We rarely went to church, generally only on Christmas or Easter to Aunt Bobbie’s little church in Garden Grove, not far from the town of Orange, where we lived in the 1960s. And then only because Aunt Bobbie, who played the organ for the church, thought it’d be cute to have two little blonde girls dressed in flannel nighties sit on the laps of our grandparents and sing “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
These were the same grandparents who every year bought my sister and me frilly Easter dresses. Though we were more comfortable in corduroy pants and rubber-toed tennies, we just HAD to wear our bee-yoo-ti-ful new dresses some place. Those outfits containing too much fabric and too many ribbons were certainly not suitable for daily wear, though those were the days when girls had to wear dresses to school. The best Easter photo of us shows my sister and me in pale yellow dresses standing in front of our father attired in a rare suit, posing in our front yard, Mom the family photographer snapping the photo on her Kodak.
So it must have been on one of those infrequent church outings that I heard the memorable line in a hymn, “Christ the royal master leans against the phone.” Or at least that’s what I thought I heard. It was years before I learned that the line in “Onward Christian Soldiers” is “Christ the royal master leads against the foe.” And that would have boggled my 8-year-old brain anyway. Though I was an advanced reader for my age, the word “foe” was not yet in my vocabulary, and even if it had been, why was Christ leading against a word that sounded almost like “for”?
I loved the idea of that skinny man with his pale face gazing upward to heaven in the painting of Jesus that seemingly everyone had in those days (well, at least Aunt Bobbie and Grandma) leaning against a phone. I didn’t think of myself as Christian, but that made the man who started it all seem real to me. I leaned against the phone, after all, or against the wall where the phone hung in our kitchen on the occasions I got to talk on it. Why couldn’t Jesus?
I gathered from those occasional trips to Sunday school that Jesus had lived long, long ago, but I had no sense that there weren’t telephones in those days. And so it was that my younger sister and I got the idea that you could call Jesus and have a good chat, any time you wanted. Who needed to pray if you could just ring up the man himself?
We clearly misunderstood the whole he-died-on-the-cross-to-save-you concept. Because, apparently, he didn’t really die. That’s what Easter was all about. He showed up later at the tomb, right? Told Mary he was still around? So it made sense that you could make a call and Jesus would answer the phone he was leaning against.
Caroline tried it first, one Sunday morning as our parents slept in, while we sat in the round wicker chairs in the living room watching cartoons. I heard her go into the kitchen, scrape a chair across the linoleum, talking to someone. She was all of six years old, but she dialed 0 on the rotary phone and spoke to the operator.
When she came back to the living room, I asked what she was doing in there.
“Calling Jesus,” she said.
I’d forgotten about the song and screwed up my face at her.
“Christ leans against the phone,” she explained.
Oh. That. “How did you get his number?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I just dialed the operator. I figured she could tell me.”
“What did you ask?”
“I asked her for the phone number to heaven.” Caroline wore her absolutely-positively-serious face.
“What’d she say?” I tried to give it right back to her.
“She asked me who I wanted to talk to, so I told her Jesus.”
“She said she didn’t have that number.” Big pause from my sister.
We looked at each other, blinking, then our respective light bulbs flashed in our heads at the same moment. We ran to the kitchen, cotton nighties flying behind us, and flung open the cupboard door under the counter where the phone hung on the wall. We retrieved the Orange County phone book and put it on the coffee table in front of Tom and Jerry on TV. We started looking.
I was a good and early reader, and Caroline was not far behind me. We looked up all the Jesuses we could find. Much to our surprise, we discovered that there were a lot of them. They had last names, too, which was news to us. We didn’t know he had a last name. We hauled the phone book back to the phone, climbed up on the chair and started dialing Jesus.
Because I was the oldest, I started. “Hi, I’m looking for Jesus,” I’d begin, and a woman’s voice would invariably call out, “Jesus!”
A man would come to the phone. “Yes?”
“Hi,” I’d say. “Is this Jesus?”
“It’s Hay-Zeus,” he’d say. “How can I help you?”
I had no idea that Jesus had a Mexican accent, but he did love all the little children of the world, so why not? I had to think fast. What do you ask the Lord?
“I’m wondering why people die,” I began. “I mean, you died on a cross so we would have eternal life, but you came back after you died. Our grandpa just died. Is he coming back to us, or is he in heaven with you?”
Silence on the other end. That’s usually when the poor man would hang up, thinking he was being pranked. But we were—you should excuse the term—dead serious.
Finally, Caroline dialed a cooperative Jesus. She hung onto the big green receiver, looking very serious as he talked to her. She told him about Grandpa. They seemed to have a long conversation, part of it about food for some reason, with Caroline saying, “Uh huh, uh huh,” a lot. When she said goodbye and hung up, I looked up at her, still standing on the chair. “What did he say?”
She smiled down at me. “Grandpa’s with him, and he’s doing fine,” she said. “He said Grandpa will live forever in heaven with him.”
I was disappointed. “He’s not coming back?”
Caroline shook her head back and forth, her little blonde curls dancing. She turned around and backed herself off the chair. “But Jesus says it’s wonderful in heaven—it’s very pretty and there are lots of animals. And a pool.”
A pool! We loved pools. Loved to swim. I frowned. “I didn’t know Grandpa liked to swim,” I said.
“He does in heaven,” Caroline said.
We padded back to the living room, crawled into our respective chairs that cradled our young selves. We returned to our cartoons, watching in silence until Caroline said out of nowhere, “Oh, and Jesus likes enchiladas.” Pause. “He told me.”
I nodded. That seemed good to know somehow.
And so, our spiritual curiosity satisfied for the moment, we sat, secure in the knowledge that if we were ever looking for Jesus, all we had to do is pick up the phone and call.