Recently I happened to hear “The Church in the Wildwood,” an old hymn-like song which Mom used to sing. Suddenly, involuntarily, I was grappling with the mysteries of my incongruous parents and was reflecting on their summer vacations in places where their dads grew up. Places in their hearts.
Mom’s place was deep in the hills of North Carolina, where she conversed with cows, ate cornbread baked on bacon, and attended her grandparents’ Baptist church, where she sang “he walks with me and he talks with me” and kept a wary eye on the tobacco-chewers who tried to spit through the open windows. Like the rest of us, they aimed for heaven but often fell short. Dark splatted stains told how short.
Dad’s place was Jeffersonville, IN, on the Ohio River, an adventuresome train ride from his northern Indiana home. He reveled in his Huckleberry Finn summers despite the liquid air of the river town. He hailed the paddleboats and cavorted with myriad cousins. Everyone to Sunday mass where Dad’s meditative pastime was watching women faint. Latin, stained glass, flowing-robed statues. Spitting not an option.
Their childhood summers flavored their lives. Mom was Catholic but was unenthusiastic about mass: ethereal, perhaps, rich in symbol and story, but also sterile and stiff. Mom’s heart was in the plain little church with the flesh-and-blood hymns. But Dad loved the mass; his heart was in the arched and sculpted texture of that contained world and in the rise and fall of plainsong. How eloquently that difference told about them.
And yet how much the same in the buoyance of those summers.
“So dear to my childhood,” says the old song. Roots in the heart, the prayers of our ancestors. The church in the Wildwood.