Finding Tom

by Simeon Harrar

 Chapter 1: Beginnings

I lay in the long grass, watching the wind whip across the valley like the waves on the ocean, and I felt the heat of the sun beating down on my tanned face. I looked up into the tall trees swaying back and forth like choir members singing on Sunday morning. There, in my bare feet and shorts, I tasted heaven. I stood up and looked at the pristine Victorian house in the distance. I saw Mama hanging out the washing in the yard, and I could just make out a small stream of smoke from where Father must have been smoking his pipe and reading the Sunday paper. It was the summer of 1952; the world was simple and splendid, and I was still just a boy.

It was there in my own little paradise that I experienced God, not in the hard wooden pews of the stuffy Presbyterian church in town. It was out there, surrounded by the beauty of creation, that I sensed him. It was not an intellectual knowing that I later had drummed into me by so many Sunday school teachers and zealous preachers. It was the recognition of beauty that stirred the inner workings of my soul and made me yearn for that which is beyond knowing. God spoke through a circling hawk high overhead or through patches of clover that cooled my toes. He, the ineffable, called to me, the voice of perfection calling out to the imperfect. In those moments, with my fragmented understanding, I dared to believe. What exactly I believed in, I do not know. It was a child’s belief that did not require words or logic. Those are the tools of adults to be used and abused. I breathed in faith like I did the rich open air and let it take root within my young soul.

The woods, the rocks, and the bushes were my church. I worshiped with dirt-stained clothes and cheeks flushed from running. It was there that I danced and swayed and sang and felt the rhythm of the infinite swirl around me, drawing me into his bosom. It was there as I crawled, crashed, and chased crawdads that I felt God’s love.

The sun began to set. Rays of light shot across the sky in radiant hues of gold, orange, and violet. I stared up into the sky until darkness descended like a cloak, waking me from my stupor. I shivered and scuttled home. The laundry was flapping in the wind, waving to me, beckoning me to come home. Mother had gone inside, and Father must have moved inside to finish his reading of the newspaper.

I raced at top speed right through the swinging screen door and into the kitchen where I slid to a halt, grinning from ear to ear. I was late, but I knew mother would not be mad at me, because she loved the land as much as I did. That’s why we never left that place. While I heard all sorts of reasons bantered about, I knew the real reason was my mother’s connection with that plot of earth. She felt its connection as much as I, although hers was in some strange, grown-up way that I could not understand. She looked at me from the sink where she was elbow deep in soapsuds and dirty dishes. She wagged her foamy finger at me, pretending to scold, but her eyes told a different story.

At the dinner table, I recounted all of my adventures between bites of food and gulps of water. Mother smiled, and I could see her eyes gleam with a sense of understanding. The two of us were kindred spirits. My father, on the other hand, was a cut from an entirely different piece of cloth. He stared at me sternly. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, son. It’s bad manners.”

He was the antithesis of my mother. She was soft and gentle with fair skin, a true Southern beauty. Her bright eyes always seemed to sparkle like sapphires. The two of us would often run and play, and I would watch her long silky hair blow in the breeze as her cheeks flushed the color of spring roses from exertion. Like a young child now trapped inside the body of a grown woman, she never ceased to seek adventure and beauty in the simple things of life that hung and breathed all around her. There were times we rolled in the grass in fits of laughter until nearly out of breath and, with aching ribs, were forced to stop. She had a way of bringing out the best in people, and they were drawn to her like deer to a gently bubbling creek.

How she came to marry my father and not go mad, I will never understand. My father was not a cruel man, but he was strict to the point of being harsh. He stood tall and proud with a thick mustache, piercing dark eyes, and a crop of thick brown hair slicked back with grease. He had a way of standing that made it seem as if he were a military man constantly at attention. His mouth formed into a slight frown, reflecting his natural pessimism about life. My father believed strongly that “to spare the rod is to spoil the child.” His stiff discipline and exterior coldness were strange to me. My father was a peculiar creature for whom I had no explanation.

