A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Since my mother is Jewish, lots of people worry about me growing up the wrong religion. Our maid Picollo is one. She is a black slouch of a woman who walks half a mile from the bus stop when her husband can’t bring her on his way to work. She putters around like an army without shoes, and she doesn’t follow directions, because she figures, “If the lady don’t like it, she can clean her own house.”
Mother hires her for the dusting, ironing, and toilets. Even though none of the ladies on our block work, that summer they all have “help.” It seems the thing to leave the children on blistery hot days with a lemonade maid so the mothers can get out for a while.
“Shame about you going to hell,” Picollo says, as she opens an avocado and piles on cottage cheese for my favorite lunch.
“I don’t believe in hell,” I say.
“Believe it or not, Missy, you’re going, ’less you decide to take Jesus as your savior.”
In our house, I am not allowed to say “Jesus.” I begged to be in the Christmas play, and Mother agreed on the condition I not say “Jesus” or “Christ.” Once I forgot while singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and belted out, “Christ the Lord.” I felt the earth shake, my mouth turn to ashes, my legs to jelly. I felt the rabbi’s wrath and my mother’s shame. From then on I mouthed all the words and remembered never to hum those songs at home.
Picollo wants to take me to her church, which is fine with me, because I love Picollo. I love the sassy way she acts, the warm thickness of her body, the way she moves like butter on a cold day, and the way she just doesn’t give a hoot, even when my mother criticizes her. I’d like to not give a hoot.
Instead of Sunday, Picollo says she will take me to Wednesday-night meeting, and that is what we do. One night, when Mother is out, Picollo and I sneak into her husband’s car and drive to the church supper. Picollo holds my heathen hand all through the serving line, fixes a plate for me, and sits me in the middle of huge swimming pools of black women. I feel like I am in a room of old mothers, of worn storytellers, of people who have spent more time sitting at bus stops than sitting at supper tables. All consonants are blurred. Laughter is a slug of gin. Teeth are random, and gold. There is none of the glitter of our temple, none of the high-cheeked makeup, the solemn suits, the heels that beat on floors. The preacher is the only one wearing a suit. He comes over and shakes my hand.
“Mighty proud to have you,” he says. His face is kind and creased and I know he isn’t worried about me going to hell. Picollo doesn’t seem so worried anymore.
I sit next to her in the hard wooden pew and close my eyes during the singing. The words remind me of flopping fish on splintery docks, of sun-baked shoulders on perfect days. The words slide down my soul to a place where God wears no clothes.
Next to Picollo, closer than I’ve sat to my mother, warmer and nearer to flesh, there is a spot that is safe, even if it might be called Jesus. There is a piece of God that all this time has belonged to me.
For months Sister Mary Benjamin prepared us second graders for that grave and brilliant Sunday when we would have the Lord’s chalky wafer placed on our tongues, and would join the endless procession of the guilty. She told us that on the grand morning of membership in the mystical body of Christ, the Lord would smile on each of us, and for that moment could deny nothing requested by such brave and glowing children.
I knew what my wish would be. I needed to become Superman. If only I could fly, see through walls and clothing, hear what whispers were kept from me, and have the strength of Sampson, then I knew I would be loved and happy. It wouldn’t matter that my head was flat, my ears like Dumbo’s, and my bicycle older than any on the playground. Everyone would understand how important I was. I saw myself rising into the air, the host still dissolving on my tongue, and turning toward the congregation with a simple smile, saying, “How could you have doubted?” I thought of little else for weeks, rehearsing the six easy words: dear God, please make me Superman.
Finally the day came, and I knelt at the Communion rail. The priest, with his altar boy, moved mouth by mouth toward me. I repeated my request with each step, each rustle of the vestments: Superman, Superman, Superman. Soon that consecrated hand withdrew my first host from the chalice and made a tiny sign of the cross, moving so slowly toward my face. Then sudden panic: what if my request is blasphemous? God will strike me dead! For several endless seconds, while the paper-dry wafer stuck to my tongue, I struggled. In a rush of relief I whispered, “Dear God, please give me $3.25.”
By early afternoon I’d received three cards from relatives and friends, each offering a single dollar bill. As I stepped out onto our sun-dappled porch on my way to the Sunday matinee, Mother called after me, “Here honey, here’s some money for candy,” and God handed me a quarter.
Guemes Island, Washington
The sense that God is everywhere was a comforting thought, except when it came time to get undressed at night. I was a modest little girl, and it bothered me that there was no place where you could shut the door and get some privacy. My only hope was that there were so many others getting undressed at the same time, perhaps the Omnipresent wouldn’t notice me.
