Waiting for the Kingdom Conspirators in a Secret World
by MIRIAM KILIMO
The carpeted corridors of Rogers House, a public housing project in Lebanon, New Hampshire, are a muted green, the walls a hospital white. The air smells of age, a pungent whiff of shriveled skin and old hair. I meet her after I learn that she’s lived here the longest, that she might have the deepest memories. She waits for me at her apartment door, her ninety-year old voice croaking my name, “Miriam,” inviting me in. I walk through the door into the apartment, a one-bedroom space with quilted walls and plastic roses. She sits here often, on a maroon armchair that her husband Charles bought for her in Corpus Christi, Texas. That was 1982. Charles is gone now. The armchair is worn out and dirty, but she’s draped it with a white woolen cloth. She sits on it under a floor lamp, a yellow light that casts a halo over her white hair, so wavy that I imagine tracing the shape of her scalp under the curls. And when the halo burns into her scalp, for a moment, she is no longer Madelyn Taylor who’s lived in Rogers House for eighteen years. She morphs into Madelyn Taylor, the divine.
She shifts when she walks, with a slight hump that grows as age bends her spine. Her pale skin sags into itself, in folds masking greenish veins that run like tiny rivulets along the length of her arm. She’s wearing a denim dress that hangs on her like a maternity gown. “I like living here because it’s next to everything,” she says, her voice rising sharply and softly, like she’s just remembered the tune to a beloved song. She speaks as if we’re conspirators in a secret world. It’s an actress’ voice. I admire her when she changes its register, peering into my eyes through her square-rimmed glasses, her hump rising up to her neck, and her mouth curled into a smile. “There’s a post-office, the village market, the bank, and we can get to the plaza and the senior center using the buses,” she says. She likes living in one of the 56 apartments here, in the building that was once a hotel in 1911. That was 102 years ago.
She prefers to leave the past in the past. Her four departed children, her husband, and her parents. But when the past insists, when it demands she return, she starts with Jehovah, in Genesis. She reads from a maroon Bible, her pink nails guiding arthritic fingers along the lines, recounting creation. For a moment, we’re in the Garden of Eden, and her voice soars above the yellow light, over the gauzy clouds of a Saturday in spring. To Eden. She retraces Adam and Eve below the trees that stretch to the sky, over the smoldering greenery to the tree of knowledge, where Eve betrays us. Where the serpent coaxes in Madelyn’s snaky whisper: “Is it really so that God said you must not eat from every tree of the garden?” Eve relents to the succulence of the forbidden fruit, and chaos descends on the earth.
“And that is why every generation after Eve has died,” Madelyn says. “That’s why Jesus is the ransom sacrifice.” She explains the theology of original sin, explains that we are born with the chaos into this world.
“This system causes us to die,” she says.
Adam and Eve turned their backs on Jehovah. Forsaking his Eden, they introduced a system that steeped our world in death. But there’s hope of return to the harmony of the first garden. Because when our loved ones die, we will not cry forever. Armageddon will come. A thousand years to destroy this system of Satan and his demons. The system of crimes that stretch from New York to Chicago, the system of death that hangs over the hot Texan air and the Lebanon apartment overlooking Colburn Park. The system of cemeteries and doctors and hospitals, the one that makes us grow old.
She ministers for thirty hours every summer to save people from the system. Almost like the younger Jehovah’s Witnesses, who engage in door-to-door ministry, distributing literature and speaking to strangers about the end of the world.
I’ve met them before. I remember my mother’s warning not to accept their literature, their pamphlets and magazines. When Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on your door in Kenya, you open it. You open the door because of the unspoken code of community, you nod respectfully and you take the Watchtower magazine. As soon as they leave, you take the magazine and you trash it, or burn it, or do whatever you must to erase the encounter.
“I know we’re not looked at favorably,” Madelyn says. She’s sure that her neighbors downstairs, Helen and Roberta and Marian, the veteran from the Second World War who once played in the army band, know that she is witnessing to me.
“I want to know more about the hope you have,” I say.
