One thing that Diana and I took years to figure out was that there is no such thing as a truly shared memory. So many factors and unchecked personal baggage translate joint experiences into individual truths. We have so many of the same stories we just tell them differently and we thought it would be fun to chronicle some here beginning with religion. The stories we share clearly echo each other but they are our own independent experiences and, probably most interestingly, written at vastly different times in our lives.
And so to begin...
Give Me That Old Time Religion
They kept talking about the Holy Ghost which made my face flush with indignation. All this time the adults had been telling me that there is no such thing as ghosts and then they are celebrating one right in church in front of God. What is wrong with you people? I kept looking over my shoulder and to see if the ghost was behind me because that’s their usual position. They like to sneak up on you and scare your pants off. I really wanted to stop the proceedings and ask a few questions but my Grandmother’s gloved hand squeezed my hand a little too firmly which is to say not at all but just enough to silence my fidgeting and curiosity. As soon as the service was over I demanded to know who this Holy Ghost was and had it ever been under my bed. “Oh my word Diana” my grandmother said. I could tell she was perhaps embarrassed and that I was calling attention to us. Calling attention to one’s self is anathema to Mabel Alice Cass Lucas. Perhaps there was a time back in the days of the Golden Pheasant that she was the life of the party but now, 35 years later, Mable wasn’t doing the Charleston and sipping bathtub gin.
We went through the receiving line and met the priest. He asked us how we enjoyed it and with out releasing my hand Mable pointed her gloved finger at me and said, “I have to go home and explain the Holy Ghost to this one.” There was a sympathetic nod and sigh from the priest as Mable marched us out to Second Avenue and into the white Falcon with the ice blue seats that I loved.
I suppose that is the day I became an Episcopalian. I didn’t know it at the time. I was unaware of the Machiavellian moves going on behind the scenes. Every child should be so fortunate to have a Grandmother who loved them so much that they hatched plans for the care and feeding of my soul.
I was not baptized at birth. My parents claimed that they wanted us children to discover our own faith. I saw it as proof that my parents were secret hippies and counter culture revolutionaries. Years later I realized they were just lazy, selfish people who were trying their best not to be their parents. Philip Larkin would have been proud. But there is something missing for children of agnostics. Or worse yet believers who don’t want to share. Both my parents had intensive spiritual lives in churches growing up but somehow they failed to realize that their own children would long for some guidance, some communal belief system.
Plus I got gypped on a baptismal gown-the first of many rites of passage absent from my childhood. But then something happened in elementary school where I kept company with some Christian Missionary Alliance girls who sang the praises of Delta Lake Summer camp outside of Rome, NY. And although it meant missing the summer reruns of “The Waltons” I begged and was allowed to go.
I was given a swanky white leather version of the KJB. By the end of the week it and my new sleeping bag had been trashed because who gives an 8-year a white leather Bible? I was determined to read it that week at camp but nobody bothered to tell me what begot meant and it grew tiresome quickly. I understood Noah and the flood but what was really missing was Nancy Drew to come into the storyline and do some sleuthing.
There were so many stories floating about the camp about demonic possession and the need to have an exorcism but the fact was that was inspired by several movies: “The Legend of Boggy Creek” and the like. There was witnessing. There was saving. There was accepting Jesus as your savior. I didn’t know about any of this and so my week was filled with much pageantry as I was offered up as the child of a broken home. I was a newly saved soul. It was wonderful and much needed since I had fallen through the cracks of my parent’s divorce. The only time my entire family of five was ever in a church at once was for one of my second cousin’s wedding in the Lutheran church in Jamestown. That was around 1967 or ‘68
I’ve seen the photos. All them posing in the heat, pretending to be happy. It's crap I say.
It is spring 1991. I am working on Wall Street, oddly enough, not as a prostitute. Well, maybe a sort of desk jockey prostitute. A secretary. I have failed big time in my quest to grab life by the balls. My phone rings. There was no caller i.d. back then. It’s my mom. My Dad’s favorite cousin has died in upstate NY. Self inflicted. But justified. He was having a stroke. Something like his third. He knew what was happening and he took matters into his own hands. Taking his loaded shotgun he went into his backyard and attempted to blow his head off. He missed and took off his left shoulder. Undaunted he reloaded and into the cold hard ground he dug a hole in which to brace the shotgun so it wouldn’t fly out of his hands on the kickback. Everyone in upstate knows understands about the kickback. I learned about it at the Carroll Rod & Gun club in ’74. A lesson I have never forgotten over the years and one that has served me well when it comes to firearms and life in general.
Having created the hole in the frost covered land (Spring NEVER comes early in Upstate) he put the shotgun into the ground and put the barrel in his mouth and ended it.
