WHEN MY FATHER finished seminary at Vanderbilt, he served his first small church in Beech Bluff, Tennessee. He was single and drove a little moped. He took disco dancing lessons to stave off loneliness and survived on church ladies’ casseroles. That summer he was working as a counselor at a church summer camp when he got a phone call: five boys, members of his congregation, had been rolling a tall grain auger across dewy open pasture and got too close to a live wire. They didn’t even touch it, only came close enough for the electric charge to jump from the wire to the metal of the grain auger. Three were electrocuted and died instantly. The other two were seriously hurt. One of the dead boys and one of the living were brothers. The surviving brother was still unconscious in the hospital when my father left camp and drove back to Beech Bluff to visit Catherine, the boys’ mother.
My father was then around the age I am now, twenty-six or twenty-seven. During seminary, he had taken classes on pastoral care, but he did not feel particularly well prepared for the grieving mother’s pain. Riding his moped down winding backroads toward her house, he tried to drum up words that could offer comfort beyond his own understanding.
Catherine’s house was just across the street from where the accident happened. From her living-room window she could see the overturned grain auger, the power line, the patches of grass still flattened from the weight of the boys’ bodies. When my father arrived, he walked to her door feeling rattled, not knowing what to expect.
I heard the story of the electrocuted boys many times growing up. When my father first told it to me, he might have meant it as a practical lesson, a warning about the dangers of water and electricity. But this was around the same time that he was reading me Bible stories at bedtime, and I stored the electrocuted boys away in the part of my brain where shepherd boys killed giants, where women were visited by angels who told them their futures, where men wrestled all night with God and were rewarded with a blessing. Those electrocuted boys took up a kind of mythical place in my head, and they stayed there a long time. When I was sixteen years old and shocked myself in a motel room, it was the electrocuted boys I thought of first. My hand felt suddenly fused to the outlet, I heard the electric current buzzing through my bloodstream, and I wondered if those boys had heard the snap of electricity surging through their bodies before they hit the ground, the way I did.
My father always told me his wiring was off. His first house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, and once he saw a fireball burst from his television and roll across the living-room floor. I grew up believing these strange electrical occurrences had something to do with his body, as if it were an unknowing, unwilling conductor. He told me he’d passed his wiring on to me—when I was born, he said, my black hair stood up straight like I’d stuck a fork in a socket.
On the night Memphis was struck by its worst ice storm in a hundred years, my father was on a plane flying to Israel. I was six years old, watching cartoons at the parsonage, when all the lights went out and the television screen fizzled into blackness. Coated with ice, the power lines snapped, and transformers exploded all around our house.
It was the same year I’d started seeing visions. Every morning, eating cereal at the dining-room table, I saw a cross in the shiny silver of the spoon. I turned the spoon and watched the cross stretch in one direction and then the other. I believed the spoon was a channel between heaven and earth, delivering a sacred message directly into my hands. I didn’t question whether visions worked through such commonplace vessels—the scuffed silver of a spoon, my small body straining for signs.
It would be years before I realized I had been seeing the reflection of the ceiling fan in the spoon’s shiny surface. It would be years before I knew electricity worked in my body, my father’s body, just like anyone else’s. But on the night my father flew to Israel, I didn’t know that yet. So as land and oceans separated our bodies for the first time, I figured the electricity had followed him, the greater force, leaving my mother and me in a house gone dark.
When the ice storm hit and transformers starting exploding one by one, my mother came running and I was in her arms. The sky was full of electricity, and I knew my father was somewhere over the ocean far away, maybe feeling our fear, through some grace, like a spark of nervous energy in his own body.
I once told my fourth-grade class that my father had been electrocuted over the weekend. I repeated his explanation: the electric current had traveled from the refrigerator through his body while he stood on an iron heating grate. He’d used the word conductor, which I’d always associated with music or trains. I quickly learned the difference between two other words: “If your father is not dead,” the teacher explained, “then he’s been shocked, not electrocuted.”
In science class we learned about electricity by rubbing balloons against our heads. When we pulled the balloons away, we watched our hair stretching upward, each strand reaching for the balloon’s surface. The teacher explained that when two surfaces contacted and separated, and at least one of the surfaces resisted electrical current, a static electric charge was created.