In my dream, the yellow light from Madelyn’s floor lamp becomes the cloak of summer, and we find ourselves outside on the bus stop in front of the steps of City Hall and the Lebanon Opera House. Madelyn has taken out her walker, like she’s done every summer since 1995, when she began living in Rogers House. She has her Bible with her, the Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, and copies of the Watchtower, the full title of which is The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom . She’s waiting to share the truth with the passengers who will ride into the square. Passengers who step out of the blue and white bus, towering over Madelyn. Passengers like me. She looks up at me, her cloudy eyes staring into my coffee-colored irises. Then she unveils the past, and we step in.
* * *
She remembers the last ninety years through Jehovah’s eyes, replaying each moment as if he were there in his splendor, watching and waiting, planning to bring her into his fold. She starts in 1923, when she was born into a farming family in Fairhaven, Vermont. Her mother came from a poor farming background. She milked cows, slaughtered chickens, ploughed fields, and raked hay.
“There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do,” Madelyn says of her mother. Her father came from an affluent family, owners of the first jitney in Randolph, Vermont. “He was scared of animals,” she says, “He couldn’t stand blood.”
She takes time to remember her siblings, two brothers, two or three sisters. On Sundays, after a long week working on the farm, the farm families would meet for Bible study, rotating from one family’s kitchen to another. “We called ourselves kitchen junkets,” Madelyn says, “And imagine how happy I was when I found out Jehovah’s Witness was first called the International Bible Study Society, and they met in their kitchens.” Jehovah had marked her out from the beginning. His Witness.
But she didn’t hear his call.
She didn’t hear him calling when her mother died two days after her tenth birthday in 1933, when she began dreaming about a Ford hurtling down a road, her parents driving away while she ran after them and a bear chased them all. “It was so unreal, I couldn’t accept it for a long time,” she says, her gaze on the creamy tiled floors. Her mother had died on the way to pick her up from school in wintertime, when a train hit her side of the car. The dream kept coming. Her mother and father leaving without her, leaving in the Ford for a destination she was yet to see, leaving her longing for the woman who could do anything, for the childhood days when she could pretend she’d walk across Vermont to New York, when leaving was only a passing daydream.
She didn’t hear Jehovah calling during the Second World War, when her brothers and cousins went off to the army, and a woman walked up to her door and knocked. Madelyn didn’t want anything to do with her, but Witnesses were more persistent in those days, obnoxious, driven by the desire to spread the Kingdom in a time of war. “You don’t salute the flag but I got family in the war,” Madelyn shouted at the woman. The woman persisted, “Would you like to know why?” she said. The woman explained to Madelyn the Witnesses’ belief in neutrality, in not siding with any nation. She was the only Witness who had bothered to explain why. Madelyn stopped saluting the stars and stripes from that day on, following the command that you couldn’t serve two masters. You have to choose between God’s Kingdom and Satan’s system.
“It just made sense,” Madelyn says.
She was one step closer to Jehovah, but not yet.
She didn’t hear his call until 1950, when her father died, the final departure in the Ford of her dreams. He was 63-years-old, and had just moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. “I was furious at God. I called God bad names,” Madelyn says, her voice hardly audible, her eyes fixated on her pink slippers where her big toes are almost turned inside out. She’s drawn her hands close to her denim dress and gray sweater, perhaps remembering when it happened, when she met Norman and Blanch, the two Witnesses who found her with arms stretched out the heavens, shouting profanities at God. They pressed the Watchtower magazine into her open arms, and they told her about Jehovah God. “They told me he wasn’t in heaven or hell,” Madelyn says, her hands still clasped together. Her father wasn’t dead. He was sleeping, waiting in the grave for the time when Kingdom comes and Jehovah resurrects everyone.
“I can’t wait to see my father again,” she says. She stares down at the floor of the apartment, sucking lazily at her thumb, one leg suspended in the air. Waiting.
Still waiting like she waited after her first marriage, when she left Jerry, the man who could hunt and fish, who loved animals like her mother, who could do everything except be the man who would stop a Ford hurtling down a road. She finally left when twenty-five years and five children later, he wouldn’t stop cheating on her.