We live on those sorts of terms. We are cloth coat Republicans. We stash dead babies in ice houses to save on funeral expenses. Don’t mess with us. We live and die on our own conditions. And somewhere in between, God exists.
My mother always clucked her tongue at people who made candy and sweets such a no-no to their young. She thought for sure that it only would boomerang into a life-long sugar binge once the child got out from under and was able to have the verboten on their terms. God turned out to be my candy.
The Scarlet B
My heathen seeds were germinated long ago in the impressionable years of childhood. As it turned out, I was different from my peers from birth. In the spirit of the free-thinking 1960s my weekend-radical parents decided not to baptize us kids. They thought it was a choice they had no right to make for us and that we would choose our religion when we were old enough to decide for ourselves. I shouldn’t say religion as if it were a vast option. Rather, their thoughts were narrow enough to include any Protestant Sect we might warm to. My sister covered her bets and was baptized Episcopalian when she was in college. She maintains a cautious reverence. If it’s in any way true that this life counts against the next, I’m sure my brother will not have a nice end.* This probably does not worry him.**
Personally, I can conversely quote a Blood, Sweat & Tears lyric on this point; "I swear there is no hell but I pray there ain’t no heaven." Granted it’s not as catchy and doesn’t scan well at all, but I took geology in college too and there is no hell. But heaven or an afterlife for that matter is possible and what a nuisance that would be. I can only picture a giant cocktail party where I would have to mingle with everyone I ever knew and pretend I was glad to see them.
The truth is, as a child, I tried desperately to belong to the Christian world. I felt it was a grave oversight, if not plain laziness, on my parents’ part not to have baptized us. To help right this wrong I went to church almost every Sunday. This wasn’t entirely of my own volition. My sister, being older and thus possessing the power of Pan over me, actually enticed me. She had found religion on her own and was an acolyte at the Episcopal church on the corner. It was more than amusing to see her with the boys on the altar, it was inspirational. I thought she was a fabulous rebel doing what no girl had done before.
In addition to my sister, the notion of communion was also a powerful lure. I memorized the Lord’s prayer to rightfully partake in his blood because I loved to feel the paper wafer disintegrating to pulp in my mouth, washed down by the warm burn of wine. Each week was no less a thrill every time my favorite verse came round: "Give us this day our daily bread," yeah, yeah, yeah, but should I go up with my row? I got through last week, will I get in again this one? All I have is the fake i.d. of faith and a friend who works behind the bar. I heard the rumors of the rite of first communion and that it was a sin to partake prior to the official ceremony, but wasn’t that somebody else's religion? I heard about needing to be baptized too, but a scene was never made. I was never asked to leave and I was always served.
Music has always been a draw for me, especially if it involves a sing-along so it’s only natural that I loved the hymns. I carry no recognizable tune, I’m aware of that now, but I felt I sang like an angel "Glor ororororor ororororo orororor ria in excel sis dayo!" Something like that anyhow, with a very affected operatic trill, because I felt the touch was warranted. It’s true none of my pew neighbors ever complimented my "voice of a nightingale" but they never actually complained either so, again, I slipped through.
Mom encouraged our interests in piety even though she never seemed quite comfortable with the constraints of organized religion herself. I never heard her petition the Lord, much worse curse him. She had been baptized Catholic but was not raised as one. In fact, her mom renounced Catholicism as much as she could as an adult because she had overdosed on it in her formative years. Gram wasn’t an orphan, but her mother was a widow and finances were so tight that she was forced to live in the convent while growing up. Upon graduation from high school, Gram refuted the practice of Catholicism but the nuns had left an indelible mark on her psyche. Even when I knew her you could always gauge how angry she was with you by how many times she addressed you as "Sister". However, Mom was supportive of our interests. In an effort to show this support, she began teaching Sunday school at our church.
Mom, my sister and I found common ground at St. Andrew’s. The trouble with that was that our paths would diverge at the door. My sister and I were in separate classes because of our age difference and Mom taught a class of boys. This whole twist of Sunday school, which I had thus far avoided, was unpleasant to me. I had to make friends with kids I felt were corny. It was a prejudice of mine that all kids in Sunday school were knee-sock wearing prigs. Gradually, the idea of church began to
freak me out. I didn’t mind it when I was hanging out with the adults, drinking and singing but when I was shuffled off in a group of my peers, well, you must know the real problem; I wasn’t baptized and they found me out. I was a 7-year-old sinner who couldn’t make a collage celebrating my baptism because I’d never had one.
