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Sixty years ago, recalls John Reisender, his Inverness, Idaho extended family used to hold semiannual reunions, one on July 24 (to celebrate Pioneer Day in their own odd way), the other on March 8 (for reasons he did not then known).
The Reisenders included:
Great-Grandma, a fine old Christian lady who, it was noised about, had been married in a Muslim mosque somewhere in Central Asia;
Grandpa, who had spent fifty years composing The Complete History Of The World, From The Creation To The End Times, Which Are Upon Us, a closely-researched work based on both Biblical prophecy and several encyclopedia volumes he'd purchased from a mail-order house;
Uncle Edgar, who felt called of the Lord to stroll the sidewalks of the City of Angels decked out in a sandwich board and passing out tracts predicting the end of the world;
Onkel Abe Hamm, an in-law, who, after the “Amen” signaling an end to Grandpa’s blessing of every dish that every aunt and Tante had prepared, added his own “Amen, now let’s everybody loosen up and have a good time”;
Tanta Anna Hamm, who tried with little success to keep Onkel Abe on the straight and narrow, though it was often remarked that the only road he could keep on was the one that was paved with good intentions; and
Aunt Lena, another in-law and author of that remark, who approved of the youngest Reisender generation spending the long March afternoons playing Monopoly, citing the fact that they were learning how to make change, a skill that would come in handy if the Lord chose to lead them into groceries instead of off to the mission field.
And I gave myself to know wisdom,” says the Biblical Preacher, “and to know madness and folly.” But before John could achieve wisdom – which in his case meant learning why Great Grandma had been married in a mosque – he had to learn madness and folly.
His teachers were:
Reverend Menno Prediger, a.k.a. “Dearly Beloved" because his prayers and sermons (to the extent that they could be distinguished) always began with that phrase; whose one faithful listener called him every Monday morning to correct his Scriptural references and his theology (to the extent that he had one);
Fanny Habegger, that one faithful listener and perhaps the most celebrated Sunday School teacher in all Inverness, who, until she passed on to her reward, was unequally yoked to Herman Habegger, undoubtedly the best pool player in Inverness;
Grandpa Unruh, companion of Mr. Habegger, who had escaped the Russian draft in 1906 and entered America equipped with two words, Yes and No, and his brother’s passport;
Nick Monokov, midget, custodian of the city dump, and the deepest philosopher this side of Beaver Reservoir, who one evening in Boswell’s Bar divulged Grandpa Unruh’s own secret to John, who had appeared in that den of iniquity with instructions to rescue Grandpa before he disappeared into the back room and got taken to the cleaners; that secret concerning the fate of Grandpa’s family after the Russian Revolution;
Madame Gratz, a tobacco-chewing piano teacher who set high standards for her students, including John, expecting him not only to cap his musical career with a solo appearance at Carnegie Hall but to act as undertaker at the funeral of her favorite cat, Beethoven.
And John’s companions in madness and folly:
Gary Albrecht, whose big brother Cat provided a ’39 Ford and at times the legal tender, derived from his poker winnings, for the gang’s escapades;
Billy Bauman, who was rumored (falsely) to be unaware of the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus;
Bobby Joe Runningwater, the leader of the gang; of Indian extraction, he was a lover of horses, his favorite, Penelope, being named after his girlfriend;
Margaret Siebert, who spent many evenings with John debating such questions as whether Nietzsche was a Christian, he maintaining that Nietzsche’s adage that “God is dead” was not a basic Christian doctrine, she claiming that it was equivalent to the belief that Christ died for our sins, which led him to wonder which sins she had in mind.
As he prepares to leave Inverness for the Gomorrahs of the world, John finally learns why Great-Grandma had been married in a mosque.
“A terrific eye and ear . . . witty . . . delightful . . . just the right degree of irreverence.” – Elinor Lipman, author of The Inn at Lake Devine, The Family Man, and seven other novels; winner of the Patterson Fiction Prize and the New England Book Award for Fiction.
“Spectacular voice.” – Jan Erickson, author of Chaos, in Theory (forthcoming).