She waited through her second marriage to Charles the electrician, a short, insolent man, ten years her junior from Groton, Connecticut, who said of Madelyn, “I’m gonna marry her.” He had two daughters who he had turned over to the state after his wife died giving birth to his youngest. He was drinking too much, drowning himself in the sorrow of his loss. She married him after he stopped hitting the bottle and started on the Bible, after he learned to cling to Jehovah. They lived together for thirty-eight years, burying Madelyn’s twenty-one-year old Doreen, who died in a car accident with a 5-month old baby in her arms, her Bill who departed in 1975, her Danny who spray-painted stolen bikes, and Gary. Gary who cried, “Mom, Mom do something!” when the police took Danny away, who now rests in a cemetery up in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. They lived together travelling for three-day conventions around the country, events that brought hundreds and thousands of Witnesses at a time, baptizing the new converts and encouraging Witnesses to keep in the truth.
She waited until she had her first heart attack that slowed her down. Until Charles died in 2006, and she stayed back with the hope of Jehovah in her heart, battling the system that took them all, living to see them at the resurrection of the dead.
“I don’t want to talk about the past if you don’t mind,” she would say.
She doesn’t want to dwell in the past except in the light of resurrection, the hope that she can look back one day and scorn at death. She lives like other Witnesses, longing for this apocalyptic future, believing that the end of the world is imminent, thirsting for the day when she will see everyone again, when it won’t matter that Eve betrayed us and chaos ruled for six thousand years, from creation to the day we meet in Rogers House. The day I sit across her in a flowered armchair and think of my losses and the promise of life, the day she invites me out of the chaos, saying, “What else is there for you?”
She is waiting for me.
* * *
When I return to find what else is there, I find a door missing its familiar IN/OUT sign. Only Madelyn’s surname, Taylor, is carved on the door. Inside, a coffee table, multicolored pens and highlighters in a grey holder surround a Bible and a Watchtower magazine. Madelyn wears an orange flowered blouse and white bleached trousers that glimmer in the sunlight. She sits at the table studying Jehovah’s words.
Sunlight pours in through the sheer pink curtains, and the room warms up like a summer day. She starts off where she always likes to begin, with Jehovah. Some time ago in Kenya, she tells me, a man beat up his wife for becoming a Witness. She had to move in with other Witnesses. After some time, the husband began experiencing difficulty in his life, and only when he repented and became a Witness did life improve. Thereafter, he and his wife were reconciled, walking out of the system into the truth. “Jesus is saying we need to leave. We need to get out of this system,” she says. Madelyn looks at me. Perhaps I would connect through Witnesses from my country. Perhaps through her family who will be resurrected into a new system. I think of my grandparents. The grandmother who died from throat cancer, the grandfather who killed himself.
“It’s such a relief, the hope of resurrection of life. There’s proof in the Bible,” she says as she glances on the floor, her fingers intertwined, her memories back to 1950 when someone tells her that her father is gone. Then she turns to take out a navy blue Bible that I have not yet seen, and I wonder for a moment if she has Bibles stacked up on each corner. Bibles she has collected since her baptism in 1953.
“Honey, so you do know about the Bible?” she asks me.
I tell her that I attend a nondenominational church in Hanover. I grew up with a Baptist mother and a father who worshipped at the African Inland Church. My mother wore trousers to church and miniskirts to the movies. She had a traditional scarified tattoo and pierced ears. My father didn’t believe in women wearing trousers to church, but he married her anyway.
“Does that mean you all believe in different things?” she asks me.
I assure her that I believe in Jehovah’s son, Jesus. That I believe in a tripartite Godhead – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
“Oh, no, honey,” Madelyn says, “The Trinity are actually three separate deals.”
She reads Bible verses from Isaiah to confirm it to me: “Before me there was no God formed and after me there continued to be none. I am the first and the last, and besides me there is no God.” Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that there is only one God. The Holy Spirit is God’s active force, the extension of his power that breathed life into Adam, turning him into a living soul. Jesus is his only-begotten Son, God’s creation, not God himself. I have divided one God into three parts, a disrespect that I imagine totters on the edge of blasphemy.
“I want to know more about the hope you have,” I say, again, even though I can hear my mother’s voice warning me against her theology.
* * *
I visit her congregation, Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, after hitching a ride with two Witnesses who Madelyn asks to pick me up. Kingdom Hall is a square brick building, unobtrusive, located at the top of a hill. When you stand outside the building, all you see are skinny trees, and the white wooden houses of Lebanon. All Kingdom Halls are built by volunteers. Instead of “Men” and “Women,” the toilets carry the labels “Brothers” and “Sisters.” The congregations are organized into circuits based on geography. Witnesses don’t have a regular pastor who heads the followers, but rather elders, men who have met standards of maturity and leadership. The men are dressed in immaculate suits, and the women in long flowing dresses, skirts, and suits. I’m wearing a brown skirt that grazes my calves. I am in the kingdom now.
