For members of the New Pilgrim Congregational Church’s Ladies For Decency Committee, the Easter season of 1964 was a time of faith-testing turmoil. Not only were the ladies coming to grips with the evils of the recent assassination of President Kennedy, they also had to contend with the indecent hypocrisy of their pastor, who had embezzled the church’s $50,000 building fund and fled to Canada, leaving the congregation broke, dismayed, and rudderless.
My maternal grandmother Celia, whom we called “Nanny,” was chair of the committee and was deeply devoted to the church. Every Saturday, she picked flowers from her lush garden and created the church’s Sunday floral displays. She also inspected a copy of Sunday’s sermon for anything indecent. The church’s sudden disintegration, on the same day as the president’s murder, shocked her into a tremulous state where she struggled with fear, doubt, and lost faith.
In an effort to revive the church, the Deacons assigned the selection of a new pastor to the Ladies For Decency Committee, mainly to keep the peace, as most of the committee members were deacon’s wives. In contrast, Nanny’s husband—my grandfather Billy—was a confirmed atheist who said, “I wouldn’t wish that poor pastor’s fate on the devil himself.”
As word spread about the ministerial job vacancy, Nanny and the committee’s first interview was with a Reverend Williams, an Alameda resident who claimed to be ordained in the Congregational church, but who leaned toward Transcendentalism.
I knew, via my excommunication at 10 years old for calling the Noah’s Ark parable “a load of hooey,” that the New Pilgrim Congregational Church was radically Fundamentalist. I was happy that Nanny had invited me to act as a valet and waiter for the dramatic interview meeting.
Nanny nervously bustled about that Saturday morning, getting her modest home in Oakland’s Laurel district pristine enough to pass the critical judgment of the church ladies. She’d entrusted Grandpa Billy—who was in the early stages of dementia—to make his special lemonade for refreshments. All was going well until the red, wall-mounted kitchen phone rang.
“Hello, Reverend Williams,” I answered. “Your car won’t start? Okay, hold on and I’ll tell my grandmother.”
I gave Nanny the news, to which she responded with a very un-church-lady-like, “Oh, gawdammit all to hell! I’ll have to drive over to Alameda to pick him up. Give me an hour.”
I got the reverend’s Park Avenue address, but I was concerned about Nanny. The only places she knew in Alameda were the beach and J. C. Penney, which was then in the spot now occupied by Kohl’s. I’d need to write down the directions and give them to her verbally.
“Okay, Nanny, go to High Street and make a right,” I told her. “Drive across the drawbridge into Alameda, then make a right on Central Avenue. Then turn left onto Park Avenue.” She was very flustered as she got into her big, gray 1950 Packard sedan and sped toward Alameda.
My new job was to act as host to the church ladies as they arrived. Mrs. Peacock, wife of Chief Deacon Delbert Peacock, was the first to show up. After I explained Nanny’s absence, she stepped through the doorway, looked the place over, and sniffed, “Oh, how claustrophobic. I never realized these homes were so tiny. How does Celia tolerate the clutter, with all this old, shabby, overstuffed furniture?”
Then she started in on Nanny’s ancient black-and-white TV. “Oh my goodness, an old Muntz! Did you know it’s the cheapest TV ever made? Less than $100. I’m surprised that Celia can watch such a piece of junk. Naturally, Mr. Peacock and I are the first couple in the church to have a brand new $500 RCA color TV. We watched President Kennedy’s funeral procession on it. Everything was so lifelike, except the president, of course.”
“Oh, this is remarkably good!” gushed Mrs. Peacock. “Is your grandfather lucid enough to give me the recipe? I heard he was suffering from senility, and even tried to marry another woman. Is it true that he forgot about Celia, and doesn’t even know her name?”
She had drained her glass of lemonade, and I gave her a refill. Luckily, the phone rang and interrupted the rude, ungodly conversation. Nanny was calling, and was exasperated and testy with me.
“Gawdammit, Gil, I’ve been up and down Park a dozen times, and I can’t find his address. Did you screw up again?”
“Where are you calling from?” I asked.
“Nanny, you’re on Park Street, not Park Avenue,” I told her. “Go a block east and look for the park.”
There was a long pause, a very un-church-lady-like profanity, and then she hung up.
“Is there a problem?” asked Mrs. Peacock.
“No, my grandmother was lost in Alameda, but I set her straight,” I responded.
Mrs. Peacock stared at me sternly and barked, “Your grandmother’s search for a new pastor is sheer arrogance, because she knows that my husband, the Chief Deacon, is the only man for the job. My husband is dedicated to his Christian aspirations, and I have a great deal of admiration for him, as does most of the congregation, except your grandmother.”
I was confused. “Christian aspirations?” I asked. “You mean he’s not a Christian?”
That made Mrs. Peacock very angry. She shouted at me, “What a stupid question! No wonder you were excommunicated! Gil, Christians can only aspire to live the teachings of Jesus. I can only aspire to forgive, resist evil, judge not by appearances, take no thought, and trust God to know my needs.”
Then I delivered the last straw. “Why can’t you trust God to know your needs?”
Mrs Peacock glared at me malevolently and snapped icily, “Say nothing more!” Then she shut her eyes and appeared to meditate.
The tenseness was relieved when Nanny arrived—without Reverend Williams. She was weary and exasperated as she explained to me, “He decided that he didn’t want the job because he could make more money as a Fuller Brush Man. I canceled the meeting, but Mrs. Peacock got here first.”
“My God, she’s drunk!” Nanny shouted. “I thought the place smelled like a gin mill.”
I was terrified as I muttered, “I gave her Grandpa Billy’s special lemonade. Two glasses. He must have spiked it on purpose.”
Nanny was thinking quickly. “I’ll deal with Grandpa later,” she said. “Let’s wake her up and get her the hell out of here.”
I tapped Mrs. Peacock’s shoulder and whispered, “Wake up, Mrs. Peacock. My grandmother’s back.”
She woke with a start, looked around, spotted Nanny and mumbled hoarsely, “My goodness, Celia, I dozed off. I stayed up late last night reading my Bible and couldn’t put it down.”
“Yeah, it’s a real page-turner,” Nanny grumbled sarcastically. “Speaking of page-turners, I had an epiphany. I’m going to turn the page on the church’s leadership and appoint your husband as new pastor. For Easter, we’ll resurrect the church.”
Mrs. Peacock stood up. Her legs were wobbly as she reached out to Nanny and hugged her. “Oh Celia,” she slurred, “I’m so glad you’ve come to your senses. I’ll just grab my purse, head home, and tell Delbert the news. He’ll be so honored!”
Nanny snickered. “That’s my other epiphany,” she answered. “I’m quitting the church and will spend Easter with Billy the atheist and Gil the blasphemer. They’re proof that you don’t have to believe in God or religion to behave like a Christian.”
Mrs. Peacock stared at us in stony silence, got into the Buick, and sped off.
Nanny smiled, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “Let’s finish that lemonade!”