[T]he cancer treatments worked and my father came back to us. He was shaky and weak, and so were we really; but when we tell the story of those years, we always end with this: He was the only man on his ward who lived.
And though he survived when the doctors said he would die-causing us to confuse him slightly, but forever, with that other immortal, invincible Father we revered-we never did get our old life back. That one I had loved, where my Dad had just become a minister of the church. Where he stood in the pulpit preaching with his deep voice. And I sat proudly in the front row.
Over the months he was away from us in the hospital, my mother had taken a job as a waitress. It was the best job she could find in our small town, serving dinner in a fancy place that catered to the tourists who owned expensive property on the nearby lakes. My mother was friendly. The tips were good. But when word spread to the First Church of God, there was trouble.
The problem was this: my mother was serving alcohol and though she didn't drink herself, that wasn't the point. When my father got out of the hospital, a meeting was called. My parents sat in their usual pew. A vote of the congregation was taken. Hands raised in vote all around them. The numbers were clear. June Young had broken the covenant. She had to leave. And my father walked out the door with her.
Because she thought it the right thing to do, my mother still dropped my older brother and me off at Sunday school each week, waiting in the car while we learned our Bible stories. She didn't want us to have to miss out on church just because she couldn't be there.
Then one morning my teacher told the class that my mother was a bad woman. She used her as an example of sin for our lesson that day. I remember asking my mother, "What does hypocrite mean?" She couldn't find a way to answer. I started to cry. She set her jaw. That was the last Sunday we went.
And so I, who loved church-who was so close to having memorized all the names of all the books of the New Testament, so close to earning the mustard seed necklace and the kingdom of heaven, itself-I too was out.
Over the years I would sometimes ask my father: "So what was it, exactly, that happened?"
And my father would say, "We broke the covenant. They voted us out." And the way he said it-short answer, deep voice, heavy, certain punctuation-made it sound like that was a sufficient explanation. Covenant. Voted. Out. It was never enough for me, that answer. But I didn't know how to get any other..
Recently, though, I've needed to talk about it. I try to sort it out. I ask my brothers what they remember. They say, it's over, why think about it now? But I need to understand the ways I still carry those early church experiences. I need to know now.
The first time I gave a copy of the early chapters of this book to my mother, I had been visiting her for several days. I had intended to give it to her sooner in the visit so we could have a few days to talk about it. But I knew I was asking her to move beyond the two sentences, "We broke the covenant. They voted us out," to a much more complicated conversation. I was asking her to help me put aside the cursory answers we'd relied on so long..
I poured myself some coffee and went to her. "Nice morning," I said as I gave her a kiss. We were quiet. That's comfortable for us. Then she said, "So, I read your piece."
"You did?" I was surprised. Not ready. I tried quickly to remember what I had said about her. About Dad. About what it was like for a six-year-old girl who got kicked out of the church she loved.
"I never knew how hard it was for you," she began. Then, I heard her choke a huge sob, "I'm sorry.I broke.the covenant!"
I stared at her. I was incredulous as I watched my mother cry and heave that old shame. I didn't know what to say.
Trying to be funny, to shock her out of it, to do something to change this scary moment, I said, "Oh, screw the covenant!"
"Kate!" she scolded me like a child. "Don't talk like that."
I checked myself. This was fragile and rare and important. I mustn't leave what she was saying, but stay with her. Don't dig a hole, shove her in, and then joke about it. No, I must be with this woman.
"Mom," I said and reached toward my crying, crying mother. "Mom," I took a breath. "It was a really bad covenant."
She looked up at me, snuffled and wiped her wet face with the back of her hand. "It was," she said. "And none of them helped me find another way. Not one of them said, `I'll pay those bills, you don't have to work there.'"