I sit at the front, waiting for Madelyn. She arrives dressed in black and draped with a pink shawl. When she spots me, her face lights up, and we sit next to each other, our bodies almost touching. The congregation quiets down when we rise up to sing. Everyone brings out their copy of Sing to Jehovah, the official songbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I sing along with Madelyn from her hymnbook, an ode that compels us to encourage one another. The love we find from God’s people gives us the courage to endure. Our congregation is a refuge where we can feel secure. We sit down again after singing, and the elder sharing the discourse walks to the stage. He is Brother Jackson, a burly man in a bright purple shirt, who wobbles on stage with a stomach that juts out in front of him. He declares that his message today will deal with hospitality. “I am a shy person, I have social anxieties,” Brother Jackson says, “but I still strive to be hospitable.” He has a lyrical voice, pronouncing Philemon as fi-lee-mon. Madelyn glances at me when Brother Jackson talks of being hospitable to those of us not in the truth, to welcome us to Kingdom Hall, to introduce oneself and sit with us. I see her smiling from the corner of my eyes.
“The compensation will come at the resurrection,” Brother Jackson says.
After his discourse, we have Bible study from the Watchtower. The elder leading the service hands me the April copy. The cover shows a Jehovah Witness from Namibia pointing out the Bible to a Himba woman, whose hair is dreadlocked with red ocher, her skin a matte red coat. We turn past the woman to the Bible passage for today “Stay in Jehovah’s Valley of Protection.” The accompanying picture shows the feet of a white man standing like a giant over the earth that has split into a valley. A graying man with a sonorous voice reads out the paragraphs, and stops after each one to allow the congregants to answer the study questions. He begins with October 30th, 1938, the day when thousands or millions mistook Orson Welles’ radio narration of the H.G. Wells novel The War of The Worlds for actual news of a Martian invasion. Madelyn raises her hand, and he calls out to her.
“I remember people loading up cars and knocking on doors,” she says of Quechee, Vermont’s response to the broadcast. “We asked them, ‘Where are you going?’ and they replied, ‘I don’t know, getting out of here.’” The congregation laughs. Everyone is in agreement that the people from 1938 didn’t know about the real war, Armageddon, “God’s war against this system of things.”
The elder continues reading, urging us to remain steadfast in the face of persecution, when Witnesses become the “object of hatred by all the nations.” Someone says “Yeah!” We stand up to sing the last hymn, a tune that rings like an orchestra:
Nation’s align as one opposing Jehovah’s Son Their time of human rulership By God’s decree is now done Rulers have had their day God’s kingdom is here to stay Soon Christ will crush earthly enemies No more will there be delay
Then the elder begins praying, and Madelyn interlocks her arms with mine. She rubs my left arm as the elder implores Jehovah to keep his people in a valley of protection, to shield them from the darts of the enemy, to make his Kingdom come. I am surprised by the softness of her palm, the ageless caress moving up and down the length of my arm, bidding me enter the family.
* * *
When I walk off the bus the next week, I remember the dream of the first day, of Madelyn in the summer, declaring that God’s Kingdom is here to stay. The dream comes to pass when I find her sitting outside Rogers House in the warmth of spring, wearing sunglasses over the square-rimmed lens. “I was waiting for you,” she says. She introduces me to a woman sitting next to her, “This is Suzanne.”
“You can pronounce it Suzanne or Susan,” Suzanne says. She has kind eyes and is dressed in a long flowing brown skirt. It will take some time before I realize that she is here to help explain the Bible to me.
We take the elevator up to Madelyn’s apartment. She has added a new IN/OUT sign in front of her door, an index card with squiggly G-clefs and F-clefs, the kind you might expect from a kindergartener. “Don’t you like my sign, isn’t it beautiful?” Madelyn says as she puts it up. Yes, it’s beautiful, I agree.
The living room has changed, again. The coffee table is back at the center of the room, but the armchair from 1982 is gone. Madelyn’s only surviving child, Joanne, took it away. She delivered a vase of fresh-cut pink and red roses on the table.
