The worst I could say about the God of my childhood was that he was like the rest of my Southern upbringing: formal, requiring clean, scratchy clothes and a lot of concentration. He kept me hopping and bored. There were Holy Land maps to be colored in, books of the Bible (Old Testament and New) to be memorized, psalms to recite, and one half of eleven o’clock Mass to muddle through. It seemed a far cry from the great stuff my Children’s Bible told about. I wanted wet, gummy manna to show up in the vacant lot next to our apartment complex. I hoped he’d ask me to sacrifice my sister. In my mind’s eye I could see it: me with the bread knife ready to saw through her fat little neck and God, at the last minute, saying, Nope. You don’t have to. Because of your terrific attitude you’ll be exempt from flashcards forever.
One Palm Sunday, after I’d turned in my mite box full of popsicle money, I came home with a palm and a marigold in a cardboard pot. I set up an altar on my night table. I was after a sign. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe, I told myself, it was just that my faith could stand firming up. Fourth grade, being limited to the children’s part of the library, not having a brother, wearing saddle shoes — all would be more tolerable if I knew God was around in not quite such an Episcopalian way. According to my Children’s Illustrated Bible, God had to be snagged. He appeared to snuffle along a line of bread crumbs searching out the faithful. I didn’t have any of the things God liked: a slaughtered lamb, frankincense, myrrh. I made do. I spread out a hankie printed with roses, got down the tiny cloisonné vases Daddy brought me from China, and filled them with Little Lady cologne. I put the palm between the vases and for good measure added a small American flag.
I figured he’d come at night. I wasn’t quite sure what he’d do with my altar but I thought he might drink the perfume. The next morning I checked the level of the cologne. My bitty vases were still full to the brim with Little Lady. Obviously this was a waiting game like Christmas. I hoped my mother wouldn’t ask me about the altar; I smacked my little sister when she sneaked over for a look. “Don’t touch!” I hollered. Maybe God would appear while I was at school. The thought depressed me. There I’d be suffering through the lumpy tempera paint while God showed up at my apartment where my mother got to watch TV and my sister played. At dinner, when we all got to tell something interesting that had happened to us, my mother would say, “Well, this morning God showed up. He had lunch with us. I had cream of tomato soup fixed and he said that was just fine. No, I’m not sure why he came. He didn’t say.” And that would be it for God. He’d never come again. But maybe he’d ask to see my room and would do something to the altar, perhaps leave me a note. Dear Ashley, Thanks for the nice altar and offerings. Sorry I couldn’t stay. Sincerely, God. He’d write in perfect Palmer script on paper without lines.
I didn’t wait for my best friend, Carol Washington. I raced home, ran heedlessly past the big high-school girls and the clots of scary boys, down the cement flight of stairs that went all the way up the hill, down the street past the other apartment courts, into mine. “Hi Mama!” I called. She was bent over her eternal sewing machine and didn’t look up.
“H’lo, honey,” she mumbled with her mouth full of straight pins. I clattered down the hall and skidded to a stop in front of my altar. Everything was exactly as I’d left it. I sighed. It was going to be just like Christmas. I’d have to be patient: no cheating. It was worth it. A personal visit from God could turn my life around. Then it wouldn’t matter that I was terrible at dodge ball, that I wore homemade dresses, that I didn’t have a Captain Midnight lunch box, that I had the lowest cookie-sales record in the Brownies. They’d point at me on the playground. That’s Ashley. God came to see her. Yeah. She told us all about it at show and tell.
I made some minute adjustments to the altar, then got my Illustrated Children’s Bible down from the shelf, flopped on the chenille bedspread, and thumbed through the pictures. My tastes ran to the Old Testament God. Jesus seemed as bland as a cracker to me. At the seminary I attended, our Sunday-school teacher told the class that Jesus loved little children. Who cares? I thought. Lots of people seemed to love little children and I didn’t like them any better for it. I thought of my old aunts and uncles, whiskery, with watery blue eyes, leaning to kiss me; it made me shiver. Jesus looked pretty whiskery himself. There was a picture of him riding on a donkey, and a picture of him with the multitudes, the loaves, and the fishes. I couldn’t see the big deal. The Old Testament God brought down plagues of frogs, parted the Red Sea, blew apart big wicked cities, covered the earth with floods; he was busy every minute. I wondered if the Old Testament God had gotten everyone so whipped into shape that all Jesus had to worry about were food miracles: water into wine, bread and fish.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to picture God. He’d be tall. Coming to my apartment complex, I doubted he’d be wearing his usual white robes; instead he’d have on a nice blue suit like my father wore to work.
His face would be like my dentist’s: stern and concerned. And of course he’d be old but it would be a nice old, like a wrinkly apple. He’d come into my room wearing his blue suit, his two-tone shoes, his Panama hat, and he’d sit right on my bed. Now, hon, he’d say, how kin Ah h’p? He’d have a strong Tennessee accent. Just knowing you’re real is enough, I’d say modestly. I’d like you to kill my fourth-grade teacher, get me out of Brownies, and make me a rich orphan, but I’ll understand if you don’t want to.
The days went by and my altar stayed the same. I don’t have the right stuff, I thought. The flashy Old Testament God I wanted was not going to be placated with Little Lady cologne and an American flag. It said right in my Bible that he liked lamb, bread, and perfume. I knew Mama wasn’t going to hand over her Chanel #5, a leg of lamb, and the squishy loaf of Wonder Bread. With my luck, Jesus would appear and I had no idea at all what I’d say to him. I’d come home from school and find him standing in my room looking at my altar like it was a cute idea. He’d be full of reproachful advice: be nicer to your sister, clean out the parakeet cage without crabbing, do the dishes. He’d hang around and wait to be introduced to my parents, spend the night talking to them about my shyness problem. Jesus would want a parent-teacher conference. He was no friend of mine.
God never appeared. I don’t remember feeling vengeful: okay. I’ll never believe in you again. God was busy. I understood that. My father was busy a lot and he didn’t do anything compared to God. God had Africa to worry about, pinning up the stars at night, making sure the seasons changed. I understood that he might not have time to visit me. I still felt him warm around me like a black blanket. At night, after saying the Lord’s Prayer in front of my mother, I’d curl into bed and say a real prayer into his big ear: God, your pal Ashley. I’d tell him about my day, I’d tell him what was driving me crazy, I’d ask him every night please please not to let me get leprosy. He never left me. I’d go to church each Sunday wondering if God could really take this stuff seriously. Did he like a lot of dressed-up grown-ups singing? Surely God preferred circuses and buttercups.
Years later I’d try Judaism, TM, and the Episcopal church before I settled with a sigh of relief onto my meditation cushion. Yet, in my dark, dark hours, I pray to the God of my childhood: God, your pal Ashley here. Surely he’s still there, sitting behind a big desk, working the crossword puzzle in ink, his Panama hat tossed on a chair. Surely he hears my middle-aged voice, not so different from when I was nine. He puts his newspaper down and leans back to listen, smiling a little. He knows that I’ll meet a new friend, learn something, start running again, do a good deed, get a new cat. He knows it’s going to be okay. He knows it’s always been okay. He looks over and says to my dead parents who crowd around the doorway: it’s Ashley. She’s just fine.