My Father Is a Preacher. I’m a Writer.
The way my father tells the story, I am four years old, and we are on our way to the beach, my arm in a cast. I had broken it falling off a swing set.
My parents have talked up the trip all week, and I am dying from excitement. We ride forever until my father stops the old Buick. He wants to show my mother a ritzy golf course where he played once. He parks beside a pond, pointing to it out the window. Then we’re off. As we drive away, I start to cry.
When he tells this story, he says I cried because I wanted to get out and play in the pond, being unable to wait for the beach. In my memory, however, things are different.
I didn’t cry because I couldn’t wait for the beach; my tears weren’t born of impatience. I cried because I thought that puny puddle was the beach, and the bathos was crushing.
My father has told this story more than once. A lot, in fact. I’ve corrected him every time, explaining why I cried at the sight of that puddle. Yet the next time he tells it, I know he will tell it wrong.
Once, I asked my mother why. “It’s not that he gets it wrong,” she said. “He just changes it to fit the theme of his sermon.”
My father is a Southern Baptist pastor. I am a writer.
Two sides of the same creative coin.
In an essay on novelist Hilma Wolitzer, her daughter Meg writes:
When your mother writes a book that includes unabashedly sexual material, it becomes an object that must be reckoned with; it becomes a part of your consciousness and, in a sense, your identity. Certainly, you react. You might become pierced and wanton. You might think the whole thing is pretty cool. You might become a Shaker and take a vow of celibacy. Or you might become a writer yourself.
Meg describes being teased in school about her mother’s bawdy books, leading her to muse that writers, far from being prudes or Comstockers, “celebrate their adultness in the most public way,” embarrassing their kids with a forced and awkward intimacy. “You don’t have to tell everything you know,” a younger Meg might have chided her mother. Technology has given the problem a new twist, as now anyone can turn to WordPress or YouTube or Instagram to whip up “content” from their family’s daily dramas.
I grew up with the inverse of this problem. Instead of celebrating adultness, my parents had to keep a lid on it. They couldn’t tell anyone what they knew about church members: which were the alcoholics, the cheaters, the abusers.
A pastor is a caretaker of sordid stories, locking them away once they’ve been told, safe from bent ears. Every so often, critical mass is reached, and a few stories have to come out. Stories about me and my sister were, I suppose, the safest choice.
My father says he’s terrible at writing, but he is being modest. A sermon is like an essay. It has a purpose and a thesis. It is organized around ideas. Each word is critical. There is a lot to misunderstand, so good sermons, like good essays, are rich in details.
Such as the detail of me crying over a golf course puddle.
Some preachers commit their sermons to paper, reading them like press releases. My father never did this. He wrote them, but in his head. “I’m still writing while the choir is singing,” I’ve heard him say. He might have one or two notes with him up there — a quote or factoid scribbled on an offering envelope.
Otherwise, he just talked. The words flowed from him. Through him. Who knew where they began?
He didn’t rant. Didn’t pound the lectern. Didn’t pronounce “Jesus” with three syllables (“In the name of Ju-HE-sus!”). Public speaking involves a certain showmanship, but in the main, my father preferred his ideas to stand on their own.
He also cared about language. As a young man, when he encountered an unfamiliar word, he looked it up right then, writing the word and its meaning on an index card. Then he used the word in everyday speech until it felt natural, integrated. We made a game of this when I was older, with each family member teaching the rest of us a word per week.
My father’s parents were lightly educated. Neither finished the eighth grade. Yet, as prodigious readers, they respected language. He remembers them correcting his grammar as he grew up, so when he met my mother, it seemed natural to correct hers (she was, by her own account, a “hick girl from the mountains”).
She resented this at first, telling her mother that the boy she was seeing was “full of himself.” Now, when she hears anyone mispronounce a word or botch a verb tense, she calls to tell me about it. Sometimes, she and my father argue grammatical points, and they want me to arbitrate. They also used to make me taste their coffee and tell them whose was better — hers (coma-inducing sweet) or his (so bitter it’s lonely).
I’ll take grammar judging any day.
I never asked my father not to preach about me. I never said, after a funny turn of phrase or a raw moment, “Don’t use this in a sermon.” He would have honored such a request; he was, and is, a selfless man.
But it might have weakened his words.
When you write about real people, there’s a good chance they will never read it. And unless you, or they, are famous, they may read it and not care what you say — unless it’s really gnarly. And if they do read it, and do care, you can give them the bit about how writers focus on emotional truth but the actual words and deeds may not have happened exactly as you wrote them.
Kinda like changing events to fit the theme of a sermon.
It’s different, though, when you’re the subject of a story and everyone who hears it can just look right at you. God, all the times I sat low in the pew as every adult face turned my way, their smirks like the poppies in Flanders Field. It was like being Gabriel Iglesias’s son, Frankie. Or one of Ray Romano’s kids.
There is another way to look at this, however. Here’s Meg Wolitzer again:
It seems clear that writers who use their children to advance their own work are guilty of some kind of unsavory pimping, and that those children — those trapped-in-amber, beloved figures from picture books and novels — have a right to feel furious.
My father stopped preaching years ago. Yet his words, his message, live on in the memories of parishioners (and maybe a few tape recordings). Illustrations are the handles and footholds of discourse. Without them, the listener, or reader, slips right off.
I think he meant me to be that handle. That foothold. The red-hot poker searing his message into his listeners’ brains. That puts me on par with the mustard seed planter. The lost sheep finder. The good Samaritan. The prodigal son. Lazarus.
How could I feel furious about becoming a parable?
My parents are in their seventies now and not long for this world. For the last few years, I’ve been interviewing them, recording their narratives. My mother needs coaxing; she’s circumspect.
My father? The man who no longer drives or leaves the house, who asks a question and five minutes later asks it again, who has gotten milkweed-thin due to skipping meals — that man can still tell stories. They emerge as sleekly as if he’s been rehearsing them.
As if he expected, someday, our roles to reverse.