Saturday, March 24, 2018

Mom and Billy Graham

In the autumn of 1950, some months after Dad married my new step mom, I came into the house one evening and found her with her ear pressed to the radio.  I knew who was speaking and I wasn’t happy about it. It was the popular new evangelist, Billy Graham.  I had nothing against him in particular.  It was just that my new stepmother was an unknown quantity.  I had been told by a friend of our family, someone who was apparently already acquainted with my dad’s new fiancee, how lucky I was to have this lovely new stepmother. She said I should do my very best not to give this paragon any trouble, as if it would be my fault if the marriage didn't work out. Although I did not exactly like the life my grandparents lead while I lived with them—the long nights at the Eagles’ Club, the drinking, the fighting—still, it was what I was used to. I did not want a suffocating piety to descend on the family.  I had just turned ten. 

During the next twelves years, while my father was alive, Mom appeared to put her religious yearnings on the shelf. She followed my dad dutifully into his county-club life, taking golf lessons, hosting cocktail parties and dressing up for weekend evenings at the club.

She also turned out to be the promised lovely stepmother. She largely understood me and often took my side against my father and grandmother, who could be over-protective.  We could talk about a lot of things together, except for sex and religion.

“But what about the people who never had a chance to hear about Jesus? Are they all going to hell?”  I would ask.

“We are not meant to understand things like that,” she would reply.

“But what about all that scary stuff in the Book of Revelation?”

“We are not meant to understand things like that.”

After my dad died, she regularly attended First Presbyterian Church.  If the sermons in this mainline church did not sound the same as the sermons of the conservative Presbyterian church she attended as a girl, she most certainly found echoes of her childhood church in the words of Billy Graham.  She also enjoyed the elaborate telecasts of D. James Kennedy and Robert Schuller. Sunday nights were reserved for Charles Stanley.  She liked his habit of providing an outline of his sermon before he began. She filled several notebooks with his words. However, it was Billy whom she loved the most. He was almost like a member of the family to her. 

That was why it should have been no surprise to me when she began crying in the mid-80’s as we were pulling into our motel at Ocean City, MD.  We were on vacation with her and our two school-age daughters. All three of them were in the back seat of our station wagon. 

“Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked.

“It’s Harold,” she sobbed.

“What about him?” Harold had been my dad’s best friend and drinking buddy. Neither one of them ever had time for church.  Harold had recently died quietly, but unexpectedly, at home.

“I can’t stand the thought of him burning in hell,” she said, tearfully.

“Oh, Mom,” I began, “Harold isn’t . . .”

“GET THEE BEHIND ME, SATAN!” she snapped.  I meekly retreated, ready to drop the subject.

Twenty years passed and Mom was living with us.  One day she said to me, “Your husband doesn’t love the Lord.”

Now my husband, like my dad, rarely went to church, although he had fond memories of attending church with his parents when he was a boy.   He had treated her with good-natured kindness ever since she had moved in with us. “Mom, why would you think that?" I asked. 

“Don’t you remember, when we were in Ocean City, that time he piped up about Harold? I told him to ‘get thee behind me’ and he never said another word!”

“Oh, Mom,” I said, not wanting to revisit that topic again by telling her it was I who’d tried to comfort her.  However, I couldn’t help but wonder why she had been so anxious about where Harold was spending eternity and  not at all worried about my dad.