Mrs. Mayhew’s Second Baptism
The following story was written for and read at a fundraiser at First Presbyterian Church of Fairfield, CT on April 1, 2017. Click here to learn more about our church’s ongoing efforts to help the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana build a maternity ward where it is much needed.
Mrs. Mayhew’s Second Baptism
Mrs. Mayhew was ninety years old in 1985 when she was baptized a second time. If she had remembered or if anyone had thought to check the registry at the church campground a hundred miles away in the mountains, they would have seen that she had been sprinkled in 1905. She had just been ten. Her name was Sally, but she had only thought of herself as Mrs. Mayhew for many years. Sally was some girl from childhood.
Charles Alexander Mayhew had been in line next to her and put a hand forward to help her up the stairs where the Reverend and Elders waited. “Lady’s first!” he insisted. Before grabbing hold, she turned to see who it was and their eyes locked. At eleven years old, Charles had an impish grin. He carried that grin with him through their childhood together.
Turned out that he lived a quarter of a mile away and liked to walk. Sally knew this because she could count on a visit most evenings shortly before supper. So, Sally’s mom began a nightly ritual: “Charles, would you mind staying for supper?” She would ask. “We have too much and it just won’t keep.”
That familiar grin infected his whole face, “Happy to help anyway I can, ma’am.” So, Charles became a fixture in Sally’s childhood home.
After dinner one midsummer evening when she was thirteen, they were playing explorers. She was a feisty Pocahontas to his John Smith. After much protestation, she knelt next to the bird bath to be baptized. “I don’t need to be baptized, Charles,” she explained. “I was baptized in front of you.”
“It’s just pretend,” he assured her. “You’re Pocahontas, now.”
She took a deep breath and a long think. Finally, she took another breath and said, “As long as it’s only pretend. You can only get baptized once, Charles Alexander Mayhew.”
Charles placed his right hand in the grimy bird bath water.
Her bright blue eyes peered at him above her red war paint.
“Pocahontas,” he stated firmly. “I baptize thee in the name of the father!” He paused, raising his wet hand and placing it atop her head, next to the tall white feather. Then, he soaked his already damp appendage in the bird bath again. “I baptize thee in the name of the son!” He repeated the first move, only this time emboldened by some hidden power, he brought more water in a slightly cupped hand. Having saturated her brown hair, water trickled down next to her ears. He submerged his hand once again, this time splashing some of the water and spooking an onlooking brown squirrel. Then, with flourish in his voice, delivered the final line, “I baptize thee in the name of the Holy Ghost!” This time more water.
Sally remained still as war paint streaked in places.
But, he continued, “So help me God. Amen and Amen!”
Sally didn’t move; eyes closed, wet hair held in place by a homemade headband for the feather, streaks of war paint now running to her chin. What could possibly come next? She tried to remember what had come next in her actual baptism.
When his lips touched her cheek, she felt a warm sensation in her spine between the shoulders. Her eyes opened to Charles’s sparkling browns. His turned-up lips had a new accent, which took a moment to register, what with all the new sensations going on. She wasn’t aware that her war paint was creating some kind of new fandangled art across her face, just that Charles was wearing lipstick.
So, when he punctuated whatever feelings were going on inside of him by saying a second time, “Amen and Amen,” all she could do was laugh.
He angrily splashed the birdbath and stormed off huffing something under his breath; what, she could not hear.
Moving to dry her face, she finally realized about the war paint and his red lips.
She chased after him around the side of the house and grabbed his hand.
He turned and stared, expressionless.
In what seemed like forever to Sally, they stood eye to eye. She would tell friends for the decades that followed that she didn’t know what possessed her to do it, but she leaned over and whispered into his ear, “Amen and Amen.” And that became their own private affirmation.
Before The Great War, he had asked her to marry him and she answered with “Amen and Amen.”
Before he shipped off to the trenches in Europe, she made him promise to come back to her and he responded with “Amen and Amen.” He wrote while he was there and she could hear his impish grin trying to put a good face on something so terrible. He signed every letter: Amen and Amen, Charles.
When they settled on the name Olivia for their first girl, it started with him asking, “Amen?” and her finishing, “and Amen.” It was a knowing, an understanding, a truth between them.
When soldiers came to their door, explaining that their eldest son William had died a hero on a beach in Normandy, she couldn’t say it. She held it in. She didn’t say anything that day or the next day. Then, on the third day she planned his memorial. The day of, she was strong. People said beautiful things about him, they brought food, and gave her too many hugs. After everyone had left, Charles quietly took her hand and they left for home.
Having raised a family in the house where she grew up, everything was familiar. Everything was home, including Charles. His moist brown eyes peered into hers and he whispered, “Amen and Amen.” She said it too and they wept in each other’s arms.
But now, it was 1985 and Charles had been gone for eighteen years. At ninety years, she had forgotten so many things. So, when the new minister explained that there was no record of her baptism and asked if she wanted to be baptized, she wasn’t sure what to say. She knew there was something, but it wasn’t quite there. So, she said yes.
One of the final things Charles had done for her was purchase a brand new 1967 Cadillac and told her who to trust with its care. That’s what she drove to her baptism. Slowly.
One of the elders, a young professional in his thirties, escorted her to the font at the appropriate time in the service. She didn’t quite fill out the dress she had purchased when Charles was still alive, but she looked appropriate to the occasion. Another elder, a woman in her forties she had always thought had a sweet way with her children, stood on her other side and the two elders helped her kneel.
The minister had said a few things about her life in the church and expressed surprise that no record had been kept. The minister did not know about the church camp and the records there because it had been sold during the Great Depression. The records were probably somewhere, but no one remembered their existence.
The minister then asked her about the basic tenants of faith, “Do you?” To which she answered, “I do.”
The hand at the end of a long black robe dipped into the marble font, “Sally Jean Mayhew, I baptize you in the name of the father.” A few drops of water matted her thinning hair. “The son,” the hand returned with a few more drops of water. “And the Holy Spirit,” the damp hand rested gently on her head.
As the minister prayed, so many images and sounds filled her head. A lifetime of memories. The grandchildren. The children. And Charles. The memories were all present, right up to their last walk on the beach together. Hand-in-hand.
The minister finished, “Amen.”
In that moment, everything was so vivid and present, especially her baptism. Inside she laughed, you can’t get baptized twice. She couldn’t help herself; with as much energy as her frail ninety-year-old lungs could muster she responded, “Amen and amen.”
The congregation was speechless. What they saw was nothing short of miraculous. This quiet old woman was making a statement with these words. These young people saw a smile they had never seen.
The elders helped her to her feet and with tears streaming from her eyes, she felt the war paint on her chin, once again.
It was miraculous. All of it. She remembered.
Copyright © 2017, by J. Sibley Law
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