When the project was given to make a collage for our parents, all the kids around me happily went about their business, making these special celebratory certificates of their baptism. Not only did I not have an event to celebrate, I didn’t even have “parents” to share it with, only mom. Another strike; I was a child of a broken home. So, while everyone else was gluing down borders of yarn and dropping sprinkles of glitter on construction paper, the dam burst in my creatively stunted mind and I began to cry. Nobody could get me to explain why. I just cried until Mom was sent for and my mortification was uncontrollable. I couldn’t tell her it was her fault because she was trying so hard.
I left class that day with an overwhelming sense shame. It was mom’s fault that I was a sinner at seven because she could have just taken care of things when I was born, but she didn’t. If I had been less guilty, if I had been one bit smoother, I could have just faked it. I could have made up some damn date or, in a worse case scenario, copied someone else. But that wasn’t me. Deep down I knew I couldn’t lie because the Lord would know. In fact he’d known all along and he was just waiting, biding his time, letting me drink his blood and swallow him whole because he knew how to deal with me. He revealed me to my Sunday School Class.
It took me some time at home and the blind promise from mom that I would never have to return to class before I eventually admitted that I cried because I didn’t know how to do my assignment. Without naming names, I told her it was very difficult to try and live religiously when one is not baptized into a faith. It sort of precludes you from full membership rights. She gave me the old “It’s suppose to be fun” speech and asked if I wouldn’t let my teachers know personally that I was all right, but I refused. Eventually, she did handle it for me, maybe realizing some blame. As it turned out, no one was offended, just sorry that I had been made so upset. Mom ensured me that in the future I didn’t have to do anything that made me feel so badly. I truly appreciated the absolution, because I knew I wasn’t going to return to that class the moment I began to cry, and I just didn’t need the guilt on top of the fact that I’d been shamed, if not bested by a group of kids I didn’t even respect. They had just one thing on me--one lousy thing.
Our once strong family enthusiasm for bonding in the hallowed halls of St. Andrews was
irreparably damaged, though not just because of me. A new minister arrived who was too much of a fanatic for Mom. He had weekly "Jews for Jesus" meetings and he had people raising their arms up and holding them up for most of the service so they could "better receive the spirit of the Lord". But what really ended the entire era was when the new minister went through Mom’s checkout line at the drugstore (she there worked evenings) and asked her out loud, "Who’s watching your children?" Now my mother had a few problems with this particular question the first being his judgmental tone. He was obviously implying that she was an irresponsible parent, but his question also let all in earshot know' that we didn’t have a father there with us either. His brief, damning words suggested the possibility that we were left completely unattended. He knew we lived with our grandmother, her just didn’t like women working regardless of the need for it. Public judgment always has repercussions and my mother was through with all of them that day. Even my sister, in an act of solidarity, turned in her white robe. Naturally, I was relieved, my sins however, were to follow me still.
Because my sister is two years older than me she went to summer camp first. Funny enough, she chose a bible camp. Her friend had been to it the year before and it was deemed suitable. I became wrought with jealousy tagging along on shopping sprees for her necessary camping supplies. At one point, Mom took her to the bookstore and let her pick out her own bible which had a flap in the front for you to fill in your family tree. Just like the “Waltons," my sister had a family bible with a page to fill with her future. I suffered in silence. Well, probably not, I probably whined about injustice and cried ageism or something.
Religion was looking good again when you tacked on shopping trips and a week in the Adirondacks. The next summer, when I was just finishing third grade, I was granted permission to join my sister at camp. My year of envy had been rewarded with my own bible and a bookmark with the Lord’s prayer written in golden Gothic lettering. Once again, I was divinely inspired. It was a new set of people who didn’t know how short I actually fell in comparison to them. It was a second chance.
The week at camp passed in a flurry of activity. We had a typical summer camp agenda with crafts, games and swimming. Still, aside from two times a day in the chapel, it had weird overtones that could not be ignored. I realize most kids at camp tell ghost stories and relate tragic lore of previous campers who befell strange ends. It’s part of the experience and makes for great cult movies. Unfortunately, here at the Bible Conference, ghosts were replaced by demons and bears in the woods with emergency exorcisms. I was eight-years-old, I’d rather have lived in constant fear of the existence of ghosts than to think I might, as others reportedly had, see demons dancing on my playing cards or be forced to host the devil in my body. In my everyday life back home, the devil rarely came up as subject matter. But here he had a starring role; he was the pariah to be scorned and the evil to be refuted everywhere. He was an unnecessary scare tactic to use on basically good kids. We were at bible camp for God’s sake, not kicking puppies or tripping old ladies. Camping with Christians is terrifying for children, I need that on a bumper sticker.
