Russell Crow was especially enthusiastic on this bright and early Sunday morning; he crowed like his life depended on it. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon but Vivian had been awake long before the rooster or the sunrise. After the family meeting the night before, the one where they’d all agreed to go to church, Vivian began to feel dread building in her gut. There would certainly be old, familiar faces. She was sure there would be questions and whispers and well-meaning folks stammering away, trying to give her encouragement. There were no secrets in a small town. She thought about faking sickness, but immediately had a guilty conscience. She kept picturing that day, after the news about Thomas broke, that she’d gone to work. It was all so awkward and uncomfortable, and if she could’ve wished for the ground to swallow her back then, she would have. The worst part, and she knew this was prideful, would be seeing people she’d gone to school with married and living seemingly trouble-free lives. She knew in her heart there was no such thing as “trouble-free,” but she would bet a dollar no one there had a spouse who stole money from a company who’d only ever been good to him. Her face blushed in the darkness and she could feel the heat rise into her cheeks. How could she face them? At least she wouldn’t have to see Thomas’s parents, they’d sold their farm a few years back and retired in Florida. The family had seen them occasionally over the years, but they really weren’t the “grandparenting” type; at least that’s what they’d said on more than one occasion. It made Vivian pause and think, did Thomas ever feel like he measured up to his parent’s expectations? She was pretty sure she knew the answer; she mentally added it to the list of things she was praying over Thomas.
She slid out of bed quietly and left the room while Tatum gently snored; seemed Tatum did everything “gently.” She made her way to the bathroom where she put on her sweat pants and a t shirt. They’d all been very strategic about their bathroom time since there was only one in the little house. Vivian would leave her clothes folded nicely on the counter so she could change without waking Tatum in the mornings. She pulled the cotton shirt over her head and twisted it so the seams were straight; then she opened the bathroom door and headed for the front door. She’d left her rubber boots on the porch so she could slide them on easily before walking to the chicken coop; turns out it was fun to see how many eggs the girls laid each day. Such had been her ritual since nearly the first day back in Iowa. “Good morning, girls.” She’d tried to name them but found she couldn’t always tell them apart, and, as Tatum said, “You wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings by calling them the wrong name, Mom.” So “girls” it was. The chickens clucked their displeasure at the disturbance then moved so Vivian could pick up the eggs. “I’m going to my childhood church this morning, girls.” She spoke as though they understood perfectly. “I’m nervous but I really want the kids to get back into the habit to attending God’s house.” The chickens continued to chatter, almost as though they were responding. “I’ll let you know how it goes!” She said the words as she closed the gate to the coop.
“Time to get up, everybody!” Vivian spoke the words with as much cheery emotion as she could muster. In the little house all she had to do was stand at the top of the hall and speak, the rooms were that close together. “Let me know if you’re up!” One by one the kids responded letting Vivian know they were awake and moving. “Let’s get started with our bathroom line up, time is going to go quickly this morning. We have an hour and a half before we leave for church. I’m going to scramble some eggs and put some of Grandma Mae’s homemade bread in the toaster if anyone is hungry” This brought more movement and Thatcher emerged in the hall with his thick blonde hair standing up straight. She chuckled thinking it looked an awful lot like Alfalfa from Little Rascals. “Come on, sweetie,” Vivian motioned for him to follow, “let’s go make you some breakfast.”
The family loaded into the big SUV and started the short drive to the country church. There wasn’t much conversation on the way and Vivian didn’t know if it was because they were nervous or if they were still half asleep. It didn’t matter, the quiet suited her just fine; it gave her time to gather her thoughts. She’d been rehearsing answers to obvious questions in hopes she wouldn’t be completely caught off guard.