Guru Nam Kaur Khalsa
Grandpa and Grandma Smith were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that’s how they raised my mother. She was born to them late in their lives, so when I knew them they were very old. Grandpa Smith was tall, with a stoop. He was fiercely ugly, but gentle in spirit. I remember sitting on his lap, waiting as he dipped a spoonful of sugar into his coffee, then taking the warm sweetness into my mouth. He died when I was seven years old.
After his death, I spent much time with my grandmother. When we walked downtown together, Grandma Smith clutched my hand and glared at the men we passed, especially the bums who lived on the sidewalks in that part of San Francisco. I knew if anyone gave us trouble, Grandma planned to pull the long hatpin from her hat and stab him in the eye.
Back at the apartment on Natoma Street, she kept a blackjack for protection. It hung from the bedroom door, weighted with sand and covered in the same dull black leather as the suitcases filled with her favorite magazines, Watchtower and Awake.
I never saw her read anything but those magazines or her Bible. I remember spending wordless afternoons in the dark, musty living room, sitting on the scratchy mohair sofa, hearing her turn the tissue-thin pages, hoping her hand wouldn’t go to the vial of nitroglycerin tablets she wore around her neck. Sometimes, sitting with her in that room, I thought about Jehovah, wrathful Jehovah who — in one Bible story — killed little children. I thought about Armageddon; I didn’t want to die and be resurrected. I knew dying would hurt, and I worried I would get separated from my family. I didn’t want to live forever with the people I saw at the Kingdom Hall.
One day while Grandma was reading, I went outside. I loved to look at and test the curled tendrils of the morning-glory vine that grew beside the porch door. As I played, I saw a butterfly pause on one of the leaves, touching it delicately with its body. When the butterfly flew off, I looked at the leaf. There were six eggs, gleaming and tiny, arranged in two perfect rows. I ran to get my grandmother.
“Grandma, Grandma, come and see,” I said, taking her hand. Out on the landing, I showed her the miracle I had discovered.
Grandma Smith frowned, and with her bent, angry thumb wiped the leaf clean.
Half Moon Bay, California
On my third birthday, my godfather Ernest gave me a small mirror, the kind that used to come in expensive handbags. On it he had placed two tiny, cobalt blue, transparent glass vases, filled with water and blue lobelia flowers. Even now, I’m not sure what inspired him to give such a delicate gift to a three-year-old. I was entranced. It was my first altar.
A year or so later, my mother, born a Southern Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and my father, a nonreligious Los Angeles Jew, started taking me to services at the Episcopal church and enrolled me in a Catholic nursery school. The Episcopal church was very spare and modern. It could not compare to the Catholic church at Dominican Convent, where my nursery school met. The Catholic church was a dark, mysterious wonder: holy water; stained glass; banks of burning candles; painted statues wearing jeweled robes; the heavy scent of incense; nuns whose gender I could not determine because their black shoes looked like men’s. I immediately transferred my faith, which had been vague (and rather pagan, connected to flowers and trees), to this God of holy cards and Saint Christopher medals and red velvet and dark wood and draped altars.
When I was seven my father died and we moved to Fort Worth. I began attending All Saints’ Episcopal Church and school. It was “high” Episcopal, which means that it was as close to Catholic as possible without a pope. (It also meant that rich parishioners were in the majority.) While the robes of the unpainted statues were carved from wood, there were plenty of them, as well as stained-glass windows, nuns, holy cards, and a brocade-covered altar. There were rules, rituals, and prayers that I could memorize better than anyone else my age. This became my refuge. When my mother was too drunk to remember to feed us, or when she played the same Frank Sinatra song for hours, there was God. God lived in heaven, up in the clouds, remote. It was a male god, the Huge Man with a white beard to whom I prayed to keep bombers from bombing us in the night or to keep Mommy from dying and leaving me, too.
But my faith had a price. My grandparents occasionally took me to their church, Rosen Heights Baptist. This church was somehow “lower,” less cerebral, less tasteful than All Saints’. It was plain, without statues or an altar. At All Saints’, babies were christened by water sprinkled from a pierced, silver implement. At Rosen Heights, royal blue curtains parted to expose a glass tank where older children and adults were baptized by being dunked in four feet of water. At All Saints’, our priest, Father Jim, delivered sedate sermons that merely hinted at hell. At Rosen Heights, the preacher, in shouts and screams punctuated by awesome silence and hushed whispers, promised that we would burn in hell forever if we did not forsake sin and come to Jesus. I couldn’t ignore it. My protective God became an avenger. The price of this God was the threat of eternal damnation.
Still, for quite a while, avoiding eternal damnation was easy. Hitting my brothers or petty theft did not condemn me to unending flames. The big sins were things like adultery or murder. Then the price of this God began to climb. In junior high, our principal party activity was dancing slow to Johnny Mathis. Dancing was a sin at Rosen Heights, but it was just fine at All Saints’. Soon, though, I wanted to be touched, and then I wanted to be touched under my clothes. The threat of being damned to eternal hellfire was too distant to contain my lust. Heavy petting surely fell into the All Saints’ category of “adultery.” And my boyfriend was Catholic, so I knew his immortal soul, as well as mine, was doomed by our actions. It was time to kill God.
