FAMILY RELIGION

Sam and Beulah Strachan, my paternal grandparents

My maternal grandfather was so opposed to my father marrying my mother, that he threatened to run my father through with a pitchfork. This was supposed to be because my father kept announcing proudly that he was an “atheist” in the progressive sense of accepting Darwinian science. Religion is always good cover. The real reason is that my maternal grandfather wanted to keep his daughters for himself.

My mother broke away by marrying my father because he was a city man, educated and worldly on the terms of their day. Her sisters compromised by marrying Hatfields, who lived the same rural valley life as the Pinkertons near Roseburg. Their patriarch was richer and more powerful than my grandfather and scoffed at him.

In Portland the newlyweds, late marrying according to the times, settled into a repossessed house, beautifully conceived and built, which was a little small with only two bedrooms and one bathroom. It became our nest, our refuge and our anchor. My mother wanted to move or build on, but my father refused. He was not there when the neighborhood turned Black and the gathering point for rebellion was only a half-block away on Alberta.

In fact, he was so often gone on his traveling job that my mother suspected he had a second family somewhere. That would also account for money being short. Finally she gave up and finished college so she could teach, as she had always expected, so when my father died after years of puzzling disintegration, she was still able to cope then and when my adult brother suffered a concussion and came home for the rest of her life. Then we slowly realized that my father’s concussion in 1948, which was on his forehead, accounted for much.

But not all. My mother, tolerant enough to marry an atheist, attended the closest imposing Presbyterian church, Westminster, until she had no transportation. Then we walked to Vernon. The split came when I went off to college a Presbyterian who accepted the formal rules of “belief” that denominations use as brands. Once there, I took courses in religion and saw no viable option. I devoted myself to theatre, which easily becomes a religion. Or at least a faith.

In middle age, I discovered my father was a covert Unitarian of the patriotic kind, believing in the Industrial Revolution he lived through. He would have loved First Unitarian Church in Chicago with its frieze of steamships and railroads while yet imitating a stone cathedral. It was built a little earlier than the marriage of my parents in 1931. I attended there in 1978, as a student at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, kitty-corner, and sometimes was asked to do a night-watchman tour during vacations. I loved the building, which had an eerie similarity to the big stone Presbyterian church I first knew.

Even the original Vernon Presbyterian Church appealed to me for its almost rural neighborhood feel. But the minister wanted prestige and obedience. When I wrote to withdraw my membership (most people just left), he sneered at my mother from the pulpit one Sunday morning. She rose from her pew and never returned. Now she could drive to Westminster because was teaching and had a car.

My brothers were never interested in church or religion, not even Unitarianism. If the purpose of religion, in all its twisty guises, is meant to provide a frame for living, a way of handling chaos, the males of my family didn’t have that advantage and it shadowed their lives. My mother also discovered the worm in the apple when the prosperous ladies who controlled congregational events felt she was not worth including, even after she volunteered in the office. At the end of her life no one noticed and she was too stubborn and resistant to let any church people near her. Finally, dying, a hospital chaplain sat with her and talked. The chaplain was a middle-aged woman.

I was grateful. My mother never believed a word I said, or at least didn’t admit it, didn’t approve, wanted me to belong to her. My solution had been to go to a new understanding of religion that wasn’t about institutions, which meant that in a decade I left the Unitarianism that had carried me to a new understanding. Unfair, inconvenient, and hard to share, my abiding connection to what is holy has not failed me. It is partly natural history, I guess, and still partly theatre; partly connection to a living indigenous tribe and partly to high theory even past those troublesome Algerian Frenchmen of recent times: Derrida, Foucault, and the like.

Now I see that all existence is connected, that every creature is linked by overlapping DNA, and time in the eternal sheets of Being through the Cosmos cannot exclude us because we ARE it. Just only another of infinite iterations.

How I love big words! I never took Latin but in my youth even the Reader’s Digest had a page of prefixes, suffixes, and roots. Vocabulary was a Big Deal. But I relish today’s tumbling jargon as it tries to keep up with concepts we never thought of before, information that is almost unbelievable, and contradictions that change everything. Previous religious paradigms are overwhelmed.

Because my mother was so faithful in her job and so enduring in her neighborhood, she left enough money for me to buy a house where I wanted to be, next to the Blackfeet rez, though my first job collapsed and I nearly starved until Social Security. My brothers had equal amounts: one invested his. The other brother spent his on bad housing and cheap food, then lived off relatives as his concussion took him into paranoia, and finally lived on the street. The daughter he fortuitously had outside marriage is over forty now. She barely knew him as a young child. She’s no church-goer but she is stable and competent in a strong family.

Churches as congregations work pretty well in places where there is enough population density for like-minded folks to gather. I loved Sunday morning services, even when I was burdened with preaching. Even if I’m no member of any now, I enjoy sitting with people and singing together. But I don’t see the world as they do. We can’t sit together in unity at this moment, when we need it most, but the time will return and we have memory.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.