By Jan Worth-Nelson
That summer, my parents and I were arguing about God. We stood in the kitchen of the nondescript ranch parsonage in North Canton night after night, and I felt powerful when I told them I didn’t believe. They stared at me, uncomprehending and distraught. We didn’t even sit down: we just stood there by the harvest gold fridge, at awkward right angles, not even allowing our elbows to rest on the sticky linoleum counter. Maybe we were sipping ice water, anxiously draining every plastic glass. I was nineteen and so full of fire and so full of myself. The world was going to be mine. I felt sorry for them both.
But I was there for the summer anyway—home from college and about to transfer out. I had been at Miami University of Ohio. Its oppressive red brick architecture, so perfect and orderly, its Tri-Delt sorority, which I had rushed and joined out of a furious need to prove myself to those sleek girls, had run its course. There I had my first beers and got drunk and walked into a dorm bathroom and looked in the big mirrors and loved myself anew—it was fun. Back home, I didn’t believe in God, I didn’t believe in those Tri-Delt girls, I didn’t believe in the Georgian Revival—or any other kind of revival. I was just home, biding my time.
My parents thought it best to get me some work to do—they thought, I imagine, that something constructive would bring me back to my senses. I had, after all, been a good girl before the world depraved me. They asked another pastor for help—a younger guy, more liberal, but understanding. He offered me a job running a day camp for about thirty kids, maybe six to nine years old. I had little interest, but I took the job, and for six weeks showed up with few plans except a lot of coloring and singing camp songs and making pyramids in the soft grass outside. The kids loved making pyramids, and, as I remember it, we engineered their little summer bodies, tanned and sturdy, into big, shaky triangles almost every day. The best part was when the whole thing inevitably collapsed, and everybody toppled down shrieking and laughing, and the person who tumbled off the peak would be the hero of the day. I made sure the grass was soft. I remember literally not a single child from that time.
I was still a virgin that summer but didn’t want to be. I had a boyfriend who showed up once, and we went to a Blood, Sweat and Tears concert at Blossom Music Center. Things went wrong somehow—he was late, and we ate at McDonald’s instead of the classy joint I’d imagined, and I held that against him. (Months later, when I was at Kent State, my new college, he and I finally accomplished making love on the floor of a cramped attic room after several failed attempts – he was a virgin, too, and afraid to hurt me. We didn’t stay together, but of course I remember him always.)
It was the time of HAIR. That boyfriend turned me onto the album, and I loved every song of it. I bought it and brought it home, into the bland, white-walled bedroom available to me—it was a new church assignment for my father, and I had no emotional ties, no old neighbor friends, my high school chums in another town. As I recall I papered the wall with lurid rock posters and screeds against the war. A small black record player with removable speakers comprised a treasured altar at the foot of my bed. My mother hated what I did to that room.
I’m holding that very album in my hands now. “The American Tribal Love Rock Musical,” it says. I loved every word of that, and its songs. I still do: I Got Life. Don’t Put It Down. Easy To Be Hard. Aquarius. HAIR. And of course, Sodomy.
I played them all, and I played them loud. My mother couldn’t take it. One afternoon, after day camp, I was barricaded in my room—what did we do back then with our free time? Read, I think. Let’s say Slaughterhouse-Five or Portnoy’s Complaint. I cranked up the volume—no earbuds then to protect parents from offense.
My mother crashed through my door. “Turn that off!” she said. Her virulence shocked me. “Turn that off. I don’t want that music in this house.”
I think I said something like I had a right to listen to it.
But not in this house, I think she said.
Then I’m leaving, I said.
Or maybe she said, get out.
Whatever—the next thing I knew, I had piled my record collection on the back porch and moved out.
I called the liberal pastor who got me the day camp job. I asked him and his kind liberal wife if I could move in. For some reason, I imagine them smiling at all of it. They let me come over. They installed me and my box of records in a quiet upstairs room with a double bed and a thick mattress. We didn’t talk about it much, but they seemed to understand.
A few days later, I moved back home. When it came down to it, I didn’t want to give up the fight. I was half free of my parents, but the other half wanted them to love me, to love my rampant drive to defy them and say it was good. Whatever—I didn’t play HAIR again that summer.
