"Jesus in a crown of thorns," by Ilya Repin

The Winning Way

“The Winning Way” examines the slow, insidious chipping away of one’s own conscience through adherence to rigid belief systems, which provide a comforting certainty. It takes a hard look at what humans are willing to give up to feel connected, and how easy it is for us to fall prey to sinister ideas and beliefs when we are hungry, nearly starving with unmet needs. This story taps into a drama currently playing out in the world, as COVID-19 runs rampant, along with conspiracies. Many families are watching as vulnerable loved ones cleave to groups such as QAnon. They ask themselves, “How can they believe these things?” This story is a response to that question.

Sister Myrtle Monks was done playing around.

            That’s what she said after the spit flew, and the door slammed. So hard, our dresses flew up. Stuffing her Bible back in her book-bag she declared, “I’ve had it. I am done playing around.” Her face flushed and shook as we marched past the cappuccino-colored Porsche Cayenne SUV parked in the drive.

            She wheeled, shook her fist at the sprawling stone house covered artfully in ivy, the southwest Missouri version of an English country estate, with its arched wooden door and fancy gas lanterns perched on either side. She yelled, “After Armageddon, just you wait. I’ll have your house!”

            We kept marching, rounding the prim and upright hedge, back onto the wide sidewalk, pristine and glittering in the morning light.

            Sister Monks yanked her book-bag higher up on her arm. “What an ass.”

            That was true. The man who’d opened the door, gentlemanly and well-groomed, had smiled in a warm way that left us completely unprepared for the spit bomb. I felt it then, the warm wet stain on the front of my dress. My first thought was, I’ve been baptized. Officially persecuted. A real Jehovah’s Witness.   

            Then it registered. What Sister Monks had yelled. After Armageddon, just you wait. I’ll have your house! Her voice a roar, quaking with vengeance.

            I wondered if he’d heard. Or if the neighbors had. I looked around, this way and that, over my shoulder. I was new to the faith, but I knew for a fact we were not supposed to yell at the house-holders. Asses or not. Sister Becky Robins had said, when she first started studying the Bible with me, it’s a badge of honor to be hated. Jesus was hated. You know you have The Truth when you’re hated. And you always, always respond to hate with love.  

            I’d heard the same wisdom from my professors at Missouri State, studying to be a teacher. No matter how much a student acts out, the teacher must remain kind. I’d dropped out, but so much of what I’d learned in my Education classes had proven useful as a Witness.

Image by Godsgirl_madi from Pixabay 

            Becky was the one who’d found me. I was home trying to study, but couldn’t concentrate. Darlene and I had just had another brawl. I was hurting pretty bad when the knock came, and I opened the door. There was Becky, shining the warmest smile on me. Then she’d dipped her head, asked if I was okay. I ended up inviting her in, telling her about my terrible family. It was the easiest connection I’d ever made. She studied the Bible with me, got me going to meetings. A month ago, she’d been accepted to Gilead, the missionary training school for Jehovah’s Witnesses, up in New York. It had broken my heart to see Becky go. Sister Monks had taken over studying with me, getting me ready for baptism. She’d taken me under her wing. Eighty-five-years-old and sixty of those years, she’d been serving Jehovah. Sixty years!

            Surely that wasn’t the first time she’d been spit on.

             My next thought, was it true what she said? About getting that guy’s big house? All I’d learned is that after Armageddon, when the wicked were destroyed, faithful Jehovah’s Witness survivors would work together, refashioning the earth into its original perfect Paradise. But would we also get one of these nice, big houses to live in, if their owners didn’t make it through? Wouldn’t that be something.

            I wanted to ask Sister Monks, but she was still in a huff. So I bit my tongue.

            She veered off the sidewalk into a park. I followed her to the edge of a little lake, with a fountain splashing up at the center. She sat, hard, and I sank down beside her, on an ornate bench beneath a tree. It was a graceful tree with long arms, the kind that sweep ever so gently in the soft breeze. The kind of tree I always wanted, as a kid. We’d had pines. They towered over our trailer like they owned us. When I climbed them, they left pitch in my hair. Mom would grab me by the shoulder, cut in quick, rough scissor chops. “You quit climbin’ them nasty trees, you hear!” Next day, I’d be off to school with bald spots. I hated pines.  

            Sister Monks pulled a jumble of Kleenex from her book-bag. She handed them to me. “Here, Sister Daisy,” she said. “If you need it.” Her voice was subdued, and she didn’t look at me.

            I pressed the Kleenex against the damp spot on the front of my dress. Before becoming Jehovah’s Witness, I was not a dress person, not at all. The first few meetings I attended at Kingdom Hall, I wore a pant suit. Becky informed me, tactfully, that Christian women wear skirts and dresses. Christian men wear suits and ties.

