Yesterday's Magazette

12 – The Convert

The Convert

By Toni Clark

I didn’t worry about Dad’s soul. After first grade in Catholic School I knew it was a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday, but I thought he was outside the rules I had to live with. He was Dad.

While he wrote checks to send my sister and me to Catholic school—complaining at assessment time how unfair it was to pay property taxes for a public school system he didn’t use–Dad seldom attended Mass.  Most Sunday mornings Mom, Judy and I lined up as a threesome, heads covered with hats or scarves, in a pew at Holy Rosary Church while he slept in. Dad also ignored our practice of going to Confession once a month on Saturday afternoons.

Before he had married my Polish Catholic mother in 1940, Dad converted to Catholicism. At the time, the Catholic Church forbade “mixed” marriages–marriages between Catholics and Protestants. Dad’s mother, my Grandma Kate, was said to have said at the time, “I hope he is a better Catholic than he was a Lutheran.”

I always thought it gracious of Grandma to have said that, but was confused about her attitude. It implied substance was more important than brand, as far as religion went, and this was not a favor a Catholic could extend. In that era even attending Protestant services was considered sinful for Catholics. And I found it puzzling but clever, how my Lutheran Grandma could manage, with a few words, to cede Dad’s religious life to his future wife.

In spite of his loose attachment to religion, I knew Dad was a good man. He owned a cab company and employed people who would have had trouble finding work otherwise. My maternal uncles were on his payroll; they were often in and out of trouble with the law for selling liquor at a premium at times of week when the blue laws forbade it. Dad worked part-time students into the taxi schedule and encouraged them to keep studying. He also hired ex-convicts when he felt he wouldn’t endanger customers. He expected everyone to show up on time and to work hard; he watched receipts closely.

One Saturday morning when I was 11 years old I got up early, as was my habit, to watch cartoons and eat Cheerios, Trix and Frosted Flakes. Cartoons and cereal were forbidden except on Saturday mornings, when my parents liked to sleep in. But that morning I found Dad awake, sitting on the sofa in a pair of slacks and one of his sleeveless undershirts. “I did something stupid last night, Honey.”

He sounded serious. Not like his ruffle-my-hair, call-me-Toni-Baloney self.

“The police stopped me on the way home from work.” His head was down and he paused, like he was rethinking whether to tell me the rest.

Whatever it was, it seemed like big trouble; something that would put him in a jail, more important than the one my uncles dropped in and out of. An epilogue from the then popular Dragnet television series rolled by in my head: “Clarence Clark was charged with…and found guilty of 6 counts of…and sentenced to 20 years in the Federal Penitentiary. The End”

“The police took me to the station and were going to book me. A friend of mine, the chief, saw me. He said, ‘Clark, what are you doing here?’ I came about an inch away from being fingerprinted. The chief told the officer he’d take care of me himself and drove me home.”

“What did you do, Dad?” I said, speaking from somewhere below my bumping heart.

“A patrol car picked me up in a speed trap. I was going too fast up Fifteenth Street on my way home. I’d been drinking. He said I wasn’t driving very well.”

I felt relieved. The term “DWI” was not in my vernacular, or the culture’s at the time. Not like it is now. At eleven years old I had been in plenty of cars with adults drinking; nothing bad had happened or been implied.  One of Dad’s friend’s, George, used to take most of the curves on the highway from Tacoma to the Pacific Ocean with a fortifying flask of Seagrams in the glove box of his Cadillac Seville. Open beer bottles in the car were common among my parents and my parents’ friends. With permission, I’d taken a swig from a “stubbie” passed to the back seat from time to time.

“Is that against the law?” I asked, incredulous.

“It is. And it is the dumbest thing I have ever done. I could have gotten a criminal record and maybe lost the company. It would have made the paper. I was lucky. And I am so sorry because it might have hurt you, your sister and your mother.”

I remember feeling older, and different–responsible in a way I didn’t understand. And yet, thinking about it now, I believe in that moment I trusted my father more, not less, than I had before.

When my mother got up I could tell she knew the story already the way the percolator landed on the range with a bang and the refrigerator door slammed. Maybe it was because my feelings were so heightened, but I think I could hear her put each one of the cereal boxes I had left on the kitchen table away in the cupboard.

“I’ll be wanting you in church more, “ she said, “and on Saturdays I want you home here mowing the lawn.”

And that’s how my Dad got religion. He joined us, dare I say religiously, every Sunday. A gregarious man, he quickly emerged as a lead usher at St. Charles Borromeo, the parish that had replaced Holy Rosary for us when we moved to the suburbs. However, Dad was careful to arrive early, in time to park in a space close to the driveway so we could make a quick exit during the recessional hymn.

Our lawn became a spectacular mat of green, cut not just once, but twice, weekly: the first time in lines and the second, on the diagonal. Dad discovered Scott’s Fertilizer and eventually Scott’s product “Weed and Feed.” He bought it in bulk and sold to the neighbors from the bed of his beat-up yellow truck. The closest he came to evangelism was with this fertilizer, pressing the neighbors:  “No reason not to have a perfect lawn.  Our water is un-metered. If we all order Scott’s together we can get it at a good price and all our lawns will look great!”

When Dad saw the end of his life approach he tended to his affairs: wrote his will, put his money in trust and paid for a new roof for the house. He also installed an automatic watering system for the lawn.

When he died, we planned a Catholic funeral at St. Charles. We met with a young priest, who at first didn’t remember Dad. After we chronicled his history with the parish as a founding parishioner and usher the priest exclaimed, “Oh, I remember Clark. The one who knew how to connect with everyone, even when he was sick? You both sat in the back to the right—right?” he said, turning to my mother.

“So he could get out fast,” my sister and I said, simultaneously, laughing.

Dad’s Catholic service, preceded by a Rosary, was well-attended with a Catholic priest officiating and all Catholic hymns. His body was driven away while the rest of us stayed on for the reception. I think he would have appreciated being the first out of the lot.

Eight years later, when Mom died, we called St. Charles to arrange for her service. There was no priest available for a weekend service. With some reluctance, knowing my mother’s Catholic beliefs, my sister and I placed a call to my sister’s Lutheran Pastor. Mom’s Lutheran service was beautiful, a comfort to my sister and me and Mom’s extended family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren and friends. My Aunt Betty, Dad’s one remaining sibling and a life-long Lutheran, participated, as well as two Catholic nuns.

When pressed, Dad said he believed one religion was as good as another, if you were a good person. As for me, I don’t see the harm in mixing them up either.


Toni F. Clark is a writer, as well as a career and life coach. Her personal essays have appeared in the Washington Post, and online in the SNReview.  She lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and son.

Vol. 36 No. 4 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Winter – 2009-2010

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