As a little girl, I loved the church ladies' fawning attention. As a teenager, I hated their scrutiny. Now, as an adult, I get a thrill from the fascination and unease that emerge when people learn my little secret.
A couple of Sundays ago, my dad retired after 39 years as a Lutheran pastor. I heard him preach his last sermon; felt him press a small chunk of bread into my palm and say, "Body of Christ, given for you"; watched him pronounce the benediction and make the sign of the cross, his hands sweeping the air in front of him; witnessed him walk down the aisle, away from the altar, and out the church door, for the last time.
And I remembered.
I remembered crawling under the pews with my sister on the wood floors at our little white clapboard church in Pennsylvania. I remembered the ushers pulling on the thick hemp rope in the tiny narthex, ringing the church bell as worship began.
I remembered folk services in the 1960s and the thrill I felt when hundreds of people showed up, the guitarists and drummers started doing their Peter, Paul, and Mary thing, and we sang "In Christ There Is No East or West" and "If I Had a Hammer." I was so proud when the local paper reported on the innovative young pastor and his swinging little church.
I remembered Bible school and lining up for green Kool-Aid in the church's front courtyard. I remembered getting in trouble for revealing to my teacher that my parents thought her new house was too big and expensive.
I remembered the Christmas Eve service when I was 6 and misbehaved. I wore ponytails that my mother had curled, and I thought I looked quite festive--which gave rise to my theatrically making faces at my dad and everyone in the congregation and dramatically waving away smoke from the candles we lit while singing "Silent Night."
I remembered sitting in our car in the gravel parking lot outside the church, laughing at my sister, who told us she wanted to name our new baby Mr. Bubble. Later, on the day our baby brother was baptized, we stood in front of the church and posed for a snapshot. I was wearing a blue-and-white flowered dress sewn from a bedsheet.
And I remembered the cemetery, where my sister and I roamed through the gravestones on warm days after church. And where we hid when we played kick the can on summer nights.
I remembered the way my dad beamed when he stepped into the sanctuary and led the choir in the processional through the narthex, past my mother and little brother, who sat near the back, around the corner, and down the center aisle.
I remembered my brother, as a toddler, escaping my dad's grasp during a children's sermon and running around the altar until he was caught.
I remembered memorizing Bible verses and reading the hymnal while I sat--it must be admitted, somewhat bored--in the choir loft during lulls in Dad's sermons. But I also remembered how commanding he looked when he climbed into the pulpit, looked out over the congregation, paused, prayed, and then launched into his sermon.
I remembered walking home from school and stopping in to visit Dad at the church. Especially late in the week, he was holed up in his study trying to write a sermon. I fed the tropical fish in his office and extracted a dime to buy a Krass cherry soda in a glass bottle from the machine downstairs.
On the Sunday my dad retired, my two little boys were the ones scampering around under the pews. The church ladies fawned a little over my sister and brother and me as we ate cake in the social hall and watched people snap photos of themselves with Dad. It would be the last time we were active-duty PKs.
Even now people still ask me, "You're a pastor's daughter? What is that like?" And I always tell them: It is a gift. Because most of the relentless churchgoing of my youth, which I once protested, was actually quite joyous. And because it laid the foundation for the faith of my adulthood--a confident, flexible faith that lets me wrestle with doubt yet hold fast to my identity.
Now Dad has a new identity--and, in a small way, I suppose, so do I.
But it won't be difficult at all for me to flash back to a time and place when I'm again a little girl and he's my dad--the funny, young, hip minister, processing down the aisle as the first hymn begins, his white robes fluttering behind him and his voice lifted high.