The Methodist church in our Vermont town was built in the 1870s. It is a modest church that holds no more than 150, although any sort of crowd is unusual these days. It was built on the edge of a cornfield, just off the main road into Beartown and not far from the river that contains the old Baptist hole, a small but deep spot used for baptisms. The congregation usually runs to no more than 25 on a given Sunday, our family sometimes making up a good percentage of those present. The walls are made of pressed tin painted white, the windows are high and narrow with the original, imperfect glass, the Green Mountains filtered in small bubbles of distortion, a child's attention held by the play of light and wavy glass. The artwork, "Christ Blessing Little Children" and "Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me." are modest, inexpensive prints of the same biblical event. A few plaques also adorn the walls; the most practical reads, "Oil Burner Installed in May of 1972, John W. Lunquist." Out in the small foyer, there is a smattering of mementos from the church's history: a Perkins Hollow Report Card from 1916 and photographs of Old Home Day, 1964, depicting hearty, broad-faced women with easy smiles and large flower-print dresses serving up a picnic on long tables draped in oilcloth.
Each of our children has been introduced to the congregation in turn, at first as sleeping infants and then, as they have grown older, as impatient preschoolers, fiddling with the broken hymnal rack or giving a younger sister a sharp pinch during "Amazing Grace." When they reach the age of 3, our children are excused with the other children, after the first hymn, for Sunday school. They join the kids' choir, taking turns with a solo or, when they are younger, simply standing in front, trying to mouth the half-remembered words. Eventually, each is presented with his or her own Bible, resplendent in its bright cardinal-red jacket and inscribed with the child's name, a gift from the minister and the congregation.
But the Bible is soon forgotten in the rush to coffee hour, an important social event in our small town. The coffee pot is plugged in just before the collection, the percolating drumbeat reaching out into the congregation with its own offering. After the closing benediction, the Victorian pump organ starts up, the connecting doors open, and the congregation flows into the back room, in which there stands a long picnic table covered in clear plastic and set with yellow coffee mugs, with perhaps a leftover cake from yesterday's birthday party, a basket of homemade nutmeg doughnuts, or, on disappointing Sundays, simply a store-bought strudel. Small hands grab at the sweetest offerings, coffee is poured, the crowd disperses into groups of two or three, and the business of visiting gets under way. In the country, the telephone is no substitute for socializing, the typical call lasting just seconds and consisting of a few clipped "ayuhs" and "nopes." A good chat is reserved for chance roadside meetings or for Sunday mornings over a cup of coffee.
For the adults, coffee hour is a time to catch up with neighbors and to share the latest gossip. But for the children, it is an invitation to run out the back door to start a game of hide-and-go-seek behind the whitewashed two-holer. These moments make good memories, but I hope that our children will also recall the view from the tall church window, an ash-gray wood cabin sitting just above
a brown field in spring, a sea of lime-green stalks poking through last year's stubble. In the distance, the outline of the Green Mountains is just visible, the clouds skimming lightly over them on a Sunday morning, the sun suddenly spotlighting our country sanctuary. In a warm corner of our family's oak pew, I daydream that each of the kids will take with them the sound of the furnace turning on and off in December and the back-and-forth cadence of In the Garden. When they are grown, I imagine the songs floating out through the windows like swallows, beckoning them to a homecoming. The simple melodies from the Estey organ will reach out and they will pause, recalling a father taking their hand when they were still children to walk with them and talk with them, and tell them that they are his own.