Obviously, I was glad when Saturday came. I got up early to set up watch in the parking lot for the old, paneled station wagon. If only it had been that easy. I had no idea what I was in for that last day. We all were called into our dormitory to wait quietly in our rooms and reflect on God’s kindness toward us through the joy we had and the friends we made at camp.
However, by that time, we were well sick of each other. We were kids and our attention spans were short. As far as we were concerned it was time to strike the set and leave town. There were about a dozen of us in our room and we all just slung across our bunks in a sullen funk. After much meditation and the conclusion that I would give anything to God if Mom would be the first parent to arrive at pick-up time, I realized that we were all being called out one-by-one to talk to our head counselor without explanation. Someone came up missing first and in turn returned for the next kid and so on until my turn came. Nobody was talking, just tapping the shoulder of the next person to go.
When my turn came, I bravely walked down to my counselor’s room. It was a private room and much smaller than our barracks. When I saw her face look up, I quickly soothed myself with the thought that she was nice enough after all. I mean they all were nice enough in a reserved, no-time-for-homesick-babies type of way. So in I walked and closed the door behind me at her request. I sat on the very edge of her bed while she sat sideways at desk facing me with a notebook and pencil in hand.
At first, it all seemed very relaxed as she noted down my birthday, address and such. It was like visiting the school doctor each year. Then BOOM.
"And when were you baptized?" My eyes started to brim and my throat nearly crushed with tension. So that was it, a witch hunt. Here I had so ardently tried to blend and belong only to be found unholy again.
Her curiosity turned to enthusiasm as I managed to stammer my confession. She leaned forward with such interest that her stringy Breck girl hair took on a new-found bounce. She smelled a cover-up and feeding off some innate Woodward and Bernstein zeal she probed with excitement.
"Well then, when did you ask Jesus Christ into your heart?"
What the hell? Nobody ever told me I had to send out an invitation? I always figured if I was praying to him, he was already pretty fond of me--already with me in fact. Strike two, I completely lost it. The tears now falling heaved into outright sobs. Against my deepest desires, I ruefully became a tale of redemption in their twisted camp lore. It knocked the Sunday school incident right off the chart of childhood horrors for me.
I was so damn mad and so damn frightened when that woman fell to her knees in front of me. (To think my biggest problem was once that I thought knee socks were corny.) She took my hands in hers with feigned affection and before her moment could be lost, she pleaded with starry eyes, "Ask him in right now. Honey, ask him in now!"
I wanted my Mom. I wanted to get out of there. I had no idea that I was living in such a high risk body, that it didn’t have Jesus in it. It was worse than not being baptized. This was so wrong, who were these people? There must be another way to do this I thought, it couldn’t be as easy as asking, especially on such short notice. We needed holy water and surely a minister to make this official Apparently, I was about to be saved and I didn’t feel she, in her khakis, had the authority to bear witness.
"Just Pray to Jesus and ask him in...NOW!"
There was no turning back. I closed my eyes, held my breath and silently asked Jesus in to my life or heart, maybe both, I wasn’t taking chances. I did do it all right, but I had too much pride to be audible about it. She would not get that satisfaction from me. Immediately after, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ, having the power all along. I was always mad as hell at that part of the movie because it would have been a lot easier and a lot less emotional if the Good Witch had just gone over a list of all the powers the ruby slippers had before anyone had to get hurt. I mean, Glinda had the gall to put the shoes on Dorothy’s feet in the first place.
I didn’t know what to say after I’d' nodded indicating I’d done my job. As I collected my wits, I couldn’t help wondering what my friends at home had done this week and how much fun I’d likely missed. I had felt trapped and done what she wanted but I didn’t really know what it meant for me. She had beaten me by saving my unclean, unbaptized soul and I owed her. However, she was done and lost immediate interest in my physical presence. She just snatched up her notebook and began furiously jotting notes down on the page devoted to me. I don’t think she even gave me a good Christian hug as she sent out. Feeling rather weary and used, I sniffled back to my room and my sister.
Might I mention that my sister never ceases to slay me. "Oh I forgot about that, they got me last year." she said snapping her gum and barely raising her eyes from her book. Apparently, it never dawned on her that I was going to cry and I think I was an embarrassing sight in front of our peers just then.
Clearly this event did not faze my sister. She could always ad lib when she wasn’t sure what was going on and I know she didn’t know anymore than I did, she was just calmer. In fact, just looking at her in that moment with tear swollen eyes and a Jesus swollen heart, I could perfectly picture the scene that took place the year before. When they asked her "And when did you ask Jesus Christ into your heart,” she probably flipped her hair with nearly imperceptible defiance, looked them right in the eyes and said "Easter l972."
*He did not have a good end.
**He really never did worry about what would come next.