Wednesday, November 16, 2011

God, Rocks, and Souls

This is an introduction to John McLarty’s book in progress, GOD, ROCKS, AND SOULS, a memoir of an “old, white, liberal Adventist pastor”.

What follows is a “chapter…not in its final form” from that book in progress.

Chapter 52. Emily

Elaine may have had the most dangerous face in the church, but she was hardly the only woman to unsettle me.

I had met Emily my first Sabbath at the German Church. She was parked in a metal folding chair in the tiny lobby of the church, waiting for the Pauliens to get their car and drive her home.

I was fresh out of seminary, employed by Metro Ministries at the New York Center in Times Square, and quasi-officially assigned as assistant pastor at the German New York Seventh-day Adventist Church on Manhattan’s upper east side. I was an easy mark, a brand new pastor eager to do pastoral work. Emily wanted attention. My third week at church, she invited me for supper.

Her apartment was on the second floor of a dilapidated, six-floor walk up on East 85th near Third Avenue. When she opened the door, I looked over her head into what had been a sitting room. The furniture was piled with nondescript stuff, barely visible in the dark. She greeted me with her characteristic cackling laugh. “Ach, mein liebling, come in, come in.” She pulled me down and gave me a wet kiss on the cheek. Then, hobbling on her walker, she headed into the kitchen.

The glare of the light bulb hanging in the center of the room highlighted the water stains on the ceiling and upper wall on the far side of the room. Below the stains was a grimy window, too deep in the window well between buildings for sunlight to reach even if it had been clean. Every horizontal surface was piled with empty plastic containers, pots and pans and papers, especially papers. The yellow linoleum-topped kitchen table was completely buried. Where the table abutted the corner, the drift of church papers, boxes, empty containers, expired coupons for cat food, canning lids and letters approached eighteen inches deep.

When it was time to eat, Emily cleared two spaces on the table for plates and served us from the stove. She asked me to say grace and we ate. The dishes were cracked and stained, but not visibly dirty. The spaetzle and boiled cabbage was edible. For dessert, she served a berry-filled pastry with ersatz coffee made from grain.

Supper over, she had a favor to ask. She had a small house upstate. She had bought it with her husband Albert. They used to have such wonderful times there. Could I possibly drive her up to the house sometime? She would pay for gas. The teenager she had hired in the past had moved.

What could I say?

She talked about her Albertli. And laughed and cried. “Ach, mein Albert!” And her eyes glowed with distant, dreamy fire.

The next Sunday, I pulled into 85th Street hoping to find a parking place near Emily’s apartment. But this was Manhattan on Sunday morning. Across the street was a fire station. No parking there. Next to the fire station, on the corner of Third Avenue was a luxury high rise. No parking anytime in front of it. The rest of the street was parked bumper to bumper except for the fire hydrants. I drove around the block a couple of times. Finally, I doubled parked in front of Emily’s building. She buzzed me in and I raced up the stairs.

She was at the door. Before she shut it behind her, she talked to her two cats. “I’ll be gone for a few hours my dears. Don’t worry. I’ll be back. I’ll get your dinner. Don’t worry.”

She turned, “Ach. How are you?” she giggled. “Come here, let me give you a kiss.”

“We need to hurry.” I said. “I’m double parked.”

“Oh! That’s bad.” her face a storm of indignation and worry.

She gave me her cane and put both hands on the railing. Then lowered herself one step at a time. Every step, I worried about my double-parked car. But I was amazed to watch her negotiate the steps. She was less than five feet tall and appeared to be three feet wide.

Finally, we were on the ground floor. Then out the door, down the front steps. No ticket. Whew!

She called to a couple of firemen outside the station across the street. “This is my pastor,” she called. “We are going to my house in the country.” They waved. I helped her into my gold, 1974 Volkswagen Beetle with sunroof and stereo.

As we drove north, she told me more about Albertli. She had fallen in love with him when she was ten years old. He was seventeen. She followed him everywhere in the small agricultural village where they lived. She had made him promise he would wait for her to grow up so she could marry him. That was before the war.