I killed him when I was fourteen. I read arguments favoring atheism in a book my boyfriend had checked out to do a term paper. That was enough to kill off my distant and dangerous concept of a god. I spent fourteen more years in a spiritual desert with nothing to rely on but me.
One day, on a beach, when I was twenty-eight, an ancient God was born to me, unbidden, undeniable, unknowable, without gender, church, or form. It is the sweet God of Godfather Ernest’s altar and the destructive God of Siva. It is lightness and darkness. It is life and death. It is a God I cannot fall out of. I now build altars in lava beds and redwood forests, and in my heart.
Light sparkled and danced over the blue waters of San Francisco Bay. It was one of those brilliant, windswept spring days. I had spent the morning downtown with my father in his office while he did his paperwork. Now we were heading back up the steep hills toward our home in the Sunset District. The Plymouth’s tires bumped and whined over the cable-car tracks. Sitting in the front seat, I could barely see over the dash. The mohair seats scratched my bare legs.
My father flipped a Lucky Strike out of its package, scratched a wooden match under the dash, and lit his cigarette. He passed the still-burning match over for me to blow out. With one big breath I blew out the flame, taking the smell of phosphorus into my lungs as the smoke swirled out the wing vent.
To this day, that distinctive smell of an extinguished match rekindles the memory of that one, sweet moment of connection between a five-year-old and his abusive, alcoholic father.
The God of my childhood was easy to please. The rules were clear and simple enough: tell the truth, obey your parents, say your prayers, go to Mass on Sunday. Going to confession was uncomfortable not because I was worried about my many sins, but because I had to fish around for some sins to confess. Usually I came up with this trio: “I lied, I was disobedient, and I was inattentive during my prayers.” My penance was predictable: an Our Father and a few Hail Marys that I prayed kneeling at the altar rail. I noticed how long my classmates took to do their penance and wondered what kind of lives they lived to warrant such punishment.
I had three booklets about the lives of the saints that I read over and over again. The pictures of each saint were drawn passionately and in detail, usually with the saint’s “specialty” depicted in some way. Saint Stephen had arrows stuck in his body, Saint Rose was walking in a garden of pink roses, and Saint Francis was surrounded by cute animal friends. My favorite was Saint Maria Goretti because she had dedicated her life to God at an early age and chose death rather than marriage to an atheist.
Every May I fashioned a lovely altar on top of my dresser in honor of the Blessed Mother. I draped light-blue fabric covered with a white lace remnant around my favorite statue of Mary. I put fresh flowers in a little vase at her feet, and I burned a votive candle while I prayed the rosary. I was such a good girl for so many years, and then I discovered orgasms.
One day in the bathtub I accidentally aimed the full force of the shower hose at my vulva. I didn’t even know what that surprising, strange shudder in my body was, but somehow I knew it was wrong. For many months I rationalized away my guilt by claiming to myself, “I’m just washing myself!” Then at school I overheard a classmate describe an activity that sounded very much like what I was experiencing. I had to accept the fact that I was committing a sin of impurity. I searched the catechism to find the right words to confess this sin. So now when I went to confession I had something really embarrassing to say: “I touched myself in an impure manner.”
Sometimes I promised myself I would stop doing it, but it felt so true and good, and seemed so harmless — except for the guilt — that I began questioning my faith. I decided that God made all of my parts, and that my vulva had just as much right to my respect and admiration as my elbow or nose. This gap between what I felt God really had in mind and the judgment of the Church on issues of sexuality made me lose trust in my religion.
After years of rejecting Catholicism and working through my anger, that deep, childhood experience of “what God really had in mind” has reemerged. Trusting my own experience of God through Christian meditation, rather than looking to rules and regulations for guidance, has become my key to a mature spiritual path.
The God of my childhood lived in a fairy-tale castle to which we prayed every Sunday morning. Red carpeted steps led from the church floor up to the altar that held his house. A fence surrounded the steps, keeping us away from the area only his priests could enter. Sometimes the priests came out through a little wooden gate and walked among us. They chanted and sang, carried golden crosses, wore golden helmets, and burned incense in golden censers. God was kept in a little house in the center of the altar. Sometimes the priests unlocked the door and let him out to walk around with them and show him who had come to church. They would put him inside a gold cross with a round window in it. God was round and white. When we came forward and knelt at the fence, the priests gave us pieces of God to eat. We could take him in our mouths and swallow, but we weren’t supposed to chew him.
Today I can chew my God, and get the taste of him.
From the first day of kindergarten, Leslie was my best friend. We did everything together. We held hands walking to school. We agreed on who we liked and who we didn’t. We stole candy from the grocery store across the street. We played cemetery tag — racing to find the letters in the alphabet on the gravestones.
