Sorting by

Skip to main content

“And made me free. . .”

All this tabloid talk brings us up to our necks in sleaze, but I don’t think Mr. Pecker should get the last word.. 

Once upon a time I had an aunt–I used to think of her as an aunt, but she wasn’t. Maybe she was a second or third cousin. Anyway, she was–she’s gone now–a roly-poly thing with stringy Dirkse hair and a pin-cushion nose who was nonetheless blessed with a happiness quotient most folks would aim for if they had half an idea of what exactly it was. 

I’m quite sure she was Mom’s second cousin, but the two of them got along like sisters, because they were both kin and kind. Like Mom, she could not pass a piano without laying down two or three hymns, “peppy things,” she would have called ’em, her faves—and by ear. She would have been at home with a big Wurlitzer at Wrigley Field, were she so blessed, but she wouldn’t have kept the job for more than a half-hour without breaking into “I Will Sing of My Redeemer.”

I could go on, but the truth is, I already have. This cousin-of-my-mother long ago made a sustained appearance in a story I wrote, where, when introduced, she marches off the page thusly:

“To see Sarah Esselink outfitted in a Santa suit would be to behold Saint Nick himself. She has his round face, his pudgy nose, and his apple cheeks. What’s more, her sticklike legs seem inadequate to lug her heft around town. She has his eyes too–bright, sparkling twinkles that glitter when she’s at the piano–and everyone recognizes that silly, chattering giggle of hers, even in a crowd.” 

Is it plagiarism to quote myself? I hope not.

“Calvary Church has its share of guilt-ridden folks with over­cast faces, but no one would accuse Sarah Esselink of being among them, even though, given what her son’s become, many would say she has a right to be dour.” 

 “She has never led any of the many organizations she’s served–Ladies’ Guild, Booster Club, Legion Auxiliary–but most people would say Sarah long ago found her own distin­guished place at the piano bench at Calvary. She was blessed with massive hands, a titon’s heart, and sensitivities so promis­cuous that whenever she hears children sing the old favorite hymns–“The Old Rugged Cross” or “I Come to the Garden Alone”–her thick fingers wiggle into her purse for the tatted hanky.”

Pardon me for enjoying the way that last sentence wiggles along.  

“Such powerful hands and such a tender heart make her piano playing remarkable. She is self-made as a pianist, having pulled up her skills from the bootstraps of her own meager talents; she hears a melody once and owns it thereafter, as if God in his infi­nite wisdom stowed a memory chip in that round head of hers.”

In the story from which I’m quoting, Sarah has a gay son. In life, she didn’t–at least not that I know of. But in the story–and in life–she had this thing about the National Enquirer–she is, well, addicted. She regularly buys them, brings them home, devours them when her husband is at work, then trashes them so he can’t notice.

It’s dangerous for writers to release images of their relatives to the reading public—I know that, but I’m crossing my fingers I’ll get away with this one.

Her husband knows, of course, but he’s big enough to allow her some few incidental transgressions. This Sarah Esselink and my mother’s cousin carry their remnant Dutch Calvinism in somewhat traditional ways–they’re too Calvinist to speak in tongues, but if the two of them had had a choice, they both wouldn’t have minded being splayed out in the pews in some hybrid spiritual rapture at least once in their lives. 

When I was a kid our two families occasionally vacationed together. I was old enough to distinguish strange goings-on, but my parents handled it like the joke it was. My mother’s cousin allowed herself to sin gloriously when on vacation, so gloriously that she bought a copy of every last tabloid at the grocery store. God’s house was somewhere back home when they were on vacation. He graciously gave His own some space. Sort of like skipping church if you’re at Yellowstone.

Anyway, I can’t help but think with the hush money case we’ve buried ourselves in sleaze long enough. The entire nation needs a shower.

I can’t help but think mom’s favorite cousin had a more urgent sense of sin than the other Calvinists in the family. After all, my parents giggled Cousin Sarah’s addiction away. 

But then, these days she’s throned in glory, un-hooked, you might say, and, what’s more, if there’s a piano anywhere near to being had, I’d bet anything those fat little hands of hers are finding every last key. And you know what else? In whatever food marts exist on High, I’m flat out sure there are no Enquirers to be found, which means she’s free.

Sing, oh sing of my Redeemer;

With his blood, he purchased me;

On the cruel cross he suffered,

paid the debt and set me free.

I don’t think she’d mind my telling you.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

Leave a Reply