            Becky carved out time to take me shopping. She helped me pick out my book-bag, an imitation black leather satchel marked way down at TJ MAXX.  I also chose some dresses, on clearance. Becky counseled me the whole time. She told me what necklines were appropriate, as well as dress length. Becky filled me in on Sister Radcliffe, an attractive, single woman in her 30’s who went to our congregation. Becky said, Sister Radcliffe is immodest, seductive like Potiphar’s wife. Showing cleavage wasn’t a disfellowshipping offense. But, Becky told me, the Elders had reprimanded her. When she didn’t listen, she was Marked. That word unsettled me. It sounded like something from a horror movie. I’d asked her what it meant. She said, when you’ve been Marked, the whole congregation knows. They know you are someone to watch out for. Someone to avoid.         

            Well, that explained some things. I’d already noticed that people didn’t talk much to Sister Radcliffe. She often left meetings early. And she wasn’t invited to get-togethers.  

            I definitely didn’t want that to happen to me. I spent my whole childhood on the outs. My mother did lots of mean things but one of the worst was the Silent Treatment. I’d almost rather she hit me than give me the Silent Treatment. She was so committed, she could go a whole month, turning her back on me when I entered the room, looking over my head, or right through me, walking away, shutting her bedroom door right in my face while I cried, begging her to relent.

            So nope. No way. I was determined to do everything right in my new spiritual family. The one that, Becky promised, would never leave me.

            Finally Sister Monks turned to face me. She looked weary, beat down. Really fragile. I got a little scared. Maybe I should call someone. Who would I call? She didn’t have any family. As far as I knew, Sister Monks never married, never had kids. Should I tell an Elder? Maybe she needed a doctor. Maybe she wasn’t well.  

            She took a breath, said, “Dadgummit. Sometimes I really wish it was the 1930’s again. I used to preach with a portable phonograph. Days like today, I really miss it!”

            I smiled, uncertain, and my eyes drifted down, settling on Sister Monk’s shoes. Black, sturdy, thick-soled. Nurse’s shoes, like Darlene’s, made for a lot of standing and walking. Shoes with grit, shoes with more perseverance than most people had. Scuffed and scratched, I saw a whole story unfold in those shoes.

            I probably didn’t need to worry. Every once in a while, even the strongest ones snapped. I said, “A phonograph? What was that like?”

            “A pain in the butt.” She smiled. She wore a pretty peach lipstick, same color as her sparkly clip on earrings. “I’m kidding, of course. I loved Aaron.”

            “Aaron?”

            “That’s what we nick-named the phonograph. We brought Aaron to the house-holder’s door, knocked, and played a four-and-a-half-minute recorded Bible message when they answered. Sometimes, oh, it was wonderful! Whole families came out onto the porch, crowded around, listening together to hear the Good News. See? That’s why we called the phonograph Aaron. Because it did all the talking for us!” She chuckled, nudged me.

Photo by Chris Dorward

            I laughed. Even though I didn’t get the joke. I didn’t want Sister Monks to go back to the Elders, tell them not to baptize me because I didn’t know who Aaron was.

            But I couldn’t hide from her. She leaned in and said, “Exodus 4:14-16. Jehovah was angry at Moses. He suggested that Mose’s brother, Aaron the Levite, should take over speaking. Aaron was a good speaker, Jehovah said. He might do better than Moses at communicating God’s messages.” She winked. “Now do you get it?”

            “The phonograph was better than you at preaching.” I laughed but, the truth was, that story upset me, deep in the ribs. Jehovah reminded me of my Mom. Mom blew up at Darlene a lot, even more than me. To get back at Darlene, Mom would compare her to me. If Mom was mad at me, and then Darlene pissed her off, she’d forgive me quick, just so she could use me to hurt Darlene. That’s what my sister and I still fight about. The past, how unfair it was. I couldn’t help but wonder if a similar rift opened between Moses and Aaron because God played them off each other. It was probably a big sin for me to compare Jehovah to my Mom.

            Sister Monks leaned back against the bench, gazed out across the lake. The breeze kicked up, and our dresses rippled. “Do you know what happened in 1975?” She asked.

            I side-eyed her. Her strange flash of temper. Her weariness. Now this time-hopping. Were these signs of dementia? My eyes followed a Mama duck, her babies gliding in a neat row behind her, across the smooth surface of the water. I said, softly, carefully, “Uh, no. What happened in 1975?”