I was a Jew; she was a Christian. In Sunday school I learned that God was everywhere. I brought this remarkable piece of information to Leslie for discussion.
One day, walking our usual route home from school through all the alleys, I spotted a barrel filled with yucky leaves and rainwater. I excitedly told my friend, “If God is everywhere, God must be in that old barrel.” She agreed. One at a time, we earnestly put our heads deep into the musky, rotten-smelling barrel and prayed with all our hearts.
Vicki Cohn Pollard
Blue Hill, Maine
I had random erections that popped up at all hours. For each, a full accounting had to be made in the weekly confessional. Most of the episodes fell into the venial category, because I hadn’t “willfully intended” them. But if the spasms were especially unruly or persistent they might be deemed mortal, which meant burning in an eternal fire, unless a priest was given a full tally in confession.
Though Saturday was the customary day, I knocked on the priest’s door after school on a Wednesday in early autumn.
“Father, could you hear my confession?”
“Can’t it wait until Saturday?”
“By that time it will take too long. I don’t want to inconvenience everyone.”
The priest donned his vestments and went through the arcane ritual. He sat behind a finely meshed screen with only his silhouette visible. After I listed my infractions, he doled out a hefty penance.
Soon afterward I came to the breaking point. It was All Saints’ Day, 1956. In the middle of the evening Mass, in the shadow of a statue of the Virgin Mary, the erections started with a fury. An imaginary ray emanated from the tip of my erection out into space, giving me vicarious contact with the most taboo of all women. I concluded that since I was damned forever, it was pointless to keep track of my sins. I fled from the Church of the Immaculate Conception, my ray veering off into Michigan, two states north.
In the distant town center, spotlights played on the sky. The Edsel dealership was premiering its new model, which was displayed on a raised turntable like a false idol. My Jewish and Protestant friends were enjoying the free hot dogs and sodas. They called for me to join them. I saw them as naive yokels, blissfully ignorant of the awful truth about the Now and Hereafter. I wished that I had been raised Jewish like my father, so I wouldn’t have had to learn about Jesus. Then I realized that I had committed a fresh infraction; but since I’d resolved never to go back to church, I tried not to start a new sin list.
My mother was a strict Catholic until she fell in love with my father, a Jew. When his parents found that they had eloped and were married by a Protestant minister, they were furious. They made her convert to Judaism and be married by a rabbi. My mother was so worried about going to hell, my father finally agreed to marry her in the Catholic church. We children were baptized as Catholics. But my mother could never bring us up as Catholics because of her in-laws, and she refused to bring us up as Jews. We really didn’t know what we were. We had a Christmas tree but no manger. We celebrated Passover and Easter; Hanukah and Christmas. We got ashes on Ash Wednesday and fasted on Yom Kippur. Then my oldest brother decided he was a Jew and promptly fell in love with a Catholic girl. When she bemoaned the fact that they couldn’t be married at the altar, my mother promptly produced his baptismal certificate, and they were.
There was definitely a God in my childhood. I decided all religions had the same one and he wasn’t mad at my mother.
Dad had a motorcycle. He took my sister and me out for rides. He would drive way out in the countryside to the middle of nowhere on a hot summer evening. Then he’d tell us to direct him home. Take a left here, now turn right, okay, go straight ahead. We’d have the best time. “You can never really be lost,” he used to tell us. “If you don’t know where you are, you can always ask someone who does.”
Dad gave us another bit of wisdom that I still carry around with me. “If you remember anything,” he said, “remember this: it’s the spirit that counts.” I felt his strong, gentle hand on my head and smelled his end-of-the-day sweat.
“What does that mean, Dad?” we asked him.
“Well . . . I don’t really know.”
“Then why are you telling us?”
“Because it’s true.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m forty-two, and I’m only beginning to understand it myself.”
And that’s all we could get him to say about it. Even today, he’ll occasionally put down his flute, or look away from the trees he’s been staring at, and say, “Hey Erika. What is it that counts?” And I say, “The spirit.” And he says, “That’s right,” and smiles; only quietly, with his eyes.
Yellow Springs, Ohio
I was three or four years old when my mother introduced me to God in the kitchen of our ten-dollar-a-week flat on Courtney Avenue in Newburgh, New York. This was around 1945, when there was no TV. For entertainment, I made a pest of myself while my mother tried to get her work done. On the day I met God I was climbing on the kitchen radiator and my mother told me not to. I refused and then slipped and fell, hurting my ankle, and I began to cry. “God is punishing you for disobeying me,” she said, and went on to explain that God is always present everywhere, sees everything, and punishes wickedness. Through my tears I became vividly aware, as only a child can, of God’s presence right there in that kitchen. From then on, I knew he was always silently watching me and keeping score, a stern old man with a white beard and a notebook.