“You’re not interested in Bible study, are you?” Madelyn asks.
I struggle with the truth. I tell Madelyn that I’m interested in her life and learning why she believes 1914 to be the year when Jesus took up his place on the throne, the year when the last days began. Suzanne and Madelyn begin explaining. They bring out their booklets, titled What does the Bible really Teach? Madelyn had given me a copy when I first visited her, but I had never read it. I bring out my Bible instead, The New International Version.
“You know what happened in 1914,” Madelyn says.
“Yes,” I say, “World War I.”
“And it’s been getting worse ever since,” she says. Satan’s wicked system consuming the world.
They flip to page 215. Suzanne’s booklet is underlined; every word seems to have an accompanying annotation. “Decades in advance, Bible students proclaimed that there would be significant developments in 1914,” Suzanne reads aloud. The next lines explain how the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar looted Jerusalem and sent the Israelites into exile in 607 B.C.E. The royal line of King David, the Jewish king, came to an end, and the “gentile times” began. A period that would last “seven times” until Jesus, the heir of King David, would reclaim his throne 2,520 years later — in 1914.
“How did they come up with 2,520 years?” I ask.
“Well, let’s turn to Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6,” Suzanne says. She reads out the verses that emphasize “a day for a year, a day for a year.”
I multiply 365 by 7 and come up with 2,555 years. “If a day is for a year, then why use 360 days instead of 365?” I ask.
“It’s very complicated, I can’t remember how it was explained to me,” Suzanne says, taking comfort in the fact that she’s only been a Witness for three years.
“Where was Jesus the whole time? What about the evil before 1914?” I ask. I am lost in the calculation, lost in the thought that the war of a few white men up north could become God’s clock of history.
“He was Michael, the Archangel.” Madelyn says. “And Satan was still working. The Bible says so it will be in the days of the Son of Man.”
I am completely lost. How could Jesus be an archangel? When did he become the demon slaying commander of angels?
Madelyn senses my confusion. She begins to cry. “It’s the medicine slowing me down,” she says, referring to the Oxycodone she takes for her back pains. I am muted. Suzanne reaches out to her and gently pats her hand. “You’ve done so much for Jehovah,” she says. Madelyn’s ninety-year-old body heaves, and she covers her mouth with her hand. I also want to tell her that Jehovah is proud of her. But I’m not sure. I am not in the truth.
She gets up from the couch and shuffles to her kitchen counter for some tissue. When she turns back, she exchanges seats with Suzanne. With Suzanne sitting on the couch next to me, we seem like students looking up to our teacher. Our combined ages, fifty-four and twenty-two, still fall short of Madelyn’s ninety. Madelyn tries a second time, explaining the fallacy of the current system. She laments how the world uses pagan symbols to celebrate Christian festivals.
“What better fertility than a rabbit that reproduces boom boom boom,” she says.
Easter as the name of Ishtar, a goddess of fertility. Bunnies that lay eggs. Santa Claus who doesn’t exist. Turning one-year old on your first birthday even though your first birthday marks the end of your first year of life. She escapes this confusion. Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays, neither vote nor serve in the army, pay taxes only because Jesus said to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
Suzanne and Madelyn look at me. “The obligation is between you and Jehovah. We would never force you,” Madelyn says.
“There’s real peace and real love,” Suzanne says. She raised her family without any religious beliefs. Now she doesn’t celebrate the holidays with them. She found her answers in the Witness theology of a loving Jehovah. In the spiritual family that has different reasons for walking in the truth, varying reasons for the hope that they have. That possesses the wild confidence to knock on strange doors and hope for an answer. To be in this world but not of it. To be brothers and sisters, all seeking, marching to a new Kingdom and the end of all things.
I look up to Madelyn and imagine where the hope began, where I am invited to find the roadmap of life, to discover the tidy theology that calls me to declare Armageddon, to knock on strange doors and hope for an answer, to live knowing that I will see my grandparents again, that I will witness the resurrection of those who will go before me, like Madelyn. I imagine where the hope ends, when I am comfortable without the answers, without knowing about dates and the questions my theology cannot answer.
“What is there if we don’t go to heaven or hell?” I ask.
“Eden,” she says. Always Eden.
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.