             “Well, the Brothers believed Armageddon was slated for fall of 1975. I’ll never forget the phrase they used at the convention. Stay Alive til ‘75! Gave me chills. I thought, boy oh boy, it’s really going to happen. And I’ll be here to see it, God’s War.” Sister Monks paused. “Many of the Brothers and Sisters quit jobs, cashed in insurance policies, postponed major surgeries. We were encouraged to get rid of burdensome possessions, and devote ourselves to the ministry. Oh, we were so excited. I’ll never forget, the electric charge of meetings that year, the urgency out in field service. We had to get to every door, warn as many people as possible. I couldn’t wait to tell people that we were on the brink of Jehovah’s New Earth…” Her voice broke, and she met my eyes. “Sister Daisy, I once owned a house. A small house, but all mine, with gardens. I sold it, in 1975. I moved in with my sister. I went out preaching, all day, every day.” She glanced at me. “When Armageddon didn’t arrive, well. I want you to know, the Brothers apologized. They were really, truly sorry. Someone along the way will probably tell you about 1975. They’ll try to prove to you that Jehovah’s Witnesses are false prophets, discourage you. But humans make mistakes, Sister Daisy. Even God-inspired humans. We, all of us, make mistakes.”

            I watched her two old hands tighten around each other. She said, “I’d appreciate if you kept what happened, what I said back there, between you and me.”

            One of her clip-on earrings hung too low, and slightly askew. For some reason, that made my heart tender. “Of course, Sister Monks. I won’t say a word.”

            “Well then,” she said, picking up her book bag. “How about you take the next door?”

*

            Afterward, we took a lunch break at McDonald’s.

            I was flying high. My door had gone well. Sister Monks had coached me, so even though I trembled, knocking on that door, I was prepared. And according to Sister Monks, I was a natural. She said, I’d made her proud.

            Carrying our trays to a booth, we saw other Witnesses from our congregation, also taking a break. We waved to each other, and I felt something in my chest open up. Like my heart was blooming.

            Not only had I placed an Awake! magazine with Bernice, the house-holder who answered the door, but we’d talked, we’d connected. Bernice invited me to come back. My first Return Visit, as the Witnesses called it.

“Armageddon,” by Nicholas Roerich

            As we ate, Sister Monks helped me fill out my time card. She showed me how to track my hours out in field service, along with the Bible literature I placed. I would turn in my time card at the end of each month to our congregation Elders. The Elders tallied the congregation’s total preaching hours and sent them to the Jehovah’s Witness Headquarters in Brooklyn. She explained, this was how the leadership kept tabs on congregations world-wide, ensuring they were out in the ministry, as Jesus commanded. Elders reproved those who weren’t going door-to-door as much as they should be. You could even be Marked, the way Sister Radcliffe was for her provocative dresses. I paid close attention. Just the thought of breaking a rule, getting into trouble, was enough to soak the modest sleeves of my dress in sweat.

            Sister Monks took a sip of her coffee. “Now you can call Sister Robins in New York. Let her know, you have your first return visit! She’ll be proud like I am.” She set her coffee down, stirred it. I noticed her hand shaking, and my worry crept back. “You miss her, don’t you, Sister Daisy?” She said it gently, like a mother might.

            “Oh yeah. I sure do.” I picked up a napkin, held it to my eyes.

             “Becky is a good girl. Yes, she is. She has a real heart for Jehovah. Did you know, I’m the one who brought Becky’s parents into The Truth?”  

            My mouth dropped. “I didn’t know that.”

            Sister Monk’s blue eyes gleamed. “Becky was a mite, not even two. Her parents had recently left Catholicism. They were totally disillusioned. They felt lied to by the church, which they were. And they were floundering. They told me later, I showed up on their doorstep the very morning they’d prayed together, in tears, asking for a sign.”

            “Wow. That is amazing.”

            “I’m the one who taught Becky The Winning Way.”

            “The Winning Way?”

            “What I taught you, before you took that last door.” She smiled, took another sip of coffee.  

            “Oh. Right.” After the park, as we’d walked, Sister Monks had outlined for me a series of steps to take once the house-holder answered the door.

            First, make a human connection. Notice something personal about the house or yard. Compliment the house-holder on their flower bed, or paint job, or some unusual decoration.

            Second, ask them questions. What kind of flowers are those? How did you get them to grow so big? Where did you find that mailbox? Did you build that trellis? What breed is your dog, what gender, what name?

            Third, once you’ve unearthed something that matters to them, bring out your Bible. Show them a scripture that connects to their life. Ask them what they think. Listen. Demonstrate care and concern.

            Finally, offer them a Watchtower or Awake! that addresses their personal concerns. Tell them you’d like to come back, and discuss what they’ve read. When would be a good time to return?

            At Bernice’s door, I’d done precisely what Sister Monks had instructed. After praising Bernice’s lavish flower bed, she’d beamed, and come right out of her house. She’d pointed out the Day Lilies and the petunias. The moss roses and the snap dragons. She’d broken off some lavender, giving sprigs to me, and some to Sister Monks. “Mama’s favorite,” she’d said. Chin trembling, she’d turned away. “She was all I had in the world. She passed, not two days ago.” I’d felt her grief, like a hot brick in my own chest.