When I was old enough, I enrolled in Saint Patrick’s School for Boys on Liberty Street in Newburgh, where I learned more about the mysteries of the faith. I learned that heaven and hell were real places, not metaphors. The Christian Brothers believed in using the fear of hell and the yardstick. Hell sounded even worse than Saint Patrick’s School itself and was a place to be avoided at any cost.
My mother told me that, as a Catholic, I had a good chance of going to heaven. Having experienced the presence of God, I was never troubled by doubts of his existence, but I had doubts about my chances for heaven. It seemed far away and so difficult to get into.
When I was seven, my mother told me, “All priests go straight to heaven when they die.” I quietly filed the information away. Twelve years later I entered a seminary convinced God wanted me to be a priest. And, of course, being Irish, that’s exactly what he wanted.
I wanted to go to an outdoor concert in Greenwich Village with my girlfriend.
“It’s too dangerous at night. Thousands of who-knows-what kind of people will be there.” My mother walked briskly into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
She wore a skirt and lipstick. She darkened the roots of her hair. She sat at the kitchen table beside a wall papered with green rolling hills, cows, and horses. She taught me to play piano. She threw a cloth over my shoulders at the beach. She pulled my skirt down when the hem slid above my knees. She told me to squeeze my legs together when they drifted apart. She bundled up when the leaves turned from green to red. She wore a sweater, a coat, gloves, and a hat pulled tight over her ears. “Earaches,” she would say. “Don’t sit near any open windows.”
Gods are strong, aren’t they? They can withstand the rain, the snow, the wind. Gods are not afraid of the sun on their faces. Gods don’t use sunscreen. Gods are not afraid of dark nights. Gods are not afraid of turning corners.
The Goddess is not afraid of her breasts showing. She is not afraid of feeling warmth between her legs. The Goddess is not afraid of her hair getting wet in a spring rain. She is not afraid of walking barefoot through grass. The Goddess is not afraid that silk and chiffon are not warm enough. She is not afraid of throwing off her clothes. Running naked with other goddesses.
The God of my childhood was a blue tweed suit. With a silk blouse, new, high-heeled shoes, and a matching leather purse.
Every year as the High Holidays approached, my parents’ attention turned to how we would look and what we would wear when we attended temple. We did not speak about the meaning of the holy days, but only about whether we would be as well groomed as our neighbors — especially those who attended the rival shul, one block away.
When the holy days arrived, I stood outside the imposing entrance of the temple, showing off my outfit, flirting with the boys, and checking out the Conservatives who passed by on their way to the shul. If I entered the temple at all, it was for short periods of time, and then only to sit next to a friend or the young man of the moment. When inside, I understood little of what transpired during this holiest of ceremonies. To me it was a mishmash of meaningless mysticism.
My parents behaved no differently. They were impeccably clad. They showed themselves at temple, greeting neighbors, doing the proper and expected thing. As an honor — and because he had been generous with donations — my father was called to read from the Torah. I remember how he joked about his ineptitude with the ancient Hebrew; how the rabbi had to prompt him, whispering the correct words, covering his mistakes.
The day ended with the dramatic sound of the shofar — the ram’s horn. On the Day of Atonement we were supposed to walk the distance from home to synagogue. But our car was always parked out of sight, only a block away. I was uneasy, but glad. Those new high-heeled shoes usually hurt by the end of the day.
That’s what it was to be an assimilated Jew in 1945 in Brooklyn, New York. And now, almost fifty years later, I can tell you that I wish it had been different. A blue tweed suit does not fill the void where God should dwell.
Shari Nocks Gladstone
Dix Hills, New York
On Sundays, he stood before the church in his long, flowing, black robe and preached magnificently. Impassioned, he spoke of Saint Paul, imploring you to rise up and serve. His handwritten notes were always before him on the pulpit, though he didn’t seem to have to look at them. When the sermon was over and the robe came off, my father still walked like a God, never stopping, never faltering. I followed him down garden rows, dropping tomato plants in the freshly dug holes he made with the hoe. He ran the old mimeograph in the hallway of the parsonage while I put slipsheets between the pages of the Sunday bulletins. He taught me how to feed baby rabbits with a plastic doll’s bottle. We loaded up backpacks and climbed down steep hills to the hemlock shores of freshwater lakes. We made igloos in the back yard. We went calling on parishioners together. We put plump tomatoes and fat green beans in mason jars. He performed marriages in the living room. He took in refugees, visited mental patients and prisoners. He brought home friends for Christmas, and strangers for dinner. He led us in prayer at every meal. He thought the world was beautiful and sacred, and everyone in it was a wonder.