The moment they pulled into the gravel parking lot Vivian felt the deepest sense of nostalgia. Hadn’t she pulled into this driveway a thousand times or more in her lifetime? She couldn’t remember ever going to a church more faithfully than this one. Her first memories of the services were when she was around four or five. Her hair was braided neatly and tied off with pink ribbons. She wore a white frock with socks and white sandals. She loved Sunday School back then; she always volunteered to help move the flannel pieces on the board when Mrs. Betsy was telling a Bible story. An inexplicable warmth filled Vivian; it felt as though she was standing in direct sunlight, and it permeated her clear to the core. “Here it is, kids.” Words she didn’t really need to say since the old white building was the only one in sight. The steeple stood proud, and the stained glass windows were a testament to time and the families who funded them. One thing was for sure, the people here took great pride in their building. As they climbed out of the SUV and walked toward the country church Vivian noticed two small flower beds flanking the bottom of the steps overflowing with Black Eyed Susans. The beds were a new addition to the church grounds, she was sure. Of course, one could argue they weren’t too new since she’d been gone for over twenty years. To the left of the parking lot was a small fenced-in area with playground equipment that was also new, or new to her anyway. When Vivian was a little girl, they’d burst from the front doors of the church, run across the gravel parking lot and play in the open field next door. Things really had changed.
Standing at the bottom of the few steps that led up to the entrance was an older gentleman passing out bulletins, greeting one and all. “Good morning!” He spoke with conviction. Good morning.” Vivian replied for all of them. “My goodness, are my eyes deceiving me or is that you Vivian Cooper?” The older man adjusted the glasses on his face and leaned in slightly for a better look. If her life had depended on it, Vivian could not have told you who he was, “Yes, yes it’s me, although I’ve been Vivian Lancaster for quite some time. Mr. Um Mr. Uh?” She stood awkwardly waiting for his reply. “Oh yes, oh yes, of course. Mrs. Lancaster, welcome to church this fine Sunday! It’s me, Mr. Barry, I taught you in ninth grade English.” That’s right! Vivian remembered now. “OH! Hi, Mr. Barry! It’s been such a long time, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. This is my family.” Vivian set about introducing each of the children. It was no wonder she didn’t recognize the older gentleman, he’d changed so much since she’d last seen him. I guess they all had, twenty plus years will definitely change a person. “Nice to meet all of you.” Mr. Barry spoke and handed Vivian a bulletin. Then she, with the kids hot on her heels, walked up the stairs and into the building.
Vivian felt like she’d walked back in time; the bathroom was off to the right and the welcome table, with peppermint candy in a glass dish on top of it, were to the left. It was the exact same. She’d have known this place if someone had walked her in blindfolded. It smelled slightly musty with whiffs of wildflowers; the flower scent was probably sprayed out of a can just before the doors opened. Vivian smiled at the ladies standing just inside, some came and gave her a hug and others waved as she made her way through the foyer and into the sanctuary. Oddly, the whole scene felt like she was the star of a parade with the onlookers lining the foyer walls. It was completely awkward, so she kept walking trying to avoid eye contact at all costs. The pews were stained light brown and the seats were padded and covered in orange velour. The old wood floor creaked under the brown indoor/outdoor carpet that only covered the center aisle. Vivian and the kids made their way into the sanctuary and found a pew about halfway to the front on the right side. Grandma Mae was at the organ and she smiled big the moment she saw the family enter through the two swinging doors at the back; Thatcher waved and the others nodded or smiled in return. It was good to be here, Vivian thought to herself once the opening song began. “Family of God,” it was an oldie but a goodie and Vivian hadn’t sung it since she’d left this small town. The kids had never even heard it. And, unlike the few churches they’d attended over the years, this one had no screens in the front flashing the words. The folks in this place sang from memory. Vivian picked up the hymnal, packed snugly in the pew pocket, and found the hymn number so they could sing along. The pastor brought a good message highlighting the parable of the sheep. He reminded his parishioners that Jesus would leave the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one that was lost. “That’s how important each and every one of us is to him,” he spoke with conviction. Vivian listened and appreciated every word and, before she was ready, the message was over. The bulletin said it was time to sing the final hymn and the organ struck the first chord with fervor. Vivian was pretty sure anyone in town who’d missed church that morning could hear the organ and sing along if they wanted. She wasn’t sure if it was luck or a curse, but the final hymn was “Love Lifted Me.” The memory of the first time she laid eyes on Thomas flooded her mind like a tsunami. She fought back tears as she tried to sing, desperately hoping no one noticed. Trying to be discreet, she lowered her head and wiped her eyes. Tatum saw the struggle and wrapped her arm around Vivian’s shoulders for the remaining verses. Her sweet, tenderhearted Tatum. “Lord, are you lifting me?” Vivian prayed in silence. “Sometimes I can’t tell.” But all she heard in response was the crescendo of the organ.