ON BEING USEFUL: Then Coop says what he’s thinking: “I think that if you’re alive you’re of some use, or the Creator wouldn’t have put you here in the first place, or keep you around past your usefulness. Are babies in the cradle ‘useful’? Are madmen in an asylum ‘useful’? You don’t have to produce something to be useful, I don’t think.
ON CHURCH SECRETARIES: Heretofore, the unwritten rules—given that the church secretaries had historically been women—were that the secretary could be neither too young nor too old; if the former, the threat of scandal was too great, if the latter the lesser risk of incompetence. If young, it was paramount that at the very least the Church Secretary not be attractive, and failing that, she should be married. Miss Crenshaw is eminently suited for the job inasmuch as she—although without a matrimonial attachment—is lacking in both youth and beauty, deficiencies which trump all other concerns.
ON PETTING: Millie had sat at the table after Frankie left pondering her daughter’s last question. Yes, she did listen to herself. Actually in this case, the person she’d been listening to had been her mother who had had the petting conversation with her when she was Frankie’s age. Her mother had framed the discussion differently. Millie’s body is a temple—a sacred temple. This temple is holy. It must be kept clean and the doors locked. Not just anyone should come in to her temple to worship. She had said to her mother: “The doors locked?”
ON WOMEN: In a rare moment of sobriety, Jules once declared to Coop, when they traveled to Waterloo to attend the Cattle Congress, that there are two kinds of women in the world: Those who need money and must save it in order to spend it, and those who have money and spend it because there is no need to save it. Mrs. Broughton belongs to the latter caste.
ON JEWS: “He’s Jewish for one thing,” counters Bandy, “and that certainly makes him different, and if you ask me, this country is becoming the Jewnited States of America as it is, together with its capital, Jew York, Jew York.”
ON VOCABULARY: Her vocabulary, Coop had learned, consisted of a mix of four words, sweet, adorable, cute and delicious, which were usually applied to babies, dogs or food.
ON MAKING CHOICES: “You can always do whatever you want,” Naomi would say to Frankie and Tink, “as long as you’re prepared to pay the price. That’s right. Isn’t that amazing? Whatever you want. But you has to be willing to pay the price. You better know what the price is, though, because sometimes it’s pretty steep.”
ON HYPOCRISY: “Hypocrisy. Most people don’t really like to be saints, but they’re not willing to be considered sinners, so they play the role of a saint. I’ve found that small town saints are also big time sinners, and often you can’t really know who they are or what they’re thinking. All we see is the role they’re playing in public.”
ON BEING JEWISH: So Wasonenskar was raised Jewish, although the Reverend Mother who made these arrangements died of natural causes, and her replacement was not so zealous and sometimes Wasonenskar had to attend Catholic masses. He became in practice, if not actual belief, a Catholic Jew, or he thought, a Jewish Catholic. In any case, he carries around more guilt than all the felons in the Cook County jail put together. He is the sorriest fella Carlo has ever met. He is always saying he is sorry for this, that or the other thing. And if he isn’t observing Lent, he is doing Passover, and he traverses easily between Chanukah and Christmas. He is bi-religious, bilingual and bi-cultural and as such he approaches life with a certain lassitude and detachment.
ON CHURCH ORGANISTS: Organists are a breed apart. You can tell a piano player what to do. Even a choir director will listen to your ideas about possible and future anthem choices. … You can work with bullies, thugs and miscreants, and make a deal with the devil. But organists cannot be told a blessed thing. One cannot reason with the organist. One cannot make deals. Bribery will not prevail nor flattery avail. The morals and spirituality of organists are pre-Christian, antediluvian and pagan. There was never a more obstinate personality of such intense egocentrism created than that of the church organist. They play what they prefer and show up at rehearsals according to their good pleasure. They play as loud as they please, and regard the non-musical world as a community of cretins. They are bilious, natural born complainers conceived under the twins signs of Melancholia and Hypochondria.
ON EASTER FASHIONS: From the rear of the auditorium the congregation looks like it is bedecked in facsimiles of unidentified flying objects. Frankie and Vic have matching pink bonnets. The men and laddies are in suits. Rosy-cheeked popsys are beaming in chiffon frocks, pinafores and colorful taffeta dresses with rosette necklines. On their feet are black patent leather shoes with white anklets, and their heads are crowned with Easter bonnets of every color of the rainbow. And, although the temperature is mild, several women view Easter as the last opportunity to wear fur; there is more than one fox stole slung over the shoulders of the Bathington women in church this day, with the snout of the beady-eyed Reynard resting lightly on the matronly breast. Thus, the sacred auditorium is a polychromatous marvel of dead flora and fauna, fabrics, textiles and straw, arguably more spectacular than the Resurrection itself.
ON BENIGN MIDWESTERN RACISM: Although the good people of Bathington are certainly no strangers to benign Midwestern racism, or even anti-Semitism, race in the case of Miss Alice Xiao Hua Wang seems to be a positive factor. Even Mrs. Broughton, although suspicious, understands that she is innately suspicious of everyone, and she admits to herself privately that she finds the little Chink appealing. There is no thought whatsoever of a link with the Communists. She is as American as all the Dagos, Krauts and Wops who seem to be pouring into the upper Midwest these days from the eastern seaboard.