Charry McGurty Smith
The god of my childhood was a ceramic collie named Lad. He was about six inches tall, seated, and had a noble gaze. He was the god-king of a planet named Kay’s Room, which was populated by families of bone-china animals. These creatures had all the trappings of human culture — dishwashers, living-room sofas, guns, flying shoe-cars — all invented out of tiny pieces of junk and imagination. They were a squabbling, adventurous lot. I remember a juvenile delinquent German shepherd who stole a shoe-car and flew off-planet with his girlfriend, a bear cub, to avoid the authorities (Kay’s Room had police, a school, a hospital — this last very necessary to the porcelain inhabitants).
Every sequence ended the same way, in an audience with Lad. Towering above his subjects, he calmly administered justice to miscreants and consolation to the suffering.
This game was nothing like playing with dolls. Playing dolls was dull. This was macrocosmic — I was dealing with a planet. Great passions were enacted. People were born and died. Some were murdered, and reappeared as ghosts. Even the role of God was filled. I only did one thing: I told the story.
Inevitably, I became a writer. I tell other people’s stories, people who, strictly speaking, don’t exist.
What is the connection between writing fiction, Kay’s Room, and God? When I was a child, Lad was a ceramic collie that I begged my mother to buy for me. I also knew he was God. I asked him for advice and he gave it to me. When I needed comfort, he supplied it.
But where did he come from? When I write stories, people walk into my life and surprise the hell out of me, imaginary people who break my heart. Where do they come from? What do I have to do with it? I feel they existed all along, just as God existed all along; I am simply discovering their stories.
Kay Levine Spencer
Sixteen thousand feet high in the Sierras, I am looking down a wooded slope at my family’s cabin. I hear my parents talking on the back porch. I am seven.
Suddenly, cool air, pine trees, the earth, my parents, and I are connected by a giant, invisible web linking all things. I know in this instant who I am.
In Sunday school I played “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens on the piano. I had learned it from Mrs. Smith, my piano teacher. I found her dead one morning when I came for lessons. I also played hymns, which I found boring. “Morning Has Broken” was different. As I played I felt transported. Suddenly I was thinking about Mrs. Smith’s parrot Peter; I could still hear him saying, “Shut up shut up, I’m Peter” — and then I lost my place. Mr. Hughes frowned and ushered me back to my seat.
I understand I was a problem child, too excitable, too much energy. It seemed that no matter how many Bible verses I learned, and even though I had accepted Jesus in my life when the Salvation Army came to town, still I wasn’t saved. My Sunday school teacher borrowed my Bible and discovered that I had underlined the Gospel of John. She called it blasphemy.
I gave up. I knew I was going to hell. I took to studying the heads of people in church and lost myself in fantasy. I giggled and received prods from my mother when I noticed my father sleeping during the sermon. I threw up the overcooked peas at Sunday dinner and took to rolling joints in my shoe closet. I learned to hate Sundays; I hated the clothes I was expected to wear, and the fact that I couldn’t play, and that I had to listen to classical radio all day. I hated Sundays because my brother would come into my room and molest me while my mother was at evening service and my dad sat in the living room smoking his pipe and listening to the BBC.
When I was twelve, I refused to get out of bed for church. My mother beat me and dragged me along. I took to playing with drugs and listening to Pink Floyd. I refused to take Communion. One day a social worker came to ask questions. I was tripping on LSD at the time and thought her questions silly, when suddenly a golden light came shooting from the family Bible above the TV set. The light fell over the rug and filled the whole room. I stood up and cried, “Look how beautiful it is. Can’t you see?” Of course they couldn’t.
I was removed from my home. I haven’t seen my parents since I was fourteen. My aunt writes ten years later when I finally reach out to someone in my family for help. She tells me she always knew I had a deep spiritual center; she always knew it would guide me and be my strongest point. She’s glad I’m happy and living in a spiritual community ten thousand miles from home.
You scared me during my childhood and I loved you. I saw your face often while lying on my back in the yard of our old house in Glenbrook Hills. Your face was frightening, and powerful. Your eyes were black, your brows bushy. You were beautiful to me. I dreamed of your face and your long, coarse, gray-white hair. Your skin was dark and weathered — like a Jew from a desert land.
You scared me because you never slept. I didn’t understand how you could be in China and Richmond, Virginia at the same time, but I believed it. You could see me not only when I peed but when I lied.
I spent hours talking to you. I wrote prayers for you and to you, poems and music. I drew pictures of Jesus, but never you. I didn’t want them to know I knew you. I could never defend my version of you against them — Mom, Grandma, the church folks. But I couldn’t keep you separate from them. When bad things happened to me, I came to believe that it was my just punishment. Do you remember the time I told my mom that Gene washed my doll’s hair and ruined it? I even managed to cry when I told that lie. Christmas was coming up and I was desperate. I prayed to you, talked to you, bargained, and promised never to lie again. I still believed in Santa and knew there would be nothing under the tree for me, and everyone would know what I was.
