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Spring Fervor

Loriann Fell

When you pray, you never know who's listening.

Nine a.m., Sunday morning. The phone rings. I open my eyes and see the lace curtains–bright white, after my mother washed them on my spring-cleaning-birthday-present day–-fill up from the spring breeze. I shut my eyes. The phone rings again. The third time I get up.

It's my mother. She's on her cell phone, in the car, with my nephew in the backseat. They are on their way to church.

"You're coming. Right?" she announces.
"Actually, no."

She makes a noise somewhere between a sigh and a grunt. "But I need you to round people up for the meeting," she says, referring to a church committee we co-chair, but which hasn't even met once yet.

"I have a ton of papers to grade, and I'm already so behind I can't see straight. You do it."

"I'll be in Sunday school."

"Ma, come on. You just gotta leave him there. The other kids are going to make fun of him if he can't go to Sunday school without his Grandma."

Her voice starches up. "He asked me to stay and you know I can't say no."


I look in the bathroom mirror. During the night, my eyes have puffed up and have developed bags underneath. My hair needs washing, and church starts in 45 minutes. I pull my hair up in an elastic band and struggle to pull on a pair of jeans I've just inherited from my stepmother. God. They're a full size bigger than the ones I had been wearing. I grab a big baggy blue sweater that looks made from bumpy bedspread material.

At church, I slide into the pew next to my mother. She looks almost frail in her pale mauve blouse and beige polyester pants. Lately, each week she's shed more pounds since she has recently acquired a boyfriend. She says, "love makes me lose weight." She is dabbing at her eyes with a wad of tissue. During the moment of silence she whispers that she "did it," that is left my four and a half year old nephew at Sunday school by himself, but the teacher said something to him in what seemed to her like a mean voice. She dabs again with the tissue. "It made me cry," she says, as her face crumples.

"Get over it, Ma," I whisper back. "He'll be fine by himself."

"Maybe, but that's a parent's job, to leave him there and tell him he has to stay. And I only had four hours sleep last night."

Of course, date night again. How could I forget? Maybe because I'd spent the evening sharing wine and Indian food with two single friends. Meanwhile my mother is starring in Sex in Her 70s.

The minister is delivering the sermon. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" This is the question to the women who came to look for Christ and found the tomb empty. "We, too, may also be looking for life in the wrong places," the minister says. "Where are you looking for life?"

We sing a hymn. My mother leans over.

"Are you coming for dinner before the meeting?"

"Probably not. I have to meet with students."

She screws up her face and opens her eyes wider. "You will not leave me alone at this meeting. I am not a talker."

During prayer time, I pray for my former boyfriend who is moving back to France and battling cancer. Then I pray for my most recent former boyfriend, the one who sent me an enormous romantic birthday card, then called a few days later to say his old girlfriend had moved back into his house, and that he had been powerless to stop her. "Help them both to be happy and get what they need," I think.

This last bit I cribbed from a Buddhist nun at the meditation group where I drop in sometimes. I've been on a bit of a spiritual quest, and so far it has produced my latest theory, which is that God is like ice cream, and religions the flavors. Lately, I've been having my Christianity with a blend-in of Buddhism. The Buddhists believe that people don't have a separate self, that we're all part of a larger whole, and the way to enlightenment is to show compassion toward every living thing. I have a hard time with the no-unique-self thing, especially after all the time in therapy trying to build up a self, but I am into the part-of-the-larger whole idea. In fact, I have moments–odd, pure, clear moments, sometimes in church–when I sense, solidly and from somewhere inside me, that I am part of something. I feel not alone, and like maybe what's inside me could even be God.

Next, I pray for everyone to be healthy, and for God to help me be the person I should become. Finally, I ask to be able to get everything done without going nuts, since I've been too damn busy to wash the dishes, mow the lawn, or make it to the Buddhist group to meditate on having a mind as deep and calm as the ocean. I do not ask for help with the low-carb diet I am embarking on; I fear that's too mundane.

