Ponca wasn’t saved. The thought sat like a weight on my chest. Grandma didn’t attend church either, but Mom insisted her mother believed; Ponca, my grandpa, was another story. He was a wayward soul – someone we prayed for earnestly as if faith was something that could strike a person from above, like lightening.
Mom credited me with her own salvation. “You brought me to Jesus Christ,” she liked to say. What she meant was that I had come home from my Lutheran kindergarten singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” She claimed that it was the first time she’d really heard and believed the message that Jesus died to save sinners. She’d had no problem identifying herself as a sinner (her grandmother was Southern Baptist), but the belief part had apparently been lacking during all of those years of attending church with my dad, my sister, and me. Once she did believe, she worried about those who didn’t, including her own father.
Her version of heaven was an exclusive country club reserved for those with the correct set of beliefs. I imaged it looked much like our Lutheran church with God wearing white robes and sandals. According to Mom, our Mormon neighbors who followed Joseph Smith’s teachings belonged in the same unsaved category as Ponca. Instead of praying for their souls, Mom harped on the threat they posed. We had to be vigilant, to resist their attempts to convert us. It didn’t occur to me to question her judgment of our neighbors until I was much older, but even as a child I couldn’t believe that God wouldn’t save Ponca.
Once my sister Amy and I were old enough, we spent a week each summer with my mother’s parents at their home in Grand Junction, Colorado. Their house sat on a plateau looking across a vast arroyo at the Colorado National Monument. During our visits, we drove to reservoirs, picnic areas, and national parks. If we were on a day trip, Grandma sat next to Ponca on the ivory, vinyl bench in the red Ford pickup and stared at a creased map. From where I sat opposite Amy in the cab, I could see the top of Ponca’s shiny, brown freckled scalp peeking through his oily strands of hair. His nose ascended ruggedly from his face like a geological formation. The nails on his fingers were thick and coarse from years of fieldwork in remote areas surveying land where uranium mining breathed life into tiny towns and years later sucked it back out just as quickly. With one hand on the wheel, Ponca whistled along to Johnny Cash’s crooning from the 8-track player. Periodically, he slowed down and used his free hand to point out patterns of multicolored strata in sandstone.
Nature was Ponca’s cathedral. He spoke about how the earth was formed the way a priest might read Holy Scripture. When I stood with Ponca, Grandma, and Amy under Delicate Arch near Moab, Utah one summer, I felt my own insignificance next to its grand scale. It was the way I was supposed to feel about Jesus dying for my sins.
The summer that I turned 15, my grandparents took Amy and me to California in their RV. With the brown, rust, and gold décor, the vehicle seemed like an extension of their home: a miniature version that included a removable kitchen table that transformed the space into an extra bed. Our route included natural wonders like Lake Tahoe, Monterey Bay, and Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Yet, my grandparents also grasped the need for two teenaged girls to experience a slice of American culture a la Walt Disney. I’m not sure it had ever occurred to my parents that we might enjoy a trip to the Magic Kingdom. If it did, Dad likely weighed the money involved along with the infamous LA traffic and quickly dismissed the idea. Disneyland would have been my mother’s worst nightmare: a crowded venue that was a tribute to Walt Disney, whom she disliked almost as much as the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith. She had little use for what she considered to be fairytales.
The highlight of our trip to the Magic Kingdom came when I convinced Amy, Grandma, and Ponca to ride It’s A Small World. After the four of us stepped into a boat, we entered the tunnel underneath the clock tower. The displays with mechanical people dressed in costume were larger than life. The kaftan-clad African tribesmen looked nothing like the photographs of native people in my parents’ National Geographic magazines. Sombreros and mariachi music blurred past followed by Hula girls shaking grass skirts. Display after display bombarded me with intense colors, patterns, ensembles, and lyrics sung in different languages to the familiar tune.
Finally dolls representing each culture came into view, clad in white versions of their traditional garb singing English words in unison. When the ride was over, I insisted on taking it two more times. Something about the music invited me in and reassured me that we were all the same regardless of what we looked like on the outside. Despite all of its garishness, the ride celebrated diversity. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, the song “It’s a Small World” contained a similar message, albeit a secular version, of lyrics I’d learned in Sunday school: “He’s got the whole world in His hands” and “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” These were the songs that had shaped my dream of becoming a Christian missionary, like my art teacher in sixth grade who had lived in Papua New Guinea for a decade. As such, I could convert native people before my Book-of-Mormon-totting counterparts got to them. I had no problem thinking of living among strangers in a foreign land and reading the Bible to them, but approaching Ponca was another matter entirely. I loved him just the way he was.
At dusk, we left the park as fireworks exploded above the Magic Kingdom. Traveling north on Coastal Highway 1 in California and through the Sierra Nevada for the remainder of our trip, I heard, though the mountains divide/and the oceans are wide/ It’s a small world after all.
One night at a KOA campground, Grandma climbed up into the mattresses above the cab wearing her nightgown. Amy took the top bunk and I, the lower near the back of the vehicle. Ponca walked past us fully dressed.
“I need to use the John W. Crapper, then I’ll come to bed,” he commented.
“Carl, what will their parents say if they repeat that?” Grandma hollered from atop her perch.
Amy and I giggled. We’d never tell on him. Such moments were our little secrets. Minutes later, Ponca pushed the accordion door open, snapped it in place, and turned off the lights.
“You girls don’t peek,” he instructed as he stripped down to his white undershirt and briefs that glowed in the dark and crawled up into bed next to Grandma.
From my bunk bed, I prayed for Ponca. Only it wasn’t a prayer for him to have faith so much as it was a hope that God had big enough hands to hold us all.
Wendy Besel Hahn has an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in So To Speak, Front Porch Journal, andThe Chaffey Review. She is a regular contributor for Around Reston. To learn more about her writing, please visit: http://wendybeselhahn.com.