You didn’t punish me, dear God. That was more powerful than anything the church folks ever tried to teach me. I knew who you are.
I am the baby of the family. My brother and sister, who are eleven months apart, are five years older than I. It doesn’t seem like much now, but my childhood was a self-imposed mission to achieve “olderness.”
Fortunately, families have a way of balancing themselves. Unlike me, my aunt Laura was the oldest in her family. Her errors of life were real and put her in the same vulnerable position as I. It was her broad lap I ran to for comfort. There was always room for me. And with kind words and secrets about how my aggressor had bad breath, my soul was mended.
I remember playing old maid with her. She would say, “I am an old maid,” over and over throughout the game. Laura never married, lived in the same house all her life, and died a virgin. She taught elementary English and was known at school for her patience and her mustache. When I was too young and Laura too old to help with the formal holiday meals, we’d sit at the kitchen table and talk.
She told me about the big, black German casket my great-great-grandmother was buried in; how my great-uncle Virge went crazy, took off his clothes, and directed traffic after he came home from the war; how she came screaming down the steps when she started her period because she didn’t know what was happening to her. I was the only person in the family she told these stories to and I enjoyed every detail.
I confided that I thought I had cancer in the lumps that were developing in my prepubescent breasts and she assured me that they were normal. She also assured me that my brother was lying when he said my parents found me in an alley. She made my first period, which I got on Christmas, and the mustache that grew over my top lip a few years later, a little easier to deal with.
She had a stroke the day after Thanksgiving. When I went to see her at the hospital we both knew she was dying. It was understood between us that she would go out in a big black casket. I told her I loved her. She nodded and said with her drawn features, “I love you, too.” I kissed her cool cheek.
It rained the day of her funeral. I breathed in the bitter air and thought, this is the way it should be.
My five-year-old niece was named after Laura. She insisted on being by my side during the burial. “Do they bury her body and send her head up to heaven?” she asked during the ceremony. Her mother firmly grabbed her hand and leaned down to correct her. I stepped in, took her in my arms, and whispered, “Laura’s soul has gone into another person.” She looked at me and smiled with complete comprehension.
When my youngest brother was old enough to walk, my mother decided it was time for the four of us kids to get a grounding in the prevailing religion of our culture. Mom chose the church because it offered a watered-down version of Christian dogma and was within walking distance. While we went to Sunday school and learned the basics of Christianity, she explored the fringes, embracing reincarnation and karma long before they became everyday concepts.
While we were at Sunday school, Mom dutifully went to church, modeling the behavior, if not the attitudes, she wanted us to adopt. When he was home, our father, a pilot, slept peacefully in their third-floor bedroom, rescued from our usual morning tumult by the demands of our religious education.
I thought that when we visited God’s house on Sundays we had to dress up in case he was in. He never was — at least I never saw him. I decided he must be like Santa Claus, with a lot of houses to visit on Sunday mornings, and I just kept missing him. But I enjoyed learning about him. They said he was my Father in heaven. I didn’t know exactly where heaven was, but I imagined it up in the sky, which explained why God was never in church when I was. But I could understand an absent Father. Mine was absent a lot, too.
God was an unpredictable father who lived in the sky, could see everything I did, and knew everything I thought. In Sunday school I learned that when he was angry, he sent pestilences, demolished whole cities, or flooded the world.
As I got older, I wondered about a God who would do such cruel things to his “beloved children.” The extremely sweet Sunday-school teachers explained that God was punishing the wicked. But I knew that a loving father would not mete out such irreversible punishments. My father didn’t. I thought a loving father would instruct and guide his children and would certainly give them second chances at learning the important things, like loving and forgiving.
Mom helped resolve my dilemma by explaining reincarnation to me. I liked the idea that our eternal fate was not dependent upon a single lifetime. In this context, God seemed less harsh and unfair. We did have a second chance, perhaps many. The apparent punishments of life became teaching tools, and God appeared more loving and just.
With that shift, I became more comfortable with God and less comfortable at church. I began to understand the Bible stories as metaphors. The final blow to my involvement with church came with my confirmation. I had studied deeply and carefully in preparation. I longed for an ecstatic experience at my confirmation: a white dove, a beam of light, a voice or a vision; just a sign from God that he was entering into a relationship with me as I was with him. When the momentous day came, I stood before the minister as he addressed God, the congregation, and me. And I waited. But, as usual, God wasn’t at home.
I ended my formal religious education then. But I never abandoned my search for God; my relationship with her continues to evolve.
Palo Alto, California
Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home, I watched my father wrap himself in leather strips and tie black boxes to his forehead. He ritualistically recited the prayer thanking G-d he was not born a woman. I learned that not being a woman was good and it gave you an in with G-d.