On top of his natural tendency toward sour grapes, my father held staunchly onto his strict religious beliefs. My father’s family had been members of the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwood for four generations without any hint of a scandal, and he was not going to be the first to shame the family name. Rebellion on my part would not be tolerated lest it tarnish my father’s reputation. These notions of honor and public image were beyond me, but I understood the sting of the switch all too well if ever I forgot my responsibility to the Weston name. The name was a heavy sack of chicken feed thrown over my small shoulders when I was in public.

Greenwood itself certainly wasn’t much to look at. Small and dusty, it lay a ways off the beaten path. It was one of those places that the great industrial revolution seemed to have forgotten. Nestled among the rolling hills and shaded by towering oak trees, it had a rustic beauty about it. In the summer the place was hot as hell itself, and the red dirt would crack and split like chapped lips.

Because the town was so small, everybody knew a little too much about everybody else. Folks were born, bred, and buried in Greenwood. That’s just the way it was. They were good-hearted salt of the earth kind of people, quick to lend a hand or talk your ear off while telling a story. Most were farmers working the same land their fathers and grandfathers had tilled and toiled over. They were proud Americans, and every 4th of July, a scraggly parade marched down Main Street past the general store, post office, police station, and barbershop, ending up at the old Presbyterian church with its miniature steeple and wooden siding. It wasn’t fancy like those big city churches with their stained glass windows and high ceilings, but it was the center of Greenwood society.

Every Sunday, sweaty calloused farmers showered, slicked back their hair, and donned their best attire. With wives and children in tow, they filled up the tiny sanctuary.

On account of our reputation, we had perfect church attendance unless knocking on death’s door. Father knew people would talk if we were missing. After all, we might be backsliding! I didn’t even know what that meant, but I knew it was bad. Every Sunday morning, we sat in the same pew with its ancient blue hymnals and black King James Bible. Every reputable member of Greenwood piled into the church by 9:45, and the service began at 10:00 with old Reverend Evans leading the way.

As a child, I believed Reverend Evans to be nearly as old as God himself. In his mid-70s, he was of a short stature accentuated by drooping shoulders that reminded me of a wilting flower. His tired gray eyes were encircled by a sea of wrinkles that threatened to engulf his visage, and from his chin hung a ragged white beard. Without fail, he wore the same black faded suit, white collared shirt, and drab patterned tie. He was truly a plain man. There was nothing fancy about him. The reverend was a monument to an age rapidly disappearing. He plodded on, faithfully tilling the ground and sowing the seed, as was his calling, but even young men grow tired and weary. With the days of his youth far behind him and a host of children and his beloved wife awaiting him at heaven’s gates, he toiled in sorrow. I remember learning from Mother about the saints and hearing stories of their wondrous deeds and exploits of self-discipline and spiritual fervor. Now, having seen a few more suns rise and fall, I wonder if somewhere along the way we created all those stories about the miraculous, while true saints like dear Reverend Evans lived in our midst, toiling away as their humble miracles went unnoticed.

Each week Reverend Evans stepped slowly, almost painfully, to the pulpit and looked down upon his beloved flock. After fifty years of preaching, one is bound to fall into habits; at our core, we are all creatures of habit. So Reverend Evans would open up his Bible and fish his reading spectacles out of his shirt pocket. Smoothing the pages of his worn King James Bible, he would hold the sides of the rough-hewn pulpit as if for support, and closing his eyes, he would take a deep breath and slowly exhale. Upon opening his eyes, he looked out into the gross frivolity sitting before him. Husbands dressed in suit coats and blazers had escorted their wives in fine-feathered hats and extravagant dresses. Little boys sat stuffed into sweater vests and khakis, while young girls wore frilly sundresses. The eligible bachelors wore stylish vests and straw hats, while the bachelorettes crammed into tight-fitting corsets underneath dresses of all shapes and sizes, daintily fanning themselves. The people spared no expense playing church. He cleared his throat, but the fiery passion that once filled his voice was gone. In its place were the faint words of a man who, I imagine, each week wondered if this would be his last sermon. Silently, he wished to be taken home and be free of his calling, but his time of sowing seeds was not yet finished. So, a handful of verses at a time, he tried to plant the Word of God in the soil sitting before him in the pews. With his low, gravelly voice, he meticulously explained the often-convoluted passages of that ancient text to the ears of his disinterested listeners. He scattered his seed on rocky and weed-ridden ground. The people sat still as statues, waiting for this ritual to be complete, waiting for the final benediction—waiting, always waiting, for something that was not to be found in that place. He too waited for good soil and the harvest. Where were the fields of plenty, he wondered?

