DiAna Smith and
Christina Brockett

Christina Brockett

Inspiration piece

By DiAna Smith

Someone is always watching…even when you least expect it.  For many years in the church where I was raised it was me watching each and everyone.

On Sunday mornings Mom would dress me in one of my frilly dresses, a matching bow in my hair and nary a smudge on my patent leather Mary Jane shoes.  My brother, Joey, always looked so different to me on Sunday mornings — like a miniature man in a tie and sports jacket.  Joey was eleven and I was five when Mom thought Joey old enough to begin walking me the mile to church across Philadelphia’s busy intersections.  Mom sent us.  She didn’t take us.  She worshiped her time alone.

Joey would quickly ditch me at my Sunday school room door.  He’d escape all responsibility until after I attended Sunday school, snack time, and junior church.  Joey would meet up with his friends and go to his Sunday school class and church.  I never felt slighted or alone.  I loved the freedom and developed a shadow self who came to keep a lot of secrets.  And, my shadow self harbored these secrets until now at this writing.

Ours was a grand field stone church that took up an entire city block.  It looked as if it were lifted from a quiet British Village in the 1800’s and placed in throbbing Philadelphia.  I was fascinated by the warren of hallways lined with heavy oak doors with immense and ornate rooms behind them.   Way back in the fifties doors to rooms stood open, ajar or if closed — certainly not locked — even better for me.

The church building fascinated me and little-by-little became my private palace.  I would slip out of class, wander the halls, explore niches and slip back into class.   I was a part of the baby boomer generation — children were everywhere — I could hide in plain view.  As the years passed, I perfected my skills. By the time I was ten I knew every inch of the church.  And, there was little I didn’t secretly come to learn about the people that made up the church’s congregation — and just adults in general.

One night during a church dinner being served in the huge hall next to the kitchen, I went unnoticed up the wide wooden back stairs that spiraled up to the brass-railed balcony over the sanctuary. I loved to look down at the empty sanctuary in the low lighting that made all the altar silver and brass trim shiver and gleam.  Even the stained glass took on a glossy, mirrored quality in that limited light.  All looked magical to me.  I got to thinking of these secret places as mine.

Imagine how annoyed I was at hearing whispered voices in my balcony.  Was the balcony door ajar so they could hear someone coming?  Well, they wouldn’t hear me…super sleuth.  Imagine my surprise as I peered onto a scene out of one of Mom’s soap operas on TV.  It was dark but I could see my best friend Mary Anne’s mother in the arms of Dougie’s father.  They were kissing and cooing.

Silently, I returned to the church dinner and found Mary Anne’s father serving food to church members.  Dougie’s mother was eating dessert with my mother, her best friend.  I never said a word until here and now, but I kept a beady eye on all four adults.

Months later Mary Anne told me with pride that her mother had gotten a great job at a big insurance company downtown.  I didn’t say a thing, but I knew Dougie’s father worked at that same insurance company.  I noticed Mary Anne’s mother was dressing glamorously, wearing perfume and make-up.

As Mary Anne’s mother grew happier, I began noticing that the framed pictures of Mary Anne’s father, handsome, muscular, and squared away in his Navy uniform, were slowly disappearing from all over their small row home.  A year ago Mary Anne’s father had been discharged from the Navy.  When he couldn’t find a job the church hired him as the sexton.  While roving I began to notice him taking swigs out of a bottle he kept mixed in among his cleaning supplies on the utility cart he pushed around the church.  Later, I began to notice his khaki work uniform was wrinkled.  He always looked like he needed a shave.  Finally, I would see him sound asleep in the back of the stadium seating in the auditorium.

When Mary Anne’s father was fired from the church, Mary Anne’s mother gave up on him and had him move out of their home.  But, she didn’t give up on the church or Dougie’s father.

I also noticed that Dougie’s father didn’t leave Dougie’s mother.  And to that, Mom would have said to the soap opera on the television screen, “Same old story of triangles…the men always have their cake and get to eat it, too.” I never said a word.  I liked Mary Anne’s mother.  She took Girl Scout training so she could lead our Brownie troop when none of the other mothers would.  Also, I loved being a free agent.  I knew better than to blow my cover.

One Sunday morning the following year I was touring the Sunday school wing while junior church and church were simultaneously being conducted.  I saw my classmate, Eddie, standing at the open supply cupboard.  The huge oak cupboard door was pushed back against the wall.  Only the teachers were allowed access to the hymnals, prayer books, catechism volumes, and stored supplies.  Eddie was up to no good – fooling around in forbidden territory.  Why would Eddie want to help himself to any of the religious materials?  He paid precious little attention in class.  Eddie and his younger brother were having a tough time of it   Their mother had just died.  Their dad was wrapped tighter than ever and was constantly disciplining them.  These poor guys hadn’t had any fun in a long time.

I simply slipped back into junior church. I never said a word.  It wasn’t too long before we were all being evacuated as smoke began filling the wide corridors.  Two classrooms were destroyed.  I kept Eddie’s secret, but the Fire Marshall fingered Eddie as the arsonist before the following Sunday.

On another Sunday foray, I could hear the day’s collection being counted behind a closed door.  The paper dollars were being snapped into piles with rubber bands.  I could hear coins being separated to roll in the heavy paper tubes for the bank.  Then an angry voice streamed out into the corridor.  It was my friend Monique’s father, the church treasurer:  “Where is the foreign coin that was put in today’s collection?”  A long silence.  “I know it was right here on this table.  I put it there not three minutes ago.” More Silence.  Finally, Caleb’s father spoke, “I collect coins.  I paid for it.  I put money on the table when I took it.”

The treasurer’s voice boomed, “I only see one-dollar bills on this table.  How much did you put in?  “One dollar? “  Caleb’s father managed a weak, “Yes.”   And then the treasurer really boomed, “You know it is worth twenty times that much.  I demand that you put the coin back.  You are relieved of all money securing duties!”

In my young mind I searched for the words the Rector said when he blessed this money during the service…something like “the fruits of people’s labor that they freely give to the church.”  Caleb’s father was willing to take that money?  Yikes!

I remembered, too, that Caleb’s father always made sure there were a lot of fun children’s activities at the church.  My parents didn’t take on volunteer projects.  So, I kept his secret as did the treasurer.

As an adult looking back, I can’t remember anyone ever maligning anyone else in that church. I can vividly remember people who were always inappropriate in manner, dress, or actions.  But, all of them were taken in stride and accepted as the texture in the church fabric.  I may have missed an abundance of early formal religious education.  But, I learned a lot about life during my roving self-education.  I learned to respect people’s privacy, to listen and to observe.  I got to compare the seamy and the glorious sides of church life side-by-side.  I still am disappointed that adults are different people when they think no one is watching.  Someone is always watching.  Many times it may be the least among us.


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One Comment

  1. Posted June 2, 2010 at 8:49 am | #

    I think Christina’s photograph is stunning.