Then the war came. She lost track of everyone in the village, and after the war ended up in New York City by herself. She found work as a polisher in the diamond district in midtown Manhattan. Her boss always said he appreciated her work. And he was nice to her. But he refused to pay her what she was worth. Once she worked on the Hope Diamond. The guards had orders not to let it out of their sight. They hovered over her until she demanded they get out or she wouldn’t work. They stood against the back wall. She loved telling that story.

Then when she was fifty, she got on the Lexington Avenue local at 86th Street headed to work. The train stopped at 77th Street, and Albert got on the train! She stared. It couldn’t be. Finally, he noticed her staring. He looked again. He came over.

“Are you Emily?”

She said nothing. She giggled. She couldn’t stop looking at him. Then she threw her arms around him.

He met her after work that evening, and they talked half the night. And the next night and the next. During her days at work she struggled to persuade herself it wasn’t a dream. Her Albert! He had married during the war. But after they moved to New York, his wife died. So he hadn’t exactly waited, but here he was, hers. He started coming to church with her. Eventually, he joined the church and they married. Nineteen years of pure bliss.

The small, two-storey frame house was on a corner. A detached garage was back of the house on the right. Albert and Emily used to come up every weekend during the summer. There was a large garden, grassed over now, but still fenced, where they had grown food for themselves and the raccoons, deer, skunks and squirrels. Albert had an uncanny way with animals. Once they found a skunk in the basement. He had walked downstairs, picked it up by the tail and carried it outside where he set it down gently. It never sprayed. Albert talked with the deer. He made friends with a raccoon that visited at the back door frequently.

She wiped tears as she talked about those days. After Albert died, she couldn’t get up here very often. She kept their car for awhile, but after a few years, she had so much trouble with her leg, she couldn’t drive any more. Their house in the country was too far from the doctor, bank and store to manage without a car. So she had to move back to an apartment in the city.

I mowed the lawn. That was the real reason for our trip. For lunch we had sandwiches she had brought, and she opened a jar of blueberries she had canned. I couldn’t tell how old the jar was. The berries were dark. The jar was half juice. But it didn’t taste too bad.

We went another time or two that summer. I had thought I might use my time with Emily to help me learn German. I figured learning a bit of the language would show respect for the congregation’s heritage. But other Germans at the church cautioned me not to learn German from Emily. Her German was “redneck German,” they explained. Emily’s English was none too polished either, but her voice danced with laughter and mischief and life. She was loud and half deaf and irrepressible.

I left Manhattan for four years to pastor on Long Island before returning to the German Church as their official pastor. When I returned, she was delighted to see me and I her. During my years away, Emily had sold her house in the country. I was glad not to have to figure out whether it was my duty to help her get her lawn mowed, but I winced to hear the story of the sale. She had been badly taken advantage of.

A couple of months after my return to the city, I got a call. Emily was in the hospital. When I visited her, she asked me in a conspiratorial voice to help her escape. She had to get back home to take care of her cats. I tried to explain she wasn’t strong enough to return home. But I would check on the cats.

She was in the hospital as a result of a mugging. A couple of teenage girls had jumped her in the hall just outside the door of her apartment. They grabbed her purse, then shoved her down the stairs. She broke her right arm and right leg in several places. Her ribs hurt.

It took effort to restrain my rage, looking at her trussed up in that bed and listening to her plaintive question, “Why did they do that?” What could I say?

Every time I visited her in the hospital, she would ask in her comic, pouty voice, “When can I go home? Why won’t they let me go home? Can’t you sneak me out of here? I’ll pay you.”

I would mumble something. At eighty-two, given her weight and her injuries, I couldn’t see how she would ever get back on her feet. But I couldn’t bring myself to say so.

Then I visited her in her new place, a room on the fourth floor of the Metropolitan Nursing Home on 98th Street. Her roommate, Lucy, appeared to be mildly retarded, but she was fully ambulatory and waited on Emily hand and foot. Lucy would smile at me shyly when I greeted her. She would let me hug her, but she never looked up, never looked me squarely in the face. She would nod her head when I asked her a question, but she didn’t talk. She seemed lost and disoriented.

Emily talked. About Albert. About animals. About people back in her neighborhood. About the firemen across the street and the garbage men and the guy who ran the fruit and vegetable store around the corner on Third Avenue. About the nasty people who lived in this nursing home with her. About mean staff.