A musical sound tinkles from my mother's purse. She dives in, roots around, and pulls out her cell phone, encased in a furry pouch so that it looks like a baby squirrel on the seat cushion. It keeps ringing. I open it.

I hear my sister's voice. "Hello, hello!"

I close it and it rings again. "Hello, hello!" She's louder this time.

"I don't know how to turn it off," my mother says.

Since I have the same phone, I know that turning it off will make another musical noise, so I take it outside, ignore my sister's voice still hollering hello, and press the power button.

I come back inside and sit down again. I can feel the waistband of the jeans dig into my stomach. The minister is saying she's so excited about spring, with its promise of renewal and new growth, and hope.

During the offering, my mother says to me, "You know there is a church council meeting the night after our meeting."

"I might not be able to go," I say. "I have to be at school."

She screws up her face again. "I should have never let you talk me into this committee crap," she says. She is not really whispering now.

I say nothing.

During the last hymn she leans over again. "So, you staying for coffee?"

I shove the hymnal in front of both our faces and hiss at her. "No, Mom, I have too fucking much to do to stay for coffee, which you might know if you ever thought of asking me how I am." I have never before said the f-word in church.

She gets up. The tears drip down. "That's it. I'm not staying here," she says. She shoves past me out of the pew, dabbing at her eyes with the wet ball of tissue.

I stand and sing and touch the fat roll around my waist. It reminds me, in case I was wondering, that today I am thoroughly unlikable.

After the service, I do my rounding up of committee people. I don't take a cookie from the paper plate. Instead I go for a tiny cup of water from the cooler.

Outside, I walk across the parking lot toward the Sunday school building. She and my nephew are coming out. I ask him how Sunday school went.

"It was great. We did drawing, and play-doh, and a game!" He turns and waves his coloring paper in the air at another similar-sized kid trailing his mother out of the building. "Bye-bye! See you next time," he crows. He grabs my hand. "Come on," he says, tugging me down the grassy hill, "I want to show you the room where we have Sunday school."

He points inside the sliding glass door to a room with long, low tables, and tiny chairs. I point to the room next door. "Here's the room where I went to Sunday school when I was a kid," I say.

"Before I was born?" His voice rises to a higher pitch at the end of the sentence. "Is this where you went to Sunday school before I was born?" he singsongs again.

Yes, and after Sunday school I went to church with my grandfather, where we sat in the same straight-backed pews and I leaned my face against the scratchy sleeve of his suit coat. My grandmother sang in the choir, and always looked regal in her long black robe and dangly earrings as she processed precisely down the aisle each week. My gray-haired uncle with the glasses came from his house next door every week too, and every week he gave me an especially shiny quarter. My mother, who was still married to my father at the time, was at home, doing yard work–or God knows what, I guess –with my father.

When I came back to church after many years away, at a difficult time in my life, it felt safe and comforting to be there with people I had grown up with, people who knew my grandparents. It felt good to walk down the same little hill toward church next to what used to be my uncle and aunt's house and to see the hedge bounding the cemetery where my grandparents and all my grandfather's brothers and sisters and parents are buried.

"You want a ride on my shoulders?" I ask my nephew.

"Suuure," he says, stretching the word out in his sing-song way so his voice goes up now in the middle. I hoist him up and carry him to his car seat. I make sure to stick my cold hands under his shirt. He wiggles and giggles.

Behind me, where I can't see her, my mother says, "I'm sorry I didn't ask about all you have going on."

"That's ok," I say, keeping my head down. "I'm sorry for being so nasty. I'm just feeling fat and stressed-out and unloved." Then I turn toward my own car, so she can't see my eyes fill up.

On my way home, I start to feel better, so I take another stab at the prayer thing. Maybe I'm talking to God, maybe myself, maybe both, I think. "Thank you for my family," I say almost out loud. Then, as I pull up to the cheap gas place to fill up the tank for the coming week, "And I could use some help with the diet too."

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