            Sister Monks had nudged me. I’d brought out my Bible, and shared with Bernice Revelation 21:4 about the New Earth. And death shall be no more, neither shall mourning, nor outcry, nor pain. My voice had broke. I hadn’t lost my mother to death. But nonetheless, I’d lost her. To something else. Narcissism, Darlene said. I didn’t know. Mom had never gone to a therapist, that’s for sure. I’d placed my hand on Bernice’s arm, gently squeezed. She’d gladly accepted an Awake! about grief. On the front cover, a woman that looked much like her, with close-cropped silver hair, hugging an old photograph, tears on her cheeks.    

            I looked at Sister Monks. “Oh. You call that The Winning Way?”    

            She nodded. “It is the way to win hearts. As you can see.”

            I realized two things at the same time.

            One, Sister Monk’s clip-on earring was gone.

            Two, The Winning Way is what Becky had done with me. 

*

            Darlene called that night while I sizzled leftover ground beef, mixing in some gravy mix from an envelope and noodles I’d found, fallen over and half spilled out behind the garbage can in the pantry. Finding that old, cobwebbed box of noodles was like finding treasure. I was running out of food, waiting on my next check. Since I’d dropped out of college, I worked as a receptionist in an insurance office. The solid 9-5, with weekends off, left me plenty of time for meetings and door-to-door work. But at $12 an hour, scraping by was aspirational. That was not something I felt inclined to tell Darlene. She already told me I was gullible, naïve, blind, and every other synonym for idiot.

            When she called, I tossed my head back, closed my eyes, and groaned. We’d always had a rocky relationship but now that I was studying with the Witnesses, she wouldn’t lay off. I didn’t have the energy to deal with her haranguing. At the same time, with Dad dead, and Mom giving us both the silent treatment the past couple years, we were all the family we had.

             I wiped my hands on a dish towel, and answered. Sure enough, after a couple minutes of her blowing off steam from her shift in the ER, she started in. “So. Have you come to your senses yet? You going back to college?”

            “No, Darlene. I told you what I’m going to do, and I mean it. I’m getting baptized next summer.” I added salt to the beef, gravy, noodle mix. It was looking pretty watery.  

            Darlene exhaled. “You know, I was thinking about it today. Neither of us ever dreamed, when we were kids, we’d get the chance to go to college. I complain about nursing but most days, I’m just so grateful, even for the hard parts. Because growing up, no one expected us to do anything but get married and have kids. Now here you are, only a year left, and you could be a teacher. A teacher!”

            I thought about Bernice. How she wanted me to come back, keep talking with her about the Bible. “I am a teacher, Darlene.”

            “Oh, Daisy, come on! You’re a preacher. Unpaid at that! Knocking on doors all day and you don’t even make a cent. How do those people get away with it?”

            “Not everything’s about money.”

            “Sounds like poor mentality to me.”

            “It’s God mentality!”

            “What does that even mean?”  

            I rolled my eyes. Same old same old. I took the pan off the stove, flicked off the burner. “It means, serving God is more important than making money.”

            “What about moving into a nicer place?”

            “It’s nice enough right here.” I swept my gaze around my apartment. One bedroom, a bit cramped, but that’s what you did. You gave things up to put God first. My sister didn’t understand because we were raised Baptist. We were asked to give up dancing and booze and, since we didn’t partake in either, that was easy. Sister Monks lived in a one bedroom, even smaller than mine. I remembered what she said about selling her house in 1975. That woman was willing to make the most extraordinary sacrifices for her faith.

            “Darlene,” I said, spooning the hamburger, noodle, and gravy concoction into a bowl, because it had turned to soup. “I am willing to make sacrifices for what I believe.” That sounded weak. I put the bowl down, stood straighter, rolled my shoulders back. “I’m willing to sacrifice anything for Jehovah.”

“The Ascension into Heaven,” by Esther Newport

            Darlene was quiet. I wondered if I’d done it. If I’d reached her heart. The Elders talked a lot about “reaching the hearts” of unbelieving family members. I waited, holding my breath. Maybe it was time. I could actually invite her to a meeting.

            Finally, my sister spoke. “You are really, really scaring me.”

            I flung the dish towel on the counter, rubbed my face. My sister. That’s what happened when you sat in a Baptist church year after year, daydreaming through the sermon, pretending to look up scriptures. Nothing. Nothing at all.

*

            Two Sundays later, I entered Kingdom Hall for the public talk and Watchtower study, and Brother Johnston pulled me toward him with a firm handshake and big grin. “Sister Daisy. I hear you’ve scored your first Bible study!” Brother Johnston was one of our Elders, the most intimidating. He was stern, aloof. Made you feel, with just a glance, like you’d been caught picking your nose, or far worse. So this was something new.

            “Yes, sir, that’s right.” My voice shook. I was surprised he already knew. Sister Monks must have told him.