My father was sixty-two that summer, considering retiring from forty years in the ministry, and my mother was fifty-nine. She had somehow wrestled her way through a brutal menopause. She maybe was still in it that summer, still stunned by the cataclysms of it, which had brought waves of dark depression, amplifying a family strain that dogged her all her life. She was never tearful. Rather, her emotion, as I remember it then, was a taut resentment, a numbness barely masking fury, and a vein of grief a young woman like me could not yet understand.
That summer there was something in the air about another woman. It would be years—after his death and hers—before we knew the facts, what few there were. But that summer she knew, and it was in the air. He was smitten by a woman somewhere; his streak of longing and susceptibility to fancy women who coddled him trailed him into trouble. She knew and was furious. Every day he went jogging in a nearby cemetery, sometimes many miles around and around. I secretly made fun of him—eros and thanatos, I maybe sneered, a smartass always.
They’d been married thirty-three years in 1969. Their anniversary was in July. They’d been married on a steaming hot Wednesday, of all days, in Findlay, Ohio, and she still had the dress, a simple, elegant satin she could still fit into. It was in a cardboard box she’d carried from parish to parish, always tucked in a top shelf of some new parsonage or another and mostly forgotten. He’d worked in what he called a “drop forge” that summer to make more money for their marriage, and it was so hot he sweated off pound after pound and came to her as a new husband skinny and eager and sunburned. Their first assignment was a tiny parish in Carmi, Illinois, and they had no money. He bought her a slim gold wedding ring, barely two millimeters thick, and never wore one himself. He could not afford a diamond, and, being not just frugal but suspicious of certain kinds of ostentation, it suited their ways. Nobody ever said much about it.
And then, in July of 1969, something happened. Men landed on the moon.
How can I explain the grandeur of that, how it took us over? When Apollo 11 took off, the three of us came together. Those days in a steamy Midwestern July, we managed to sit in one room and gape at the black and white TV. We opened our mouths with wows and looked at each other and said, “Can you believe this?” Nothing that spectacular had ever happened in any of our lives.
My father wondered at the engineering of it. His worry that maybe it was not God’s will for Man to be so audacious was countered by his pride in what the country had accomplished. My mother prayed they would come back alive. And when Neil Armstrong, shy American hero from Wapakoneta, Ohio, our very state—when he stepped down those stairs and planted his feet on the ground and said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” we were gobsmacked.
Everything else receded at that moment, and then there was a stillness. We took it all in. The three of us, our own tumultuous little universe, quieted in the—what’s a big enough word—the stupendousness of it all.
I don’t know how much he had it planned, but he picked the moment. My dad had something he wanted to do. He disappeared into their bedroom and came out with a little black box. He got down on his knees and offered it to my mother. It was a diamond ring. “It’s about time, I figured,” he said.
She took it. “Thank you,” she said, and put the ring on. It wasn’t a completely thorough “I forgive you,” but she spoke to him softly. I can’t even remember if they kissed—I think she waited awhile even after that to let him off the hook.
I watched them closely, a little embarrassed that I was in the room. I was the one who cried. I’d caused them a lot of heartache—whatever my fiery rebellions meant, my parents survived me that summer and let me go—perhaps easing up a bit on their need to hammer me back into godliness.
So the moon landing didn’t fix everything in our house, but who could ever forget it—that moment when humans showed they could do almost anything, and we could all cheer and claim the magnificence for our own? And maybe sidle toward forgiveness and love each other more?
There was a full moon July 28—a few days later, after we’d all had a chance to catch our breath. I remember sitting in the back seat of my father’s car, going someplace together as a family, my mother sitting quietly with her new diamond ring, none of us disagreeing about God just that once. I remember looking up at that big fat orb, for the first time bearing human footprints. Then I felt a jolt, a tremor of sadness, as if something down here was lost, that we’d never look at that moon the same way again. And so I looked away, back to my earthbound life. ■
Jan Worth-Nelson is the editor of East Village Magazine in Flint, Michigan. Retired from twenty-six years as a writing teacher and administrator at the University of Michigan-Flint, she is a former Peace Corps volunteer and the author of the novel Night Blind. Her work appears in Belt Publishing’s collection Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology.
Cover image of the surface of the moon by NASA (Public Domain).
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