When I was a little kid, Saturday night was the most difficult thing about Sunday morning.
by Charlie Leck
On Saturday evenings, the old, round, tin tub was laid out in the kitchen (as I remember it) and it was filled with hot water that had been boiled in pots on the stove. With a toe or two, I would test the temperature of the water that came about half-way up to the top of the tub. It was always found to be too hot and was cooled down with the addition of some cold water from the old hand-pump on the sink. Finally, I was induced to enter. My towel was stripped from me and I sat down, bringing the water up nearly to the brim of the wash tub.
My mother knelt down next to me and the tub, and the scrubbing began. A bar of soap was rubbed into a wet, course wash cloth and then rubbed into me – into my face, neck, back, chest, backside, legs and feet – and into my nether parts. Then began the element of the ritual I hated the most – the washing of my hair. No matter how sincere and well meant the promises that it wouldn’t happen, shampoo always got in my eyes and it always burned. My mother’s hands would rub the shampoo deeply into my scalp and massage the top, sides and back of my head with her finger tips. There was no mercy. Every bit of dirtiness and any threat of creature habitation had to be removed by force!
My wailing and screaming did no good. The attack on my scalp was never lessened. It was thorough and all out. I felt relief only when I was removed from the tub and transferred to the little shelf next to the sink, where my hair would be rinsed by the cold water ejected into it from the big pump under which I would hang my head. That process called for more wailing and shedding of tears.
Finally, in great humiliation, I would stand in the sink and my entire body would be rinsed with luke warm water, poured over it from several pots and pans that had been heating on the stove while I bathed. It was a relief when the big towel was wrapped around me and I was pronounced clean and bright – even behind my ears and under my fingernails. I was ready for the Sunday morning tradition.
Sunday School began at 9:30 in the morning up at the big Congregational Church on the hill about two blocks from our store and home. I was never allowed to skip Sunday School. My mom and dad could miss church and most often did because it was one of the busiest of times in our general store, what with the sale of hundreds of Sunday morning newspapers by people who often ordered a “real Sunday morning breakfast” to go with the reading of them.
Somehow, in spite of all the orders for eggs, bacon and butter-toast, which were shouted back to the kitchen, my mother managed to get me dressed up in heavy tweed suit with a stiff collared white shirt and carefully knotted necktie. She stood me up and looked me over. Usually there was a touch up here or there; perhaps a wiping of my shoes or a gentle polishing of the “perfect-attendance” pins that hung just off the lapel of my suit jacket.
My hair had been gunked down with something mighty gooey and my cheeks had been buffed to bring out some pinkness in them. I was given a quarter for the offering plate and my very own Bible was placed in my hand and tucked under my arm. With a kiss on the forehead and a pat on my backside, I was sent on my way up the hill, to the church. One of my big brothers would escort me across Main Street and up to a sidewalk where I would have a safe walk all the way to the church.
My brothers often hung back, too, and didn’t attend their Sunday School classes. They had stopped receiving their pins because of their imperfect attendance record. I was to represent the entire family on each Sunday morning and I was expected "to grow in the faith and in the knowledge of God and His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour." It was a burdensome responsibility, but I climbed the hill with my head held high and marched to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers playing loudly in my thoughts.
In the store, both of my brothers got to sell newspapers, candy bars, packs of cigarettes, quart bottles of milk and half-pounds of freshly sliced spiced-ham. My father took orders from the various diners. A cup of hot, fresh coffee could be purchased for a nickel. A big plate of two eggs (sunnyside up), a thick slice of ham and two pieces of hot toast painted thickly with melted butter would cost 35 cents.
How I envied my family their busy, exciting time in the store, but I bore proudly the responsibility of climbing the hill to that sacred place to uphold the mighty reputation of our entire family. Over the years, as I grew, so did the length of the pins that were added to my chest. Even through my teenage years, I would not rebel at this burden placed on my shoulders. The one great change in the tradition was the running water that was finally added to our store. With it came a real bathroom, making the outhouse out-dated and unnecessary, and an honest to goodness bathtub with both hot and cold water. Then, I could bathe myself and wash my own hair and be more careful about the shampoo getting, or not getting, in my eyes. However, all through high school this Sunday morning tradition was carried on and I always, without fail, walked along Hillside Avenue to the lovely, white church on the hill.
The hymns were always the same and, in my teenage years, I knew them all by heart. No other child had a string of pins nearly the length of mine. I wore them proudly for approximately 15 years – right up to the time that mother died, and I went off to college, and I was too far away to go back there to climb the hill on Sunday mornings.
Yet, even now I remember those Sunday mornings so clearly. Off to my right, as I type out these words, a big and lovely photograph of the white church hangs above my desk. It was given to me only a dozen years ago or so by one of the wonderful teachers who taught the Sunday School classes I attended. On mornings like this one, I look over at the photograph and remember so clearly the walks up the hill to learn about Jesus.
The big, white church on the hill -- the First Congregational
Church of Chester, New Jersey.