            She and I had paid that Return Visit to Bernice. Sister Monks had coached me all the way there. It worked. Bernice invited us inside. We’d sat at her kitchen table, and she’d poured us coffee. At first, she’d only wanted to talk about her mother, share memories. She brought out photo albums. Cried a bit. Sister Monks held her hand. Bernice had melted into that tender touch. With great finesse, Sister Monks had steered the conversation back to Jehovah, to His promise of the New Earth. “Would you like to see your Mama again, Bernice?”

            “Would I ever!” Bernice had exclaimed. Her hands had tightened around her coffee cup. “Oh, I’d give anything.”  

            Sister Monks had leant in. “Can you imagine? Watching your mother grow younger and stronger with every passing day, right before your eyes?”

            Bernice’s Mom had wasted away from pancreatic cancer. An agonizing death. One that Bernice, her mother’s sole caretaker, had witnessed firsthand. She’d burst into tears. “I can’t imagine. It’s too good to be true.” She cried like a child, the tears just pouring down.  

            Sister Monks hadn’t offered a Kleenex. She’d let Bernice’s tears roll, and drip. “But it’s not too good to be true, Bernice. Look. Look here. Look at what our God has promised us.” Sister Monks retrieved her Bible from her book bag, acting on what she called the Crucial Moment. This was key to her Winning Way. Identifying when someone’s heart was most soft. Most ready to receive Truth.

             Before we left, Bernice agreed to a regular Bible Study.  

            I said to Brother Johnston, “It won’t be my Study. It’ll be Sister Monks.” I wasn’t allowed to conduct a Bible study yet. Not until I was baptized. I wanted to make sure Brother Johnston knew I was following the rules.  

            “Are you looking toward baptism?” Brother Johnston asked.  

            “I’d like to get baptized at the convention next June.” That’s when I would’ve graduated college.

            “Wonderful! Let’s talk more after meeting.” He gave my shoulder a squeeze, before greeting Brother and Sister Rogers. They entered with their sons. All three boys were startlingly serious, and dignified, decked out in matching suits and ties, hair slicked back neatly. All three carried small briefcases, already preaching door-to-door at ages five, seven, and nine.  

            I headed down the aisle, to my regular seat. Along the way, brothers and sisters reached out, taking my hand, pulling me in for a hug. My bad mood started to lift. Darlene had been on my back all weekend. She’d taken it upon herself to psychoanalyze me. She told me I was looking for a mother wherever I could find one. Mother substitutes, she’d said, smug, like she was so smart. She’d said, that’s what Sister Monks was. Which really upset me. She had no idea about my relationship with Sister Monks. 

            I took my seat in the front row, a habit I’d acquired in college. I’d made it a point to conquer my self-consciousness, and sit up front in every class. Darlene was right about one thing. I never thought I’d get to go to college. When you grew up in a trailer, without money. And got bad grades in school. And your teachers thought you were stupid. You started to believe you were born for nothing.

            I remembered getting my acceptance letter from Missouri State, and just howling. I’d fallen to my knees, crawled into the hallway, and propped against the wall, still bawling my eyes out, I’d called Darlene. “I’m going to school!” I’d cried into the phone. “To college!” She told me it was the first time she’d heard someone ugly cry from joy.

            I could see why she pushed me to go back. But I sure wished she’d stop.

            Sister Monks sat down beside me. She gave me a wan smile, her face pale, drawn. Her hand trembled bad, trying to open her Bible. Boy oh boy. After meeting, I needed to call Becky, ask her what to do. Sister Monks was the oldest member, the beating heart of that congregation. Could it be I was the only one who’d noticed she was slipping?

            That’s when I remembered. The night before, I’d had a dream. Something about Sister Monks. I rubbed my forehead, but couldn’t recall. Also, I couldn’t shake the weird feeling it set in my chest. I decided, best keep that to myself. The Brothers might think I was intrigued by black magic, dabbling in the occult.

            We all rose and sang from Kingdom Melodies, the JW hymnal. The songs were either dirge or war-like. The one that morning about the great beauty of Paradise Earth, but still, strangely melancholy. The day Becky had shown up at my door, and I invited her in, I’d told her about my Dad dying. How I didn’t get to say goodbye, because my Mom wasn’t speaking to me or my sister, and wouldn’t let us near him. Becky had listened, then told me that, in the New Earth, instead of funerals, we’d have Resurrection Parties. I was still trying to wrap my head around how Jehovah would put my Dad back together, from nothing. Would he remember what I remembered? My Dad’s big crooked nose and sharp pointy elbows? His goofy grin and the way he danced, playing his harmonica?

            We bowed our heads to pray, and there I was, fighting back tears. 

