My youth was spent waiting for Jesus to return. Those of you who are religious may know something about the feeling. But the fact of His coming back wasn't just an abstraction, something that will occur at some point in the distant future after you and I will have shuffled off. Rather, it was something imminent and impending.
Actually, it felt like when you and your buddies sit down for a poker game, and then one of them gets up to see a man about a horse. But the rest of the players draw or fold or what-have-you, and now it's his turn, but he ain't back, so everyone else just waits and sips their beer because there's no sense in doing anything else until then.
My mother is (and I say "is" and not was because the unkillable old bird is still alive at a very, very ripe old age) deeply religious.
She was brought up Catholic, and not the friendly, corporatized Catholocism of Vatican II, in which the customer is almost always right, but the hardcore hairshirts and penance kind - she had the kind of pious devotion to the papacy exhibited by, say, Torquemada.
And, attending that piety was the sure-thing, you-can-bet-on-it certainty that Jesus was about to come back any minute.
I can't really blame mom for thinking the end was near. A documentary I half-watched on History Channel before it was all devoted to bootleggers and Bigfoot said that even in the first century, they thought the end was near. Jesus himself said when you see famine, war, rumors of war, earthquakes, etc., know the time is near. Every generation thought they were the last.
And, to let you in on a little secret, I must be my mother's son because, as the looming, utterly terrifying specter of Y2K approached, it occurred to me that maybe gold would be the only currency with any value in the post-apocalyptic world of the year 2000. I converted a significant amount of my saved-up pittance into precious metal. And as I sat on my couch, blinds drawn, rifle cradled in my lap, and watched the clock tick over into midnight; a minute past; two minutes past; three, with all the lights, power, internet, and even, thankfully, cable TV still in service, well, I have to admit I felt like a fool.
Hard as it is to pin down, I suppose there's one thing you can't argue: 'THE END' is closer now than it's ever been and closer by a country mile than it was two thousand years ago. Plus, you might be observant enough to note that signs of war, famine, and pestilence haven't exactly subsided. All of that having been said, I sometimes thought that Mom used the much-awaited return of Christ as a way to get out of spending money. More than once, I heard her wield the argument like a bludgeon in small tiffs with Dad. Dad wanted to buy a new pickup in the early 1960s. Like everyone else, he was enjoying the warm glow of post-war prosperity and wouldn't have said no to a spiffy new rig to drive around Lewistown in. He expressed that to her, and she would immediately knit her brow into her most doleful and God-fearing expression.
"Earl, you don't need a new truck. You'd no sooner buy it, wasting all your saved-up money on it, than Jesus Himself would come back. And there you'd be, sitting in your brand-new pickup truck, and you'd have to answer to Him why you wasted your money on such a frivolous thing. Your savings!"
Dad would pick at her logic, trying to find chinks in her armor.
"Marion, does it not say in the good book that a wife should do as her husb..." and then he'd sigh and start over with a different tact when he noticed her glare. "Alright, what if Jesus doesn't come for, oh, twenty years? Then a new truck would be a good investment."
"No, He'd like it better if you saved your money instead."
"Save it for what!? If He comes tomorrow, our savings will have been wasted! Better spend it before He comes back! We worked for that money!"
"Earl, when Jesus comes back you'll be too busy singing 'hosanna hosanna hosanna' and getting ready to be judged by Him to worry about your damn money."
"That's what you think," he said huffily, snatching his coat off the peg to go busy himself with some ranch work rather than continue a well-worn argument.
I suffered under the same regime. Mom, ain't that a pretty J.C. Higgins .22 they got there in Gambles? You suppose I might get an advance on my allowance so maybe I can get it?
"If Jesus comes back, and you're standing over a dead bird or squirrel or prairie dog clutching that gun, well, then He's going to just send you straight to Hell right then and there, young man."
Like Dad, I tried to argue. I wouldn't shoot any animals except maybe snakes and skunks, and I would only use the .22 in the service of righteous deeds, but she wouldn't hear of it. That Dad got his truck, and I got my .22 was only on account of a long period of begging and doing our best to be very good boys. If I had to guess why Mom is still holding, sneaking up on Methusaleh's title as the oldest person ever, is that she's waiting for Him to show up already, certain as she's ever been that she'll be there to witness it when it happens.
But, to give Mom credit, there were a few times that her millenarian Catholicism resulted in something fun. After all, why not have another slice of cake or second pork chop when Jesus will probably just come back before you'd have to deal with the calories? She was wrong about this, by the way, and Jesus, if you're reading this, and I know you are, please come back before I get any fatter. Lord, save me from having to go on a diet!
Mom could, on occasion, be a gruesome battle-ax, but she loved Spring and was much more receptive to frivolity and silliness when there were beargrass and yellowbells blooming on the hills and the air was perfumed with the scent of lilacs. One day, in particular, lingers in my memory. I was sitting at the breakfast table with my brother and sister, and we were tucking into our Malt-o-meal, which I hated almost as much as I hated eating trout. My little brother Neal, however, poured sugar on it and spooned it up ravenously.
Mom was standing by the kitchen window, looking out into the yard and holding a teacup that she seemed to have forgotten she was holding because I hadn't seen her take a sip yet. She seemed wistful. I'm still not sure why. Maybe she and Dad had fought, or maybe the opposite had happened, and she had been made a girl again by some romantic gesture he'd performed to which us dumb kids weren't privy. Suddenly, she turned around and looked us each in the eyes. Though in her mid-forties, it struck me that she seemed girlish all of a sudden.
"Kids, do you want to go to school?"
Hell no, I thought, elated by whatever new adventure this portended. I knew my little brother Neal would agree with me, but my older sister Elaine was the risky one. I could see her saying, "yes, of course, mother! I always love going to school!" But lo, she just slowly shook her head 'no,' cautious that it was a trap.
"Then why not stay home? Better yet, let's go somewhere. Let's pack a picnic and have lunch at the big springs."
We searched each other's faces, unsure who this woman was. Surely she could not have been our mother.
Finally, Elaine asked what was on all our minds, though I feared that upon hearing it put this way our mother would return and shoo us outside with our lunchboxes: "...but don't we have to go to school?"
A smile crossed her face and, remembering it, I imagine that must have been the playful young woman my father had first courted.
"No, Jesus is going to come back any minute, kids. Whatever you were going to learn in school today isn't any more important to know than that. And besides, if His second coming is soon, then we'd better enjoy the little time we have left on this earth."
We gawped for a moment, and then attacked her with hugs. We did have a picnic that day, too, which I remember with great fondness despite the fact that Mom had packed pimento loaf sandwiches. Perhaps she thought that an afternoon of sheer joy would have been too great a sin, and packed them as a kind of mild penance. Regardless, it was a magical afternoon. Dad laughed when he came home and we told him about it, giving Mom an odd little look that she only returned with a smile.
I think about that a lot when I set down a slice of cake or a big juicy cheeseburger in front of my own sons, or when I very occasionally let them take a day off. After all, Jesus might be on His way here right now, and as wonderful as Heaven will be, I think they deserve a treat in the meantime.
Come to think of it, so does Mom. When I visit her later this week, I'll bring her a big bunch of flowers even though, if she were still possessed of her faculties, she would surely consider them an extravagance.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.