On one of my visits we were sitting in her room. Emily was carrying on with her usual raucous banter when suddenly she turned sober.

“John, I have a question.”


“You know my Albertli?”


“You know I fell in love with him when I was ten years old, and then didn’t see him again for forty years until we met on the subway?”

“Yes, I remember.”

She lowered her voice and looked at the floor. She looked up at me again, then back at the floor. “Do you think Jesus can forgive me?”

“Sure, Emily. But what are you talking about?”

“My Albert and me. We were so crazy in love, we couldn’t wait. We couldn’t wait till we were married. I had waited forty years. He had to take Bible studies and join the church before we could get married. It took too much time. And we couldn’t wait.” She paused.

“I asked Jesus to forgive me.”

She paused again, a long time for Emily.

“It was a miracle. After forty years. Do you think Jesus can forgive me?”

“Emily, look at me.”

She looked up. Her face a crumpled mixture of tears and remembered delight.

“I’m sure Jesus has forgiven you.”

“You think so?” She grinned at me, then she was no longer looking at me, she was dreaming again of Albert, her Albertli. A minute later she reached over, tugged me toward her and opened her arms. We hugged and she kissed me, a wet kiss on my cheek.

I didn’t visit Emily as often as I should. It was painful. What do you say to someone who has been fiercely independent her whole life, who loves trees and sunshine and flowers and sky . . . and now lives on the fourth floor of an ugly institution, with no window in her room. Her only escape from her room a wheel chair which Lucy would push down to the day room.

The day room was brighter than her room, but still sterile. And noisy in unhappy ways with the blaring TV and quarreling residents.

On one of my visits, Emily showed me red marks on her wrists. That was where the woman grabbed her she said.


“The nurse. She pulls me out of bed at two in the morning and makes me go take a shower. Why can’t they let me take a shower in the day time? Why do they have to wake me up at night and scream at me?”

She sounded like a lost little girl who needed Daddy or big brother to protect her. But I didn’t know how. Back then I didn’t know about elder abuse. I didn’t know if what she was telling me really happened. I didn’t know how to find out. Was she messing her bed at night and only remembering the efforts to clean her up? Was someone deliberately targeting her for mistreatment? I couldn’t ask Lucy. If I complained to the management, might it make things even worse for Emily? I felt helpless.

The next time I visited Emily, she was in the day room when I arrived. She asked me to wheel her down to her room so we could talk without all the distractions.

“How are you?” She asked in her characteristic loud, sweet-talking voice. I never tired of hearing Emily talk. Her German might be crude. Her entire demeanor evinced a cheerful disregard for niceties and proper manners. But her voice bubbled with laughter, affection and life.

“I’m fine,” I said. “How are you.” It seemed impolite to even ask. What could she say? She was in prison for no crime of her own.

“Come,” she motioned. “Sit down.”

I sat directly in front of her beside the small round table in her end of the room. She dropped her head then covered her face with her hands and began to cry softly.

I let her cry for a minute, then asked. “What is it, Emily? What did they do to you now?”

She didn’t answer at first. She just shook her head. Then she looked up at me, trying to force a smile through her tears. “To think they did worse than that to my Jesus.”

“What do you mean, Emily?”

“You know. Last night when they got me up for my shower at two in the morning, the lady slapped me. Why did she do that? But they did much worse to my Jesus. They slapped him and pulled his beard and beat him.”

She buried her face in her hands again and cried silently for her Jesus.

I wondered what kind of saint I was sitting with. A nurses aid was pulling her out of bed at two in the morning. Yanking her around and slapping her, and Emily was crying for her Jesus. They slapped him worse.

I preached Emily’s graveside service in February. There was slushy snow on the ground. Her nephew and his wife and their two sons were there. The Paulien’s came and brought two other old German women from church. The Feyls, another old German couple from church, came. I talked about Emily’s love for animals and for firemen and the garbage men on her block and for the kids in her apartment building. I talked about the promise of resurrection. I didn’t know how to talk about her crying for Jesus, so I didn’t.

I hope Jesus will forgive me.


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