            The Kingdom Hall door squeaked open, then shut. At the final Amen I turned, looked over my shoulder. I watched Sister Thomas, slipping into a seat in the very last row, nearest the door. Not Sister. Angie. Angie Thomas. She wasn’t a Sister. Not anymore. Angie was disfellowshipped. I still didn’t understand disfellowshipping. Only that, we couldn’t talk to them. Angie arrived late and left early from meetings. She wasn’t allowed to participate. The congregation treated her like she wasn’t there. Becky told me, disfellowshipping was a loving act. It protected the congregation from harm, she said, and disciplined the sinner.

            Angie Thomas met my eyes, and I turned away, fast.

            After meeting, Brother Johnston and his wife invited me to a get-together. A picnic at the park, later on that afternoon.

             Driving home, I was downright giddy. Like a little kid.

            How many picnics did I go to as a kid? About zero. My family stayed away from almost everyone. Mom was suspicious. She thought everyone was out to get her. I think Dad wanted friends. He could talk to anyone for hours. But he cared more about protecting Mom, than making himself happy. Or Darlene and I. Mom got jealous if any of us had a friend. She tried her best to sabotage our friendships. I couldn’t explain why. I only knew how grateful I was to go to a picnic, with no one to torment me for it.  

            Except, of course, for my sister.

Photo by Chris Dorward

             “I’ve looked it up,” she said. I heard keys clacking as she typed. “If you register now, you can still get classes for the fall semester. You could still graduate next year.”

            In the middle of making potato salad, or trying to, I slapped the half-peeled potato onto the countertop. “Darlene, stop! I mean it. I’m a grown woman. You don’t get to boss me around anymore.”

            She laughed. “Bossing you around is my birthright.” Then, more gently, “Listen Daisy. I know you want your family back. You want us together, and happy. You’ve never gotten over hoping. But Dad’s dead, and Mom’s messed up. They are not coming back. This religion, it feels like…a way for you to keep hoping.”  

             “That’s not true.” I picked up my potato, then set it back down.

            “You were so excited to be a teacher, Daisy. Remember? When you declared your major, you were over the moon. You said, you were going to teach kids to read. You were going to be their champion. Because you never got that. Not at home. Not at school. Remember that night we went to that Italian cafe, and you drew your classroom for me on the napkin? Where your desk would be, and the bookshelves? How you envisioned it, full of 5th graders, engrossed in books?”

            “Not really.” All I wanted was to make my damn potato salad and go to my damn picnic.

            She said, “Hey, I need to tell you something. I’ve been looking things up. About Jehovah’s Witnesses. About their history. Experiences of former members…” The insistent clack-clack of keys. “Daisy, there are some really sketchy things. Do you know what happened in 1975? The mass exodus from the faith after a failed prophecy? I’m reading about it now. Oh my God. Some of these people canceled heart transplants, decided not to have children, sold their…”

            For the first time ever, I hung up on my sister.  

*

            With pride, I set my bowl of potato salad on the picnic table.

            The Sisters gathered, admiring my handiwork.  

            It had turned out beautifully. Mom’s recipe. Big, chunky potatoes, chopped celery, scallions, and dill. Mom wasn’t always nice, but she cooked like heaven. I always thought food was her way of loving. She’d unleash hate at us one minute, and the next, bring us a slice of her strawberry-rhubarb pie, just oozing with jeweled juice.

            Maybe it was my swollen eyes. Sister Jenkins laid her hand on my arm. She was a gentle, soft-spoken woman, widowed early so I’d heard, never remarried. She had a reputation for serving others in the congregation, taking the elderly to their hair appointments, picking up groceries for the sick, babysitting. She said, “Everything okay, Sister Daisy?”

            I started blinking fast. “Come with me.” Sister Jenkins moved us to a corner of the shelter, by the water fountains. In the background, everyone was filling up their plates, laughing together. I told her about Darlene. “She’s an ER nurse and talks about becoming a doctor. She’s all about buying a house, getting ahead in life. She doesn’t understand giving up material things to serve God. God isn’t real to her. She keeps pushing me to go back to school.” 

            Sister Jenkins listened intently, nodding. “It’s a real struggle for unbelieving family members. They think they’re showing us love.”

            “I had to hang up on her.”

            “Oh, that’s a shame. Why?”

            I hated even saying. It made me so embarrassed. “She’s looking at those websites that are against Jehovah’s Witnesses, reading stuff to me.” The Elders called those sites spiritual pornography.

            “Oh boy.” Sister Jenkins breathed in. “You absolutely did the right thing.”

            “I did?” I needed to hear that. Because my heart hurt so bad.

            “Yes.” She squeezed my arm. “Jesus didn’t come to earth to bring peace. He came to bring a sword. The Truth will divide family members, set them against one another.” She smiled at me with real kindness. “Sister Daisy, we’re your family now.”  

            I returned to the picnic, feeling much stronger.

