NOTE: The following piece continues the story begun in my last post: “How I became a Mennonite.”
When my father looked through the window in the door that led into the sanctuary of the Lodi Mennonite Brethren church that late winter morning in 1951 and saw my mother kneeling at the front pew he knew that his life would never be the same again. He knew because both he and my mom had grown up in the MB church. He knew that it meant my mother was returning to church, repenting of the life she had led since leaving the church, the life she had shared with him. It meant that she would now live her life according to what the MB church taught about God’s will for life. She would now be going to church every Sunday. The leisurely Sunday mornings in bed together were over. Mom would no longer go out dancing with him nor join him in a drink at a nightclub. Even worse, seeing my mother at the front of the church meant that unless he joined her, he would be an outsider in his own home, constantly in the wrong—‘a sinner’, the object of my mother’s prayers as well as the prayers of the whole church. This change had taken place ‘behind his back’. He’d had no input into my mom’s decision. He had not been consulted. The change had come as a fait accompli, accomplished before he even knew my mother was considering it, an act that must have felt like a betrayal by the woman he loved. In a very real sense, in going forward my mother left my father and took Nita and me with her.
My father had been forced into a situation he found almost intolerable. His first impulse was divorce. But Dad really did love my mother, and divorce would mean losing his family. Family was central to the whole meaning of his life. I doubt that Dad could see any other real life for himself if he left her. But to return to the church—which he had to do in order to genuinely be a full part of the family again—went against the grain of his very self. To renounce his way of life, to say it was wrong and publicly ask for forgiveness—No. He was the offended party. He was the one who had been betrayed by a church that was too strict in its demands on people’s lives—no drinking, no dancing, no movies, no ‘worldly’ entertainment—forcing people like him out of the church, turning others into hypocrites.
Dad was an articulate, forceful man, my mother an easily intimidated woman, yet he never tried to talk my mother out of her decision, never tried to bully her out of what she had done. The reason, I think, is that deep down my father never stopped believing in what the church taught. That early teaching had taken hold, shaped his thought and perception even as he rebelled against church discipline. That teaching was still part of him, and though he fought against it, that believing-self told him my mother was right and he was wrong. The only words, actual words, I remember from that turbulent time after my mother went forward is Dad saying to Mom that he always thought they would go back to church someday, but “I wanted to do it together!”
Dad’s angry resistance lasted about three weeks before he finally yielded. Below is his telling of the event that would become central to his life story:
“I had to take a load of gasoline to Fire Baugh at three o’clock in the morning. I was cursingly angry. I was going to divorce her. I thought she had messed up my life by getting religion. When I was still fifty miles from Stockton, the load of life became too heavy to carry, and in my stupor I called out to God. “If you can still help me I will do it Your way.” In less than ten minutes I had peace with God. I can’t describe the load that left my body.”[i]
Dad’s commitment was serious. His life changed immediately. He returned to church and publicly repented the life he had been living. He stopped going to bars. He stopped drinking. He made the complete reorientation of his life that he describes in his words of testimony. But it was not easy. I remember the deep brooding that would settle on him on those evenings when there was neither a church service nor Bible study to attend, a brooding that settled like a dark cloud over our whole house—a depression that infected the very air around him. Looking back I can see that my father’s sudden sobriety must have wreaked havoc on his body and emotions. I also suspect unacknowledged grief, grief at the loss of a life he had genuinely enjoyed, a loss he could not admit as loss, a loss that his faith told him was a victory.
Today most people would classify my father as alcoholic, but that term did not have the currency back in the ‘40s and ‘50s that it does now. ‘Heavy drinker’ was the term for men like my dad. He was a man like Humphry Bogart, Clark Gable, John Barrymore, men who gloried in their drinking and the crazy exploits that resulted. That drinking was the stuff of legend, of laughter and adventure. Dad’s drinking was in the tradition of roistering virile men that stretches back to ancient warriors who gloried in the capacity to drink others under the table, to drink heavily and still function and fight and do glorious deeds. My dad did have a high tolerance for alcohol. He drank a lot, but he was basically a social drinker. Drinking was what he did with friends. If he wanted a drink he went to a bar. The only time he drank at home was when there were friends over. There were no stashed bottles, rarely even any beer in the refrigerator. He did spend a lot of time at the bars; they were effectively his ‘men’s club’. This was where he had spent most evenings, often afternoons as well. This was where he was happiest, I think, bantering and laughing with local businessmen, exchanging news and gossip, talking about deals made, bargains struck. Dad loved and valued my mom and us kids. We were important to him. But we were also a responsibility, a responsibility that hung heavily over him. In the bars he could just be himself, Jack, the boy and young man who was carefree, full of fun and adventure.
My father was likely wrestling with many things as he lay on the couch in our living room on his evenings at home, pulled deeply into himself, snapping out at anyone who disturbed him. Back then I simply resented his brooding presence in the middle of our home, wished he was gone, gone out on a long haul or at a meeting, any place but in our house making all the rest of us careful and wary. But even though I was deeply angry at my father, an anger I kept muffled, silent, I could still see that much of Dad’s brooding was because of his work. Truck driving was his default skill, one he’d had to return to after the failure of his construction business. It wasn’t that Dad didn’t like the actual work of driving truck. He liked to drive, could drive long hours without losing attention. He was a skillful driver who could deftly tie down a load of lumber, back a big rig into a tight loading dock, think coolly and quickly in an emergency. Driving itself was not the problem. The problem was that my dad hated to take orders, hated to be subservient to anyone. Dad wanted to be ‘capital’ not ‘labor’. He was Republican, not Democrat. Although he no longer went to the bars, he still identified with the businessmen he had met in them. He still wanted to be part of their world, exercising power like they did. He wanted to be a person to be reckoned with, a person people looked up to. He did not want to be ‘just a truck driver’. He wanted respect.
Dad changed after the revival, changed in a way everyone but me applauded. I knew it was a good thing that Dad no longer drank. But on the whole I preferred my pre-revival dad to my post-revival father. My drinking father had been easy-going, jolly and generous. My sober dad was stern, demanding and authoritarian. He now ruled the house and the family in a way he had not when he was drinking. Before, it had mainly been Mom and us girls at home. The house had been her domain, Dad an infrequent often apologetic presence. I liked it that way. I liked being home alone with Mom. When Dad was not in the house life was peaceful and ordinary, relaxed. It felt like the home I had known before the revival, a place I loved, a refuge from all the drama of school, a place where I felt free to be myself, follow my own pursuits. Dad had changed as a result of the revival, but Mom was still the same comfortable, easy-going person I had always known.
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© Loretta Willems, July 7, 2021
[i] Jacob Willems, How Powerful Is My God, self-published memoir, no date given. It was printed by The Reedley Exponent, edited by someone on its staff sometime in the 1990s.