Guest Column: Tommy Hays

Tommy Hays is the author of The Pleasure Was Mine, which comes out in paperback this month. A previous contributor to, he sends in this short column, titled “Church of the Big Legs.”

As a child, when I thought of Unitarians, I thought of pizza and women with big legs. My best friend across the street in Greenville, South Carolina, where I grew up, was Unitarian. One Sunday his family took me to their church, which was like no other church I had been to. I had had some inkling that it might be a little different because he had told me to bring my swimsuit and a towel, but I didn’t think anything could be much stranger than my own religious upbringing.

As a toddler, I had often accompanied my great great aunt and uncle to a small conservative Baptist church, where the preacher harangued, and I often screamed back in a kind of mutual and strangely satisfying hysteria. Then my father, who was from the Midwest and whose parents had been Christian Scientist and who had his own mystical leanings, decided we (at least my brother, my mother and I) should attend a Christian Science Church, while he stayed home and read the Sunday morning paper. At the time a Christian Science Church in a Southern town was a real anomaly, and when my teacher at school discovered I was Christian Scientist, she would ask me questions in front of the whole class like, “If you contracted malaria, would your parents give you quinine?” In my religious upbringing I had gone from fire and brimstone to Mary Baker Eddy’s murky mortal mind, from the heat of hell’s eternal furnace to the intellectual intricacies of Science and Health.

So the Sunday morning I accompanied my best friend’s family to a Unitarian Church I did not know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect that their church would be a house in a neighborhood. Didn’t even have a steeple. No crosses. When we went in, no one was dressed in Sunday clothes. Among the men, there wasn’t a coat or tie in sight. Many of the women had on slacks. There was one woman in shorts who had the biggest legs I’d ever seen. I was nine-years-old and hadn’t seen that many women in shorts. My mother never wore them. No mothers I knew wore them. I certainly had never seen anyone in church wear shorts. While no one else was wearing shorts that day, I had the suspicion as I looked around, that all Unitarian women had monstrous legs.

After what they called “church” which seemed more like conversation to me-no hymns, no prayers, no responsive readings, just talk and a lot of it–we kids were shepherded down some stairs which I assumed led to a dank and moldy Bible class, where verses would be chiseled into our consciousness like epitaphs on tombstones. Instead we were led down to changing rooms, where we changed into our bathing suits, then went into the backyard. To my astonishment, there was a pool. Not a tiny baptismal pool, but a beautiful full-length swimming pool. Instead of reciting The Psalms that morning we did the backstroke. Then we ate this round doughy deliciously cheesy food called pizza. When I got home my mother hardly had time to ask me how it went, before I launched into a detailed description of the church we had to join. I told her about the pizza, the Sunday school swim and the woman with the big legs. She frowned at this last, said some women had big legs, and I should never talk about their legs because it would hurt their feelings.

I was puzzled and deflated by her response. I didn’t understand why big legs were anything not to talk about. The woman’s legs were interesting. An arresting fact. A breathtaking phenomenon. Even something to be proud of. The more I thought about the woman’s legs over the weeks and months that passed, the bigger they grew, until they were the size of tree trunks. To me, a chubby boy who was becoming self-conscious about his body, those legs became a statement, almost religious in their significance. They were a declaration by this woman who was unabashedly and unapologetically who she was.

I never mentioned her legs or any woman’s legs again to anybody. For nearly 40 years I have kept silent on this subject. I only bring it up now to show that as a child I had not the foggiest idea who these Unitarian people were and what they believed.

But as I child I believed what was in front of me. Pizza, a house that was a church, and a woman with remarkable legs. Oh, I knew all about the Baptist God, the fierce bearded fellow who sat on the edge of his cloudy throne, lightning bolt in hand waiting for me to sin, and I knew about the Christian Science God who gave me a pained look every time my thoughts wandered to the corporeal, which as far as I could figure was mostly where my thoughts stayed. But what I believed in, deep-down-in-my-heart believed in, was the corporeal, the world I lived in. What I ate, what I drank, what I touched, what I smelled, what I saw. The sensual embodied world. The Unitarians seemed like my kind of people. Their God lived next door. He wore sunglasses and swimming trunks and spent his days, floating around on a little raft, talking with whoever showed up about whatever was on their mind.

Despite my urging, my family did not join the Unitarian Church, although my mother did start buying frozen pizzas. And we remained reluctant Christian Scientists until, at the age of 14, I announced I wasn’t going to church anymore. I remained churchless for the next 25 years, although during much of that time my father plied me with readings from writers like Thomas Merton, Huston Smith, Bagwan Sheree Rajneesh, Joel Goldsmith, Meister Eckhart, Gurdjieff, Adam Smith, William James and many many more. But their language was so abstract, so philosophical, so high flown, I would find myself yearning for the mundane, the sensual, the ballast of the embodied moment. I turned to fiction. While my father moved up into religion, I moved down through story. I read Eudora Welty, James Agee, Walker Percy, Katherine Ann Porter, William Maxwell, Fitzgerald and Hemingway and other writers who were so adept at inhabiting their characters and their worlds, that their books felt far more moving and at times more spiritual, than the spiritual writers themselves.

Then my wife and I, who live in Asheville, North Carolina, had our own little embodiments-two children. We were able to bring them to the very denomination I had wanted to join as a child. While I was more than a little disappointed to find no swimming pool out back, I was relieved to come to a place where my beliefs and my children’s beliefs would not be scrutinized or corrected or disparaged.

What do I believe now? I believe as I did as a child. I believe what is in front of me. I believe in my family, my friends, my community. I believe in God. I believe He inhabits the stories of our lives, including all the possibilities and uncertainties of the shapes our stories might take. And there is not a Sunday I walk through the doors of our church that I don’t think about that woman’s legs–powerful columns sturdy enough to support a whole community of beliefs, including one small boy’s fledgling faith in the world unfolding inside him.

Tommy Hays’ latest novel is The Pleasure Was Mine, published by St. Martin’s Press. He has written two other novels — Sam’s Crossing and In the Family Way, which was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. He is Executive Director of the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is Director of Creative Writing for the Academy at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and is a contributor to Our State. He received his BA in English from Furman University and his MFA in Creative Writing from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Asheville, NC with his wife and two children.


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