            I hadn’t known that, about Jesus bringing a sword. That was something I’d have to look up, study on. Sister Jenkins said that if Darlene kept trying to erode my faith, I might have to put distance between us. I didn’t know what that meant exactly. Sister Jenkins had advised me to pray about it. She said, Jehovah knew Darlene’s heart. He knew whether she was a Sheep or a Goat. He’d help me make a decision.

            I filled up my plate with good things. Fried chicken, sliced ham, buttered biscuits, lots of fresh garden vegetables, okra, tomatoes, peppers, you name it. I sat next to Sister Monks. She gestured to her plate, said, “Have I told you, Sister Daisy? Every meal in Paradise Earth will look just like this. Because everything will be fresh from the garden!”

            She laughed, big and bright. She had some color in her cheeks again. That was good to see, a relief. My gaze went to her ears, her wrinkled lobes. And I remembered. The dream. All the pieces fell into my mind, vividly. I was in the baptism pool. I felt the cool water, lapping at my skin. The Elder propped me up, in his arms, then leaned me back, back, back, under the water, submerged fully, then up. Up! A burst of water and light. Jubilation. Then, terror. I’d lost my earring! Under the water. It was under the water, and I had to go back. I tried, but the Elder wouldn’t let me. He pulled my arms back behind my back, pinned them. I kicked in the water. My earring. My earring. I could see it sparkling there, under the water. And I couldn’t reach it. Couldn’t save it.

            A sharp burst of laughter brought me back, to where I sat at the picnic table, holding a drumstick. That was my dream? It was strange, the things that got stuck in your head. I knew where it had come from. That day, going door-to-door with Sister Monks. Her earring, hanging too low. How bad I’d felt, when I saw it was gone, that I hadn’t warned her, tried to fix it. Darlene always told me I was too sensitive. Well. She was right about some things.

“Picnic,” by Ilya Repin

            I took a bite of my potato salad, and ooh, it was good! I’d cooked the potatoes just right. Tender, but not mushy. Mom would approve. If she loved me. If she was in the right state of mind. If I hadn’t made her mad.

            Sister Monks dropped her fork. It clattered onto the cement.

            I looked up. The laughter and chatter had died. The silence had a sharp point, directed at a woman, grabbing a plate at the food table. I’d never seen her before. She wasn’t part of our congregation. She piled up fried chicken, piece after piece. Followed by several big, heaping spoonfuls of Sister Jenkin’s macaroni and cheese. She swiped a finger through my potato salad! She was middle-aged, fifty or so. Salt and pepper hair, pulled into a ponytail. So skinny, her collarbone jutted, her shorts sagged. She looked sick. Maybe she was homeless. Maybe that’s why everyone looked so stricken.

            Plate piled high, she turned, and headed straight for our table. I held my breath. I looked at Sister Jenkins. But her head was bowed.

            The woman wedged in beside Sister Rowley, who slid over with exaggerated speed, like a third grader afraid of cooties. The woman sat down hard, shaking the picnic table. She took a big bite of a greasy chicken thigh, and chewing, looked right at Sister Monks. “You make the best fried chicken in the world, Mom.”  

            Mom. No, that wasn’t right. Sister Monks wasn’t a Mom. This woman was on drugs. Or she was mentally ill. Or both. This park had a bad reputation. Something had to be done. I looked around. Everyone was watching, frozen. Including the Elders. I reached into my purse, dug out my phone. The woman said, “Well, Mom? Did you get my letters?”

            Sister Monks stayed silent.

            “Well?” The woman pressed. “Do you know I’m sick?”

            9-1-1. My vision blurred, hands shaking. Where were those numbers?   

            “Well, Mom, do you?” The woman’s voice, rising.

            “Alright then, Lucinda.” Brother Johnston stood. In cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, I barely recognized him. “You can’t keep doing this. You need to go.”

            The woman spun. “You sit down and shut up!” She screamed it. “Because of you she hasn’t spoken to me in ten years! Now I’m dying! I’m her daughter, and I’m dying! So you sit down and shut up!”

            I dropped my phone on the table. Brother Johnston did not sit. But he didn’t say anything either. He shoved a hand into his hair, looked side to side.

            Lucinda stood, turned in a circle, pointing at everyone. “All of you can shut up! You hear me? Every last one of you! I’m going to sit here with my mother and I’m going to eat one last meal with her. Just try and stop me!”

            She turned back, breathing hard, face blazing. She sat and ate, scooping my potato salad with her fingers, shoving it into her mouth. “I’m eating with you, Mom,” she said. “Whether you like it or not.”

            They started to go, the Brothers and Sisters. They picked up their plates of half-eaten food, threw them away. They hurried out, to the parking lot, back to their cars.

            I picked up my phone. I wasn’t sure what to do. What do I do?  

            No one was telling me what to do.  

             Sister Monks finally spoke. Not to her daughter.