In the synagogue, I sat with the women and watched the men rock back and forth muttering secretly to G-d. The women were always late to services because they spent so much time doing their makeup, finding the best dress, matching shoes and furs to wear before G-d. They also had to empty their matching purses of money before entering G-d’s house and then fill them again upon returning home. I learned to hate to dress up for anyone.
In times of panic, I called out to G-d. These panics occurred whenever my family sat waiting in the car for me to find my shoes. There was a law about shoes I never really understood but I knew it was serious. When in mourning, one didn’t wear shoes. I feared that my mother feared G-d would give us something to mourn about if my shoe crime came to his attention. I bargained with G-d. If he would help me find my shoes, I’d believe in him. Sometimes he did, and for a few days I did.
While G-d was wrathful and punishing, my parents never punished me. I concluded that if I punished myself, I might come into a close relationship with G-d. After synagogue, I would take a hairbrush and lock myself in my mother’s bathroom. I’d pull down my panties, lay myself over my mother’s pink dressing-room seat, and spank myself. I felt pain, I felt punished, I felt pleasure. I felt a bit closer to G-d.
Woodstock, New York
A set of maroon-covered volumes embossed in gold stood behind glass in the living room. I remember only one page: colored in poisonous greens and oranges, outlined in a thick black border, was an illustration of the gates of hell. A devil was using a pitchfork to prod writhing, screaming bodies into the fire-breathing mouth of a huge dragon. The fire, the naked limbs, and the contorted heads dangling from the dragon’s mouth terrified me. I alternated between avoiding the picture and obsessively seeking it out, looking just long enough to assure myself that it was every bit as sickening and unbearable as I remembered, then snapping it shut and vowing never to look again. I was too young to read the words, and afraid to ask their meaning. But I knew: this was punishment for sin.
Upstairs, the Son of God watched over me. A cardboard bas-relief of the Madonna and child hung next to my bed. This pair — the calm, adoring mother and her fat baby — stared at me as I thrashed around in the boredom of my afternoon naps. I would kick the picture, cover the baby’s face with my foot, and hate him for wallowing in his mother’s arms. My own mother’s lap was full with both the toddler who had usurped me and still another baby growing inside.
One afternoon, when I grew tired of chewing the large wad of gum I had sneaked upstairs, I pressed it against the picture. When I pulled the gum away, Mary’s face came with it. The face of the baby Jesus came off even more easily. I worked diligently; soon there was nothing left but rough, gray cardboard. I got out my crayons and drew in a scene more to my liking. Whatever consequences I might suffer would be worth the relief of removing that fat, contented baby from his mother’s lap forever.
When I was a child we lived in the country. It was my job to carry water to the animals in the evenings. I thought, if there is a God, he will not let me drop this big green plastic pitcher full of water, for that would be wasteful. I turned on the spigot and watched the water rush headlong into the pitcher. I slid my hand through the handle, then loosened my grip. The water spilled over the ground. I did this three happy, dangerous times, and then forgot about it. The animals needed water.
He was God the Father, the God of fire, famine, and floods. He was the God of Abraham and sacrifice. His love was swift and terrible. He did not negotiate. He kept accounts of indulgences and he started you out in debt. Martyrdom was the only way to eradicate the red ink. He made a big impression on me.
God the Son was a hollow curiosity; his passivity, his role as victim, made him no kind of ally. I needed a protector.
There was tenderness only in the Mother of God. The Virgin Mary was of the earth and sky. She had a visceral presence. I crushed myself against the blue velvet folds of her cloak. I felt her warmth, the heave of her breathing, her fine-boned fingers drawing my head against her belly. I was devoted to her, and she would envelop and conceal me in her love because deep down inside we both knew the Father was crazy and dangerous. We were co-conspirators meeting in a grotto where I would bathe in the healing waters of her grace and stay the hell out of his sight.
At the age of ten I was initiated into God’s service as a Knight of the Altar. He revealed himself to me as the head, not of a family, but of a fraternity. I could now serve Mass, something the oldest, highest-ranking woman in the Church would never be allowed to do. As far as God was concerned, gender was linked to power and privilege. This was the unfolding of a great mystery to me and meant the beginning of the end of my Virgin worship.
I kept a shrine to her in my bedroom, decorating it with a font of holy water and lilac sprays in May. I’d kneel before my glow-in-the-dark rosary and pray for the conversion of Communists, our special cause. My devotion took on desperate overtones. One night, lying in bed, immersed in my grotto fantasy, I found myself with an erection. It was unthinkable, the worst kind of betrayal, an unconfessable sin. I was appalled to find my enemy so powerful he could work his way into our sacred place, my own little Lourdes. Once defiled, I could never go back there, no matter how profound my yearning.
I went with the men after that and never confessed my sin. Ironically, I have prayed my way into erections ever since. Power, desire, and shame. I never laugh at funny Catholic stories.