Hellfire and Carnation
“The kids want to know what church we go to,” I complained to my parents. We had just moved from Los Angeles, where the angels are, as the name implies, well and truly lost, to a church laden suburb of Rochester, New York called Chili, which the natives pronounced with two long i’s apparently unaware of its namesake in South America. Frogs were frogs with a long o and dogs were dogs with an equally long o. Nonetheless, I had started high school and was at the mercy of these provincial little fools. That the second question (after where do you come from) out of these teenagers’ mouths was invariably, “What church does your family go to?” was a source of shock and consternation. What kind of teenagers give a crap about church?
“Tell ‘em we’re pagans, honey. Tell ‘em we worship the trees,” my father suggested helpfully.
Somehow I didn’t think that was going to go over very well.
So I started going to church.
It wasn’t hard to choose which one. My appalled parents were not going to drive me to what my father characterized as ‘a den of stupidity’, and there was only one church within walking distance. It was a Presbyterian church presided over by a kindly white-haired minister and his cookie-baking wife who were thrilled at the opportunity to round up this little lost lamb (me) and esconce her in their flock. Whenever they saw me, visions of heavenly brownie points danced in their heads.
Social acceptability was actually low on my motivations for my flirtation with salvation. It was already apparent that the only two kids who would speak nicely to me were the dykey girl swimmer who lived across the street and a German exchange student who sometimes wore her Sound of Music dirndles to class.
But despite my flat-chested figure and lack of menstruation, the kundalini energy was pounding up my spine like a fire-hose, so when I wasn’t masturbating I was ignited to tears of spiritual passion at the sight of a spider web billowing in the breeze or the unfamiliar blaze of crimson hemorraghing through the maples. The force was strong in this one, and I sought an ideological container for the forbidden lust for spirit that was swamping my frail vessel. Since you had to be born into Judaism to be Jewish, and the only other game in town was various flavors of Christianity, Christianity would have to do.
The Bible, however, was a bit of a disappointment. The archaic language didn’t trouble me—it was just like Shakespeare, which I loved. A little hard to figure out in spots, but I enjoyed the literary sleuthing that it took. But there were passages—I had started with the old testament, since I always read books front to back—where Jehovah was not looking like someone I would want to have a conversation with, much less worship. I was particularly troubled by the story of Lot. A couple of guys, who might have been angels, or possibly just charismatic yoga teachers show up at Lot’s holy house in Sodom. A gang of guys shows up wanting to ‘know’ them—only their way of getting to know someone was to gang rape them–bit of a weird local custom—and Lot says, no, they’re my guests—but offers up his own teenage daughter and the concubine of one of the travelers. The mob rapes the concubine to death, and in an odd show of grief, the traveler chops her body into pieces and sends it by donkey express to ‘all the tribes of Judea’ to rouse them against Sodom and its sister city of Gommorah. Lot flees the burning city, and after his wife conveniently turns to a pillar of salt, he has sex with the daughters he was so happy to sacrifice to the rampaging mob moments before. The disturbing thing was that supposedly the Lord had spared Lot because he was a ‘Godly man’. What kind of God regards this guy as godly material? I asked the minister about it, and the almost equally distressing Job story, but he just looked wise and said that God’s ways were mysterious and not to be understood by mortals. (or morals, apparently). Well, you could say that again.
But what I did love about Christianity was Jesus. Jehovah might be a bit of a psychopath, but Jesus wore his heart on his flowing white sleeve. My own father was smart, and often funny, but he also went into rages and seemed to have nothing but contempt for his oldest daughter. A kind, unconditionally loving heavenly father was exactly what I needed. Jesus, with his hippie hairstyle and understanding sympathy for sluts like Mary Magdalene, was my dream dad.
My other motivation, which I could never have admitted to myself at the time, was revenge. My parents had kidnapped me from sunny southern California, where I could have grown up to be a surfer, or a hippie, or a mermaid (or all three!) and brought me to this wasteland where people pronounced the nearby town of Lima like the bean. Probably because they had never heard of Peru. Or Chile, which is why they spelled our new town Chili, but still couldn’t pronounce it even though it was spelled like a dish of beans. My parents had rendered me miserable; my journey into religious adventurism returned the favor.
One particularly successful venture into making my parents suffer occurred on the first (and only) Mother’s Day I attended at the church. They were giving out red and white carnations at the entry of the church; you chose one and pinned it to your dress or jacket. I chose white, having always preferred white flowers to red ones. Suddenly, everyone was smiling and nodding at me with misty eyes, and after the service, I was astonished at how many middle-aged women approached me and clasped me to their ample bosoms, crying, “Oh, you poor, brave darling!” and “You always have a family here.”
The people at this church were so friendly. My family might not appreciate me, but boy, was I appreciated here in the house of the Lord.
I came home, humming hymns, reveling in my newfound popularity, still wearing my white souvenir flower. My mother met me at the door smiling, but her expression quickly changed to horror. “Did you wear that flower today at church? Tell me you didn’t!”
“They were giving them away!” I cried defensively, “Everyone got one.”
“It’s Mother’s Day! A red flower means your mother is alive! A white flower means I’m dead!”
Suddenly the burst of protective affection surrounding me at the church made dreadful sense.
“They didn’t say that! Nobody said white means that!”
“You’re supposed to know! Now I’m going to have to show up there to show everyone I’m alive!”
My mother accompanied me to church the following Sunday, and for a month of Sundays after that, my younger siblings in tow. After that, we moved to a different, more upscale suburb of Rochester called Pittsford, where the residents, though only a few miles from Chili, could speak English properly. There was no church within walking distance of our country home, but I didn’t miss it much. I had rejoined the Girl Scouts, and found our outings into nature and singing around the campfire a much more rewarding spiritual experience. I continued to read the Bible, but the more I read, the less I bought it. Besides, the minister had told me that neither my father nor my dog were going to heaven. My father may have been a trial to me, but he was one heckuva better guy than Lot. And heaven without dogs? That’s just crazy talk.