            Head raised, eyes closed, she said, “Dear Jehovah. Take this love out of my heart. Jehovah God, please, I beg you. Take this love out of my heart.”

*

            A couple weeks later, the phone call woke me. Pulled me right up out of a dream.

            It was Sister Jenkins. “Sister Daisy, I’m calling you first. I know how much she means to you.”

            A part of me had been expecting this. Steeling myself.

            I should’ve trusted what I saw out in service that day. I should’ve told someone.

            Or made her go see the doctor.

            Or set up an appointment, driven her there myself.

            It had only gotten worse after the picnic. Anyone could see. Anyone.

            Sister Jenkins probably told me more than she needed. More than she should have, really.

            Lucinda Monks, Lucy, was Myrtle Monk’s only child, from a marriage that ended. Lucy was baptized at sixteen, and served alongside her mother for years. Until she’d sinned, in secret.

            “It was a boy,” Sister Jenkins had whispered. “Fornication.” And then, “Lucy was my best friend. She made me promise not to tell. But my first duty was to Jehovah.” Sister Jenkins had gone to the Elders, and told them Lucy’s secret. Sister Jenkins said, a couple years later, she’d also had to report Sister Monks, for continuing to meet with Lucy. She’d seen them together one day, at the park. Sister Monks was reproved by the Elders. She’d shown sincere remorse, and began praying the prayer I’d first heard at the picnic. Jehovah, please take this love out of my heart. “A life-long battle for her.” Sister Jenkins had shaken her head, sadly.

            Feeling desperate, I’d called Becky. I wanted to know she was still there. That I had mattered, and still did matter to her. “Sister Monks told me she was the one who brought your parents into The Truth. She was the one who taught you how to go door-to-door.”

            “That’s right,” Becky said. “I learned from the best.”

            “She taught me, too. How to speak to people at the door. How to get them to listen. You know, her famous method. What’s it called?”

            All the way in New York, about to leave for Guatemala on her first missionary assignment, Becky laughed. “The Winning Way.”

*

Photo by Boki Markov on Unsplash

            Driving to St. John’s, I remembered. Lucinda was admitted to this same hospital about a week before. The cancer unit. I heard this from Sister Jenkins also. Sister Jenkins seemed to be the information gatherer, the one who knew things. 

            I pushed through the doors and went to reception, directed to Sister Monks’ floor, her room. It didn’t escape me, the irony.

            Mother and daughter in the same hospital, at the same time, divided by two floors.

            Brothers and Sisters gathering for Sister Monks, while two floors above, not a one visited Lucinda.

            Elders praying over Sister Monks, while two floors above, Lucinda was shunned.  

            Me, sitting in the chair beside Sister Monks’ bed, holding her hand. Who was holding Lucinda’s hand, two floors above?

            In the end, mother and daughter would leave the world together.

            Separated.   

*

            I’m in the hospital. I’ve fallen asleep, in the chair beside Sister Monks’ bed.

             And I dream.

            I’m getting baptized. Pool of blue water, cool, lapping against my skin. Brother Johnston’s arms are strong, solid, like tree branches. Holding me up. He leans me back. I close my eyes, take a breath. Under the water, then up. Up! A burst of light. But Brother Johnston’s arms are empty. He is looking, this way and that. He searches his hands, confused. Stricken.

            All the while, I’m right here, crying out. Where are you? Where are you?

            Brother Johnston climbs out, dripping water. I can’t believe he’s going. That he’ll leave me there.

            There, at the bottom of the pool, shining.


summer hammond

Summer Hammond grew up in East rural Iowa, embraced by cornfields, and so close to the Mississippi River she could smell the perfume of muddy catfish on a warm summer night. Hammond was raised one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her family attended four meetings a week, in a makeshift Kingdom Hall situated on the top floor of an old Farm Bureau building. By the age of five, she was knocking on doors in pink dresses and Mary Jane shoes, eager to tell people The Good News. Hammond also home-schooled through high school, and that’s when she began writing in earnest. She had several short stories published in national magazines such as Merlyn’s Pen, and won an honorable mention in the NFAA/ARTS nation-wide talent search in the short fiction division. Hammond gave up writing (and many other pursuits) to devote herself to the Jehovah’s Witness preaching activity. This story is inspired by her experiences as a Jehovah’s Witness, and the people in her congregation, their stories, their sacrifices, and their often secret grief. Hammond is a recent proud graduate of the MFA/Fiction Program at University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she currently resides.

6 thoughts on “The Winning Way

  1. Summer, this is such profound writing…you sharing your raw self. I love you and I love your writing. My only Aunt is JW and your writings somehow connect me to her in a powerful way…connecting to her is unavailable to me most of the time. I thank you for this.

    1. Kathy, you renew my courage and purpose, every time. Your comment moved me. I feel a lot of emotion around your aunt. If you ever want to have a conversation, or ask me any questions, I’m here. And I love you!

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