The teacher also passed out small black magnets and we turned them this way and that, feeling the surprise pull and push of the little bars attracting and repelling each other. In my hands, the actions of these inanimate objects felt willful. When the magnets repelled each other, no matter how hard I tried to push them together, they swiveled away, unable or unwilling to make contact.
Objects with the same charge, the teacher told us, repel each other. This kind of phrasing troubled me. If my father and I had the same wiring, would we push each other away? When I was upset with him, I wrote him long letters and slid them under my bedroom door, into the hallway. Then I’d lie on the floor, my ear pressed to the wood, listening for his footsteps to pass by my room. Sometimes, if I waited long enough there on the floor, I’d get a glimpse of his hand when he stooped to pick up the paper.
Even when I was angry at my father—repelled, the door shut between us—I reached for him, my folded letters tossed out into the hallway like a baited hook into a stream. A half-hour or an hour later, I’d hear the scratch of paper as he slid his response under my bedroom door. His letters, just like his sermons, were written on yellow legal paper in his tight script.
In school we were taught that rubber shoes would keep us safe from a lightning strike. We were taught to be careful not to mix water and electricity: no hair dryers near a full bathtub, no showers during a thunderstorm. We learned that lightning is itself a kind of static spark. The teacher didn’t tell us that the brightest part of the lightning flash is the return stroke, when the current of positive charge races up its own channel, back toward the thundercloud it came from.
When my father went to Israel, he travelled with a group of preachers and visited holy sites. When they reached the Jordan River all the Baptists ran into the water, baptizing each other. My father sat with the Methodists on the shore, eating the sandwiches they’d packed that morning, watching the Baptists baptize. He’d always told me Methodists figure once is enough. Methodists, he told me, don’t re-baptize, and they don’t do immersion.
But when I was in high school, in the wake of some unusual circumstances, my father agreed to baptize a group of teenagers by immersion. He contacted a large church outside town and asked to borrow their font for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. He organized carpools and vans to take his congregation out to the borrowed church. The week before the baptism, another preacher across town waded into his own baptismal font and was electrocuted in front of his congregation when his microphone fell into the water.
I didn’t want my father anywhere near pools of water and electric currents. I told him to scrap the whole thing and sprinkle water onto the kids’ heads at his own church, like he’d always done before. I told him that it wasn’t the water’s depth that mattered, or whether it was blessed or from the bathroom sink. I told him this as if I wasn’t repeating back to him everything he’d always told me about baptism. My father eventually agreed not to use a microphone, but I went to the service and made sure there weren’t any electrical appliances near the font, just in case. Then I sat back in the pews and watched as my father led each of the kids into the pool.
I’d watched my father baptize dozens of babies by sprinkling a little water on their heads. But this time, I was the same age as the kids climbing in and out of the font, and I could easily imagine joining them. I would lean back, and the water would come rushing over my face and hair. My father would help me reemerge, disoriented, feeling somehow changed.
My father didn’t baptize me. Two of his old seminary buddies did it. But when I was a child he washed my hair every night. Kneeling on the cold tile, he would pour water over my head with a plastic lemonade pitcher. He would wring my hair dry, wrap me in warm towels, and put me to bed. Now, I think of that ritual as our own nightly baptism.
But that day, as I watched my friends climb in and out of the font, I longed for a do-over, and I had to stop myself from climbing in so he could baptize me himself. I wanted to meet him there, in that sacrament, a space that seemed a little more sacred than the prayers we said before dinner. I wanted to feel my father’s hand against my forehead, the water on my skin, as he called me into God’s family, his own.
When I asked my father why he didn’t baptize me, he told me if I get married he won’t perform my wedding ceremony, either. There are moments, he says, when he gets to sit back and cry. I think his intentional distancing expresses his desire to be my father first, not my minister.
A week before my baptism, when I was nine months old, my father wrote a letter to me and printed it in his church newsletter. He wrote, By our example and teaching, we hope to guide you, that one day you might accept God’s grace for yourself. I can imagine him writing these words and negotiating this new space, figuring out its responsibilities and its boundaries.
Thomas Merton discusses baptism in terms of suffering, vocation, and ultimately separation. Merton argues that baptism imparts both an identity and a “divine vocation,” because baptism distinguishes us from each other, sets each of us apart in our own relationship with God, “unknown to anyone else who has ever lived under the sun.” Therefore, Merton writes, “…every sacrament of union is also a sacrament of separation.”