Reverend Evans filled the air with big words that drifted far over my head like the summer clouds. His slow speech, like background music, lulled me to sleep. Words, words, and more words for nearly an hour, and then there would be silence. In that silence, I knew my freedom was near. I cared not for hermeneutics and exegesis. I cared not for the dusty old words of a dusty old man who was long past his glory. In my childishness, I was unable to see past his glaring monotony to the character of the man underneath the drab tie and worn coat.

When I expressed my feelings by playfully mocking the reverend or complaining about hating church, I was shushed and told to stop being rude. I found it difficult to believe that the God who sounded so boring in church and came cloaked in ancient religious rhetoric, ritual, and choir songs was the same God who created the fascinating world around me. I was told on many occasions that because of my youth, I was too foolish to understand, and I ought to pray for wisdom and repentance for my ignorance. I spent “the Rev’s” sermons playing with sticks and pebbles or whatever else I managed to sneak in with me. Was I to be blamed that God lived in the woods and the fields and the sky but not in this whitewashed building? Even a child could see that God could not be confined to such a space as this, any more than you can catch a summer day in a jar to take out and play with in the miserable cold of winter. No, I did not find God in that place, dressed and pressed in polished black shoes and itchy-collared shirts. Perhaps that is because he was waiting for me outside, calling me to come and play, calling me to come and marvel at his handiwork. He gave me well-worn shoes of wonder that carried me as I ventured through the hills and paddocks and across streams. My adventures were beyond numbering, like the night stars that lit my way home along well-trodden paths. What a sad day it was when I traded those shoes in for responsibility and boredom; what a sad day when I forgot that God was not to be found in the wooden box building, when I stopped hearing him calling my name to come out and play and marvel and dream.

My favorite part of church took place after all of the religious “stuff” was over and done and the real life of the church began. Each Sunday we had a communal potluck, as families were reluctant to turn tail and run back to the endless work waiting at home. So, Sunday afternoon became a sanctuary for us all. For a few brief hours, we forgot about the copious worries of life and lived in blissful ignorance.

While the adults played dress up, a small gaggle of church boys ventured forth boldly to capture and subdue the land. For a boy used to spending his days alone in nature, the company of other young boys provided a completely new sort of joy. We would quickly pilfer a few slices of meat and stuff fresh rolls into our pockets before bolting away from the crowd in a frenzy of flying vests, ties, and shoes. Oh, the adventures that we had together. Like a pack of wild hyenas, we laughed and chattered our way across the large church grounds. There was no end to our pranks and our curiosity. Our fibbing knew no bounds when we attempted to avoid trouble. At times, when falling upon the right set of ears, our outlandish excuses left the adults in stitches of laughter that only encouraged our gross story telling. I cannot recall how many times we were told it was a grave sin to lie on Sundays, but the twinkle in the eye of the teller led me to believe that those were merely words, and so they were immediately disregarded. While the adults gossiped and hobnobbed, we combed the nearby fields for bugs and snakes and scoured the small stream for fish and crawdads. Those were the good days—the days of eternal summer.

 

Chapter 2: A Year of Change…

 

I will unveil chapter 2 in November, and then you can purchase the whole thing in December right here from my website if you like it!