By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
It is Sunday in Cambridge in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The forecast is for inclement weather, buckets of rain, wide puddles to jump across, or, if you are of the distracted variety (I’m afraid I often qualify) to splash through unawares. Even with the intermittent rain, Cambridge will be on this day what Cambridge always is: a place of intellectual power, internecine academic battles often on topics of the least significance (hence their abrasiveness); a place, too, where everyone and his brother has either just written a book, is in the middle of writing a book, or is contemplating writing a book that will transform the world as we know it.
It is beautiful… it is exciting… it is lofty and drenched with youth… but there will be absolutely nothing of the traditional American Sunday here… or most anywhere else in America for that matter. That stalwart of our society is dead…. and today I lament its passing and what we have lost thereby. The great American Sunday, sacred to God, family and jackets and ties at an abundant repast, was one of them.
American values, Midwestern setting.
I grew up in Illinois, the most American of states, ultimate home of Abraham Lincoln, the epitome of American values. All states in the Glorious Republic are American, of course; Illinois is the great beating heart of this body politic.
I didn’t know, what child does, that I was, in the ‘forties and ‘fifties living through an inter-related series of cultural transformations which would, after being boiled and scorched in the cauldron of the ‘sixties, strip my family and all the other solidly middle class prairie families of too many of the verities they loved and cherished, believing them to be essential for a life of republican simplicities, moral certainties, and the resounding democratic principles on which the nation was formed. Our Sundays reflected these essential elements and sustained them.
I’d now like to share with you the contours of that Sunday, for it was good, decent, hallowed by tradition yet as fresh as the quips that flew around the highly polished dining table smelling of beeswax and elbow grease, the ample midday fare always abundant, never ostentatious.
Sunday began, for my mother at least, Saturday afternoon. It was then she did the work she hoped and was indeed confident would pass the critical scrutiny she knew her maternal peers would exact on her, her degree of proficiency in the crucial business of mothering, what manner of house keeper, wife, and mother she was, whatever observations made to circulate around the town as fast as, if not faster, than a Western Union telegram.
Fathers could afford to opt out of the crucial Saturday evening tasks for the morrow; children knew they would be called, and often more than once, to “try this on… you can’t wear that… polish those shoes at once and put them in a bag in the car ” to keep them pristine for the absolutely certain community review and commentary. My mother’s standing amidst other mothers and in the town generally depended on what she did and how she did it. And no one, but no one, was more adept at making every fine distinction and conclusion than the matrons of the town. Sure of themselves… their opinions were resounding, incontrovertible, and could never be challenged, waived, or overruled.
My mother, born and bred in Illinois, the stock of immigrants and pioneers, knew all this, none better. That’s why she was busily at work, including doing things even the most lynx-eyed matron could not see… examining linings… ensuring the car was clean inside (outside being my father’s province)…. examining, re-examining, now dubious, now, Mamie Eisenhower-like, concluding with a white glove review and then to her arrangements and personal presentation. No detail, not a single one, was ever overlooked; each according to the standards of her peers, just so.
“God shed his grace on thee.”
I am a WASP, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, my lineage boasting Scots, Germans, and waves of Englishmen. These days it is rather fashionable amidst the ill-informed and worse advised cognoscenti to pooh-pooh and even deride these nation-founding people as limited, prejudiced, arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and worse. If such things were said, even softly, about America’s other ethnic varieties, there would be mass outrage against such bigotry and discrimination. But such things are said of us with impunity, on the same principle as a “cat may look at a king.” My ethnic fellow-travelers sail on disregarding such remarks and distortions. I wish it to be understood that they are as unacceptable as any words of prejudice and bigotry.
The churches of my prairie town were of the usual variety; each had its own constituency and place in the social hierarchy. The Roman Catholics built schools and basilicas on extravagant Roman models. They were, so my grandmother would whisper, full of immigrants from Eastern Europe (the lesser half) and deluded by the incense and fripperies of Pius XII, a Protestant bug-a-bear. Just saying his name could produce a noticeable frisson.
The Protestant churches were headed, such was the residual pull of the nation we had freed ourselves from, by the Episcopal Church. Then a tie between what was still called the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church. Lesser, suspect denominations like Baptists were never discussed at all; a disapproving silence was sufficient. As for religions which sent zealots door-to-door, that was all they ever saw – the door.
My grandparents sternly approved of religion and its virtues, but rarely went to church themselves. In fact, off hand, I cannot remember seeing my grandfather at any other religious ceremony but the marriages of his 4 children and blessed relations. My parents, however, were different; for both, religion was important and as a result theological discussions, publications, arguments, visiting missionaries were commonplace. It was thought only seemly that I should, year after year, win a prize for memorizing the most Bible verses; something which has stood me in good stead to this day, when a Biblical quotation is apt.
My parents were sometimes parishioners in the Methodist Church, sometimes in the Congregational. My first memory of the latter is a stack of folding chairs suitable for the frequent church socials, all stamped “Congo.” I supposed, being geographically inclined, that meant Belgian Congo, an exotic destination of my imagination. In due course I came to be disappointed, learning it was merely an abbreviation for the church itself. Still, since many of my thousand best friends went to the “Congo,” I liked going there the best. It was simply another school, filled with familiar faces.
Arrival at church, “Congo” most of all, was an event. My parents and I pretty much knew everyone because we were related, friends, school mates, neighborhood buddies. This was the importance of Sunday, for here God, family, country all came together, scenic, vital, reassuring, important. It was the heart of the heart of America. We needed more of this in our challenged land. Instead, we have far less.
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About The Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant . Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at http://homeprofitcoach.com/listbuilding