Sister Alma Rose surprises me on a daily basis. Hourly. By the minute, even, as in the case of Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe (which rhymes with trip, not with trippy, which Mrs. Grippe definitely is, in her austere and haughty way).
Having known Sister Alma Rose all my life, I saw her first as God’s right hand—as near perfection as might be possible for a great sequoia of a woman possessing apparently infinite patience, wisdom, compassion, and authority, and a comfortable quirkiness—her saving grace when it came to befriending small children, who might otherwise have found her a bit frightening.
As it was, by the age of seven or eight I was more often to be found on Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green porch, which wraps around her hilltop farmhouse like a woolen shawl on a winter night, than in my own home across the road. I went to my parents with cuts and scrapes and scratchy throats and runny noses, which they attended to with skill and love and a great many hugs and kisses. I went to Sister Alma Rose with wounds of the heart and yearnings of the spirit—existential growing pains unusual in one so young, I can see now. My parents and Sister Alma Rose behaved as if nothing were more natural than a first-grader’s proposing to become a Roman Catholic because her Presbyterian church had lost all reverence for the sacred and the mystical.
“The Prethbyterians,” I scornfully declared, not having learned to honor people’s chosen paths as different routes to the same destination; also not having learned to pronounce my esses, “treat God ath if he were a conthept, like Open Marriage or being a Whig.” Certainly I understood nothing of Whiggism and less than nothing of Open Marriage, but I knew my Presbyterians (who were typified by Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe) and they were a cynical lot. And the surprise was that Sister Alma Rose seemed to agree with me and offered a parody of Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe and her ilk in church saying the Lord’s Prayer, which clunked along like a wagon that got mired in mud at the end of each phrase:
Our FATH-er [pause],
who art in HEAV-en [longer pause, during which certain women ungently pinch or poke their spouses, occasionally rousing them to at least the appearance of paying attention],
hallowed-be-thy-name [or its alternative rendering, hollowed-be-thy-name; rushing here, momentum all but lost, bodies slackening as if in mute suggestion to the prayer leader that praying, even by rote, is well and good in moderation but enough is, after all, enough, and besides, the next part is unpalatable to hardworking, self-made men and women. But the prayer leader has a job to do and trudges gamely on like someone drained of energy after mowing half the lawn and finishing by sheer willpower].
Thy kingdom COME [full stop. Are we done yet?],
thy-will-be-done [mumbled in a hurry lest God hear and understand what the reluctant petitioner has said and, worse yet, identify the individual pray-ers and take them at their word, plucking them straightaway out of their comfortable four-bedroom homes, newly roofed and painted, water heaters recently replaced, brick patios with propane barbecues installed, and setting them down in vermin- and disease-infested refugee camps]…
on Earth, as it is in Heaven [absently, having forgotten the topic and becoming aware of a nagging pain in the lower back].
Give us this day our daily bread [with new robustness, since everybody knows what it means and likes to ask God for stuff, which must be okay because Jesus sanctions it, right here, right now, in his own prayer],
and forgive us our tresspasses [or debts. Now here the congregation divides, because there are those who know they’ve been bad and genuinely want forgiveness, and there are the others, who are pretty sure they haven’t done anything wrong, or at least anything that everybody else wouldn’t do in the same situation, such as not reporting the receipt of cash payments on their income-tax returns… and still others, whose minds have long since fled the sanctuary and are wondering if they remembered to thaw the chicken or who just really have to pee],
as we forgive those who have trespassed against us [or our debtors, and either way, this can’t be done in an offhand, Sunday-morning-prayer sort of way, because some things just stick in our craw—and what, exactly, is a craw? Is it that place in the throat where a shallow cough starts? And should I take the trouble now to forgive my mother-in-law for never having warmed up to me, when she’ll just keep dissing my housekeeping and criticizing my children? Can’t I wait until she’s done being an old snipe once and for all, and do one big, overarching forgiveness?].
And lead us not into temptation [which we have never understood, because isn’t it God’s job to shoo us away from temptation, and if God doesn’t do his job, then is it our fault if we eat an entire pineapple upside-down cake meant for the potluck supper and take a bag of doughnuts instead?]…
but deliver us from evil [resoundingly, because that’s one we can all get behind]…
for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever [spoken fervently, and a little louder, because (a) the prayer is all but over and (b) we are aware that we have been less than attentive throughout and want to make up for it with this final burst of piety].
Amen [Omigosh, is that my cell phone that’s cheeping?].