ON DAUGHTERS LEAVING THEIR MOTHERS: “Remember you’re a good Christian girl,” Millie says, dabbing at her eyes with a pink, wet handkerchief on which are embroidered lavender forget-me-nots, her voice quavering. But she is quietly weeping less for the daughter stepping out with the young man waiting on the landing below than she is for the mother whose daughter is walking through that door. Any mother, of course, has every reason, yea, a right and responsibility to be weeping at such a moment as this. For when the girl walks through that bedroom door, approaches the stairs at the bottom of which far below is a young man, why, that girl has stepped through the Portal of Childhood and Innocence and is now negotiating the Stairs of Responsibility, Decision-Making and Choices, away from all parental restraints. It’s a defining moment, a tear in the fabric of the universe that changes everything, that will from that moment on create an alteration in the relationship between the mother and the daughter. A mother at such a time as this must wail, for the daughter who passes through that door is, in some respect at least, never coming back. And therein lies the conflated and irrational knowledge that slices like a double-edged rapier through the heart of every mother, to wit, that the daughter who leaves is never coming back, and further that it would be a disaster if she did. A mother is slain either way. It is the way of the world. Daughters leave their mothers.
ON SEXUALITY: His angina is acting up and he’s sure his blood pressure is off the charts. Kissing a woman for the first time in years will do that to an old codger he surmises. He’s mildly surprised at himself, because he didn’t just receive a kiss, he returned it as well. He smiles. He didn’t know he had it in him. He thinks of himself as a piece of fruit—dried and wrinkled on the vine, still hanging on until the day he’ll drop to the soil and be one with the earth. Dust to dust. But so much lately has been happening. His lecherous thoughts about a lithesome Chinese girl young enough to be his granddaughter. The half-naked Sally Ann Hildebrand and her enormous bosom. Penny’s hand caressing his leg and setting fire to his loins. Her lips upon his, flesh upon flesh. He’s 68 years old, for God’s sake. He’s a widower. He’s lost a wife, and a son in a senseless war, and now in many ways alone, no longer a father, no longer a husband, and now all … this! Old men arriving at his station in life are supposed to be gentlemen, cultural eunuchs, devoid of passion, assumed to have outgrown the desires of the flesh, to have come to some crazy state of pseudo-sanctification, sexless beings whose only contribution to society is to reminiscence about the past, to offer advice and wisdom which is routinely rejected in any case. Old men like him, well, we’re not blind now, are we? Temptation is no respecter of age, is it? The same blood runs through the veins of an old man as runs through a youth of 19, right?
ON BOYS AND GIRLS: “Boys don’t like smart girls,” Naomi observes. “No, I think it’s that smart boys don’t like smart girls,” complains Frankie. “So whoever does ask us out are likely to be as dumb as posts. Smart boys want dumb girls, Nomes, ’cause they think they’re sluts. That’s probably how that Clare Goodnow girl got knocked up—a dumb girl with a smart boy.” “Shut up, Frankie,” says Naomi. “You’re making me depressed …
ON GETTING SAVED: “… the music which—I can’t explain it—just reached into my soul and grabbed me, and it was like the preacher was preaching right to me, like there was no one else in that big tent but me, so when he gave the invitation and altar call, I got up off the bench where I was sitting and I marched right down the sawdust trail to the front, got on my knees and asked Jesus into my heart and to forgive me all my sins, every last one of them, and to wash my robes white in the blood of the Lamb, and to make me a new creation in Christ and to write my name down in the Lamb’s Book of Life and give me eternal life. And Miss Cooper, Mrs. Cooper, and Mr. Cooper, when I did that, when I prayed the sinner’s prayer, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner,’ you can’t imagine the feeling, the relief I felt, it was like I was carrying a hundurd pound load of corn on my back and it was just lifted off, like I could stand straight in my soul for the first time in my life.”
ON MORAL RELATIVITY: “Well, you’re probably right. People like you of selective moral ideals are people with no morals at all. Morality is not something you choose, you know. Religious values are not something for which you shop at the department store. Ethics and morals are not plates or entrées at a cafeteria and you get to pick and choose what you like and what you don’t like.” Now the granny shoes begin to move. In a shrill, stage voice, and prancing around like a show horse mare, Broughton continues: “I’ll have the tenderloin instead of the meatloaf, the broccoli instead of the beans, the crème brulee instead of the pudding. I’ll take a little lie today instead of a little honesty, a little malice instead of modesty, with a side dish of vulgarity, and for dessert a trollop and a tart. Perhaps on the morrow I’ll partake of some faith, hope and charity and some good, old-fashioned decency.” … Well, none of that for me. Oh, no. I stand for something. I make things happen. You … you are just a happening.”
ON MARKSMANSHIP: [Alice] “No we don’t, Mr. Bandy. Your life is in my hands. I can put a bullet in your head at any second, even as I am talking. I am a dead shot. I can shoot the dick off a mosquito from twenty yards. So you’re only alive at this moment because I think there’s still a chance that no one needs to die. But my finger’s getting tired and itchy, and my patience is running thin, and worse, here’s the thing, Mr. Bandy, I got to pee. I don’t know what happened, but I got to pee bad. And I can’t hold this much longer. So you’re going to have to decide pretty quick, or I’m just going to shoot you.”