By Fay L. Loomis
Mom had to sell eggs on the sly to get the money for tickets the day we took the bus from Coldwater to Battle Creek, Michigan. Dad would never have approved of us traveling. If he had caught wind of our secret trip, he would have said, “Hell, no, you can’t go. Praying is for crazy people. Stay home where you belong.”
When we got off the bus, Mom pointed toward a tower in the distance. “That’s Dr. Kellogg’s famous Battle Creek Sanitarium. The tower, high above soaring trees, seemed to nod in our direction, the flags atop wave at us.
We turned and walked at a fast clip in the opposite direction, until we came to a white mansion with fish scales in the pointed gable. “Mrs. Reynolds lives here,” Mom said. “Her husband is a doctor. He works at the sanitarium.”
Mom softly tapped on the door, and Mrs. Reynolds said, “Come in Mrs. Miller. Isn’t it wonderful that the Lord brought us together at Reverend Safford’s prayer meeting when I visited my sister in Coldwater? Let’s have tea in the parlor, and then we’ll pray.”
Mrs. Reynolds looked over the top of her glasses at me and said, “I’m glad you are traveling with your mother. It’s never too early to learn about the Lord’s work.” She paused for a moment to let her words sink in, before asking, “How old are you, young lady? Would you like a glass of milk?”
“Twelve. Yes, please,” I said in an almost whisper. I eased myself onto a velvet chair Mrs. Reynolds pointed to before she marched briskly into the kitchen.
After refreshments, Mrs. Reynolds said, “We don’t have a lot of time. Dr. Reynolds will be here for lunch in an hour. We’re going into another room, in case he should come home early.”
We followed her into the bathroom. I hesitated in the doorway of the biggest, whitest bathroom I had ever seen, taking in the diamond shapes in the window, the rectangular tiles that covered the bottom half of the wall, and the funny-shaped tiny tiles dancing around the floor. The lingering smell of bleach held me back, too. Neither Dad nor I could abide it. The searing of my nostrils hinted at the punishment hell offered for doing something wrong. When Mom used it, Dad would yell, “Don’t use that goddamned stuff in my house.”
“Let’s kneel down,” said Mrs. Reynolds. “We can put our hands on the edge of the tub.” I could see how that would help the fat woman. I took my good old time before getting down on my knees, at the end of the tub, near the door.
Before closing my eyes, I glanced at the two women, a blur of dark dresses dotted with tiny white flowers. Mom was still wearing her hat.
Mrs. Reynolds started off the prayers. “Thank you loving God for helping Mrs. Miller and me find each other, so that we can do your holy work together. And, bless this sweet young girl for joining your army.” I couldn’t help smiling at the thought of being a soldier in God’s army.
“Amen,” Mother responded. “Bless all those anointed ones who pray and work each day to see thy will accomplished.”
“Amen, Lord. Bless the workers at the sanitarium, including my husband Dr. Reynolds, who are helping sick people.”
“Amen, praise God,” Mom said, in a quavering voice. Then louder, “Bless all thy servants.”
“Amen. Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus,” Mrs. Reynolds repeated. She sounded so much like a bawling calf that she scared my eyes open. When I saw her rocking back and forth, I came close to being terrified. If she falls and beans her noggin on the tub or these hard tiles, I thought, we’ll all be in big trouble.
Mrs. Reynolds calmed down and got to the serious business. “Thank you Jesus for shedding your blood on Calvary’s cross so that we might be saved from eternal damnation and the everlasting flames of hell. Bless our missionaries as they bring the gospel to the sinners of the world. Hound the unsaved ones until they repent and give their lives to you.”
“Save their souls, Jesus. Save their souls,” Mom said, her arms whirling in the air. “Remove the blinders from their eyes. Help them see their sinful ways.”
“Thank you Almighty God for this blessed time together,” Mrs. Reynolds said, wiping away tears. There was a long silence, and I got squirmy when all I could hear was agitated breathing. Finally, she said, “Dear, God, bring our husbands into the fold, so they may be thy servants, too.”
We all said, “Amen,” as one voice. I was surprised; we hadn’t planned that. I thanked God (silently, of course) when we finished lamenting and praying, our work done for the day. As I rose off my knees, I felt like I was floating toward heaven.
The ladies walked quietly to the door and mouthed goodbyes, as if to seal our secret prayers away from the heathen. I knew that I would never tell Dad or the kids at school about the mysterious ways of God. I guess this is what Jesus meant when he said to pray secretly in your closet. We beat it to the bus station before Dr. Reynolds showed up for lunch.
On the way home, Mom said, “Did you like our visit to Battle Creek?”
“I like my first time riding a bus, taking a trip with you, but I felt creepy being in a town where there are so many sick people.”
“Dr. Reynolds and everyone who works at the sanitarium help people get well. Did you know Dr. Kellogg invented corn flakes?”
“No, I didn’t.” It seemed like a good thing, though I wasn’t quite sure how Kellogg’s Corn Flakes could cure you.
“Wasn’t it wonderful to pray with Mrs. Reynolds?”
I didn’t know what to say. Mom hardly ever got to go anywhere and risked Dad’s anger when she got home. Praying with Mrs. Reynold had made her heart happy.
“Did we have to pray in the bathroom?”
I didn’t hear a word and glanced over at Mom, her head against the back of the seat, a smile on her face. She was fast asleep. Mom usually pussyfooted around Dad. He wouldn’t have recognized her fierceness today. I hardly did myself.
I looked out the window and counted silos for a while, then decided to ask God about this situation. “Thank you, God, for this trip. I like the bus and Mrs. Reynold’s big fancy house. Thank you for all the doctors and nurses at the sanitarium who are helping sick people.” I took a deep breath and went on: “Merciful God, if you allow us to go back, could you— please—find a different room for us to pray in?”
About the Author: Fay L. Loomis lives a particularly quiet life in the woods in upstate Kerhonkson, New York. A member of the Stone Ridge Library Writers and Rat’s Ass Review Workshop, her poetry and prose appear in numerous publications, including most recently in Rat’s Ass Review, Amethyst Review, Mad Swirl, Stick Figure Poetry, Breath and Shadow, and Hindsight.
Image Credit: “Bathroom” Public Domain image courtesy of the Library of Congress