In many ways, not just in baptism, my father has resisted serving as a conduit between me and God. The language of the concrete and the abstract, of water and electricity, braid themselves together in this word, conduit. Conduit has three primary definitions—the first, a channel for conveying water. The second, a trough or duct used to protect electric wiring. The third, a means of transmitting something. Revisiting conduit’s definitions, I see my father has been all of them, whether he intended to or not. He has, through baptism, conveyed water over countless bowed heads. He has felt the snap of electric current running through his body and his home, leaving both changed. And my father has transmitted something of his wiring to me.
The poet Li-Young Lee writes about his relationship to faith and his father, a Presbyterian minister. He writes that, from a genetic or hereditary perspective, his father’s influence made him obsessed with spiritual matters. But according to “the Buddhist or karmic view,” he writes, “in another lifetime he and I were both obsessed with this stuff, so I became his son.”
It’s hard to imagine a different version of myself, a version that is not my father’s daughter, a girl who is not haunted by stories and hymns, who does not dream in parables. As I struggle to parse what is mine from what is my father’s, I come back to something other than genes, other than karma. I come back to the wiring of our bodies, the electrical impulses and snapping synapses we share.
There are some things I have to hear over and over again to get right. I always thought of water as a conductor. But water molecules, on their own, have no charge and are unable to conduct electricity. It’s the minerals present in unpurified water—like the fresh dew across which the boys rolled their grain auger—that can conduct electricity. With electricity as with baptism, it’s not the water that’s doing the work, but something else. To conduct electricity, water needs to be less than pure. And to mean anything at all, baptism needs intention, some kind of grace, far more than it needs water.
In church we lived according the liturgical calendar, the cycle of stories creating a rhythm for our weeks and years. Repetition and storytelling were ingrained into the way I understood the world. I heard my father’s stories over and over. They came first in the car on the way to school, or as I lay in bed waiting for sleep. Years later they would resurface, transformed into sermons. Between tellings, their meanings would change.
I was in my twenties when I heard my father tell the story of the electrocuted boys again, as a sermon. He talked about how he and Catherine had just finished up a group Bible study on the idea of the will of God. When my father arrived at her house that day, feeling so anxious and unprepared, she opened the door and took him in her arms. Before he could say anything, she told him she knew her son’s death was not God’s will. In that moment, my father felt the church had helped her. Looking out over his congregation, he said, “God uses his church to prepare us for the strangeness of life.”
Hearing the story again as an adult, I understood that, for my father, the story’s meaning had nothing to do with electricity or water or miracles or any of the things it had meant to me as a child. For him, the meaning of the story was about the boys’ mother. She knew she could not blame God for everything. She understood that we live in a world governed by natural laws. She understood that the boys’ deaths were an accident, not the result of God doling out fates like a dealer with a deck of cards.
In my father’s notebook, this sermon was titled “Why I Still Go to Church.” I think he still goes to church, in part, because that’s one place he can hear the words and stories he needs, over and over again. My father knew the boys’ deaths were not God’s will, but sometimes, in our most difficult moments, we need to hear things repeated.
When I call my father and ask him to tell me one more time about the day the boys were electrocuted, he tunnels into the story once more, as I’ve tunneled into it over and over again.
“That day is my earliest memory of really being a minister for someone,” my father says. “I couldn’t give them any easy answers or solutions, but I could sit and cry with them. I could be with them.”
As I listen to him talk, I tick off the parts of the story I already know and remember as clearly as if I’d been there myself: the dewy field, the dangling power line, the boys thrown to the ground.
Then my father says, “I bet two of those boys had their hands on the rubber tires and the other three had their hands on the metal sides of the grain auger. It all came down to that, where they had their hands.”
I imagine my father in that farmhouse living room; his hair is jet-black and tousled from his winding drive to Beech Bluff. He settles onto a floral-printed couch across from the large picture window and watches the glint of the day’s last light on the side of the overturned grain auger. My father reaches out to hold the hands of the family members gathered around him. The sun withdraws from the sky. By now, the blades of grass pressed flat under the weight of the boys’ bodies have righted themselves, standing up, one by one.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.