My father’s antidote to his mother’s church-going religiosity was delay.
Every summer, my family spent several weeks with my paternal grandparents in Clearwater, Florida. And every Sunday morning, my grandmother, Nana, insisted upon church attendance.
After breakfast, the six of us competed for two bathrooms. My father always graciously volunteered to be last, allowing the rest of us, especially us women, enough time to adorn ourselves in summer frocks with matching hats and gloves and shoes. Meanwhile the men sought coolness with a wrinkle in summer-weight suits of light linen or seersucker. My grandfather, Papa Schumacher, accessorized with his signature fashion statement: a bolo tie bearing a porcelain scene of The Sunshine State.
Once dressed, the five of us filed out to the garage, as my father inevitably had to return to the house to use the commode. Nana became impatient at this weekly announcement and ushered us quickly into the car.
Nana didn’t drive, so Papa S. did the car purchasing. This one was a rare find. It seems that one year, around 1960, Dodge decided to give Cadillac a little rivalry. They produced an elongated Dart with tail fins that ended with a tiny pair of lights that looked like grace notes.
The head lights were hooded like a pair of eyelashes.
The body paint was pale pink: vintage sun-bleached flamingo.
The interior was fabric: a Scottish plaid of bold reds and black; accents of yellow and green dotted throughout.
I capriciously liked to think that this plaid was a nod to Nana’s ancestry and swayed Papa S.’s decision. Dad disagreed. He didn’t believe in romance. He just scornfully nicknamed it “The Pink Panther.”
My father never could quite get over this Detroit delicacy, but with a smirk and a shake of his head, he obliged to taxi us five passengers around town during summer vacations.
Sunday church was no exception. After we heard the toilet flush a second time, Dad would emerge, ceremoniously open the door, dust his lapels, re-fold his handkerchief and take a seat behind the steering wheel. He would wipe the leather-covered wheel with the freshly-washed white handkerchief, pat his prematurely perspiring brow and then shift the gear column into reverse.
Dad always lost his heavy foot on Sundays. He drove with the dedication of one searching to avoid any possible roadway calamity. Nana began to fidget. My father’s pace slowed. She opened a paper fan printed with tropical flowers and began to wave it furiously back and forth in front of her powdered, moon-pie face.
A leisurely fifteen minutes passed. Somewhere across town, the church building never failed to sneak-up and surprise me. We seemed to approach its parking lot catty-cornered from some intersection and suddenly it appeared like a mound of ice cream on the waffle cone horizon…mint green stucco, soft yet bold in the morning light. Lushly landscaped with bougainvillea, hydrangea, birds-of-paradise and other semi-tropical flowers. Its lawn was so green it glistened even in the shade of the coconut palm trees.
Every year I scanned the property for a flock of plastic flamingos to complete this Floridian Art Deco scene. I was always disappointed. As was Nana.
We always arrived late and most often, too late to get an indoor seat.
My father’s secret genius: I am certain that he was delighted each time the parking attendant directed us to the overflow lot where another attendant placed a dented metal microphone box on the driver’s half-open window, and, handed us six paper fans.
Once again, Neal succeeded in avoiding the church. He confined us to drive-in church, which my brother and I greatly preferred. We could giggle and poke each other with the wooden sticks of our fans, as the adults struggled to grasp the message traveling through crackling static.
I don’t know who invented drive-in churches or why, but drive-in churching was almost as fun as going to drive-in movies – minus the pajamas, pillows, and blankets.
Nana never found the fun in it, though. She was visibly annoyed during the hour of automobile religion. She wanted us to believe, but instead, she only maintained her perfect church attendance record in some rogue reality of her son’s design.
But what was her greatest regret?
I’m thinking it’s that she missed the après-service coffee hour. After all, what’s more enticing than a java jolt and some holy gossip?