now what will I do?” Six years later, she died in a nursing home, surrounded by her brothers and sisters. I lived in Memphis, then, a six-hour drive south, and I received the word of her death by telephone on a cold and snowy afternoon in January. As I drove north that night, the stars came out, and I thought about my mother’s spirit and wondered where it had gone. I wanted to believe it lifted into the atmosphere, became an energy that found its way to whatever attracted it—to rivers and leaves, to other people, to clouds and the very stars above me, and other planets, maybe, and if that was the case, then why couldn’t it keep rising? Why couldn’t it exist in a place called Heaven? Even now, as I recall the uncertainty that my father’s anger brought us, I remember the way my mother told me to count my blessings, to keep looking up, to trust in what was to come. I do, I tell myself again and again in the months following my stroke, until the voice inside me is no longer mine, but that of someone I don’t know, someone I want to believe. I do, I do, I do.  




Back to the Issue Catalog


Related Selections

Interview

The Thread That Makes the Cloth: An Interview with Brandon Lingle

As my life becomes more intertwined with conflict, I find it more complicated to write about war.

continue reading >

Nonfiction

I thought you were in Afghanistan

Years ago an invading army built a bridge across the Tigris out of Iraqi books. They turned the river red with ink.

continue reading >

​Nonfiction

The Stronger One 

It used to be that her father was the most important fact about a girl like me. 

continue reading >