My grandparents on both sides were Jewish, one set secreting their religion away except on Wednesdays and Saturdays because it was politic given their place in their moneyed community. The other set of grandparents converted in the hopes it’d save them from the inequity of concentration camp slavery and death. No matter what, every Sunday my grandparents were Catholic, a practical concession of faith that resulted in my dad being a cynical agnostic and my mother a frenetic believer.
Even people without faith have a faith story.
Two thirds of my childhood was spent in a Mormon neighborhood. My brother and I would watch them go to church in their wards, men and boys in the unofficial uniform of blue-slacks-and-white-collared-shirt-with-tie and the women and girls in floral-dresses-white-hose-and-low-practical-heels. They looked so clean and put-together, so composed, calm, and capable. Our family looked vaguely like The Simpsons, if Marge were on a prolonged European vacation and the house was left to Homer to care for (note: I would’ve been Lisa). The contrast was too much for my brother to handle. By the time he was 12 he had found a sponsor family and was wearing white-and-blue, too.
Mother and Dad aren’t much in the way of church-goers. The hardest part was waking up early enough to be there on time. The second hardest part was going without a smoke for almost two hours. Also, Dad is pretty against anyone who tries to tell him what to do or who to be. The same dialogue was exchanged several times a year with astounding predictability.
“I’m not against God. I’m against organized religion. God can tell me what to do. Men can’t.” Dad would argue.
Mother would adopt her conciliatory tone. “Not all religions are the same. These are nice people.”
“Religions seek to enslave you. They’re only after power.”
Slightly patronizingly, “Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic about this? It’s Scottsdale, not the Vatican.”
Dad would furrow his brow and inhale deeply from his cigarette. “I remember driving to Juarez as a kid seeing the madres in their mantillas lighting candles at church. ‘Pesos, pesos!’ the priests would demand. All to light a candle. Pesos from these women who had nothing.” He’d pause before delivering his final pronouncement. “Religion is corrupt.”
Mother would change tack. “Honey, you can’t take from people their faith. That’s probably all those women had.”
Dad would grumble and let it go. How could anyone argue with that?
Mother and the Mormons eventually got their day in the sun. Dad would greet evangelists at the door bare-chested with a Heineken in one hand, a cigarette in the other, never lying about who he is. The Mormons didn’t care. They saw potential and probably someone was low on their recruitment numbers – after all, my brother had already converted and our family represented up to 11 more souls that could be converted and saved. In due course, the neighbors persuaded Dad to give it a try for a few Sundays.
I wore white dresses with pastel sateen sashes, black or white Mary Janes with lace-edged socks. My bangs were carefully curled by my mother into halvesies: half curled up and feathered, the other half curled down and framing my face. The hair spray would make the curling iron burns on my scalp itch and sting. Mother and Dad would go into the main hall and listen to people called to testify. I would go to Sunday school.
I loved Sunday school. The rooms were well-organized and sparsely appointed with high-backed chairs; blue indoor-outdoor carpet; and richly colored wall murals of John Smith in a forest, of Gideon, and of John the Baptist. I envied the children who had $10 haircuts from licensed stylists and the girls who wore barrettes. My happiest day was when I received my CTR ring, its green chevron making me feel like a superhero in Jesus’s army.
These attempts at piety and fitting into a faith community didn’t last long. “Those Mormons are good people,” Dad said. “But you just can’t trust a man who won’t take a drink with you.” That is one of Dad’s standards for earthly credibility. Others are similarly profound:
- No moustaches – unshaven men are trying to hide something.
- No reflective sunglasses – you can’t trust someone whose eyes you can’t see.
- Have a strong handshake – anything less shows lack of character.
- Don’t swear—people who swear indiscriminately are inarticulate and probably poorly educated.
- Don’t say you’re a good Christian—if you have to say it, you’re not.
- Have a drink now and then—it shows you aren’t afraid to let your defenses be a little lower and that you have nothing to hide.
Mormons failed one-third of the cardinal rules. Dad couldn’t look past that. We went back to sleeping in on Sundays.
For years after, my contact with God and his earthly representatives was intermittent. I read “The Nun’s Story” with my mother and sang “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” with Mother Superior on TV. My Mormon brother’s girlfriend once took me to midnight mass with her. Occasionally I’d read through the Illustrated Children’s Bible which occupied a space on my bookshelf next to Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Tale Book and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Jesus and Abraham were as credible as heroes as Orpheus and Baldr or Sigurd and Fafnir: They all made good stories and resurrection is as good of a ‘happily ever after’ ending as anyone could write (if party dresses and handsome princes are going to be omitted, that is).
I don’t know why faith and religion are so sticky with me when no one else in my family has caught the disease but I’ve always felt drawn to it: the structure, the hope, the promises. Most nights I’ve said prayers at night before going to sleep of my own accord. I used to pray for God’s positive intercession in the lives of my friends, family, and pets. Now I pray for patience, understanding, and to not fail those who depend upon me. I’m not sure that there’s a god even there listening but I still find the nightly ritual reminds me of what is important. There’s value in that and it is its own kind of faith power.
We used to go on road trips a lot. One of Dad’s many journals will probably prove me wrong on this point but I remember being away from home more often than not. Trips were long, boring. We had to beg him to crack open a window and let some of the cigarette smoke out. We rarely had kid-appropriate snacks or drinks in the car, although there was always a fifth of Jack Daniels in the glove compartment and a bag of fried pig cracklings resting in the center console. It took a threat of stained seats before we could get him to make an unscheduled stop at a rest area.
Once we stopped at the Sunset Point rest area on I-17 in Arizona. It’s a scenic stop for good reason. It’s one-third the distance between Phoenix and Flagstaff, 20 degrees cooler than the former and 20 degrees warmer than the latter. The sky is clear and the mountains look just like how a kid would draw mountains: craggy, pointy, and a little purple. Commonly Navajo or Apache women would hawk their wares: blankets, woven mats, pin boxes, jewelry.
I remember kneeling at one of the jewelry mats, fingering the shiny mother-of-pearl pendants. One necklace was silver and coral with a pink cross hanging off the center. It wasn’t my favorite color but I liked how the spring Arizona sun caught the swirls of color in the shell. I was never allowed to have any money of my own so acquiring it would require theft or persuasion. A state rest stop is a bad place to commit theft, particularly when one’s parents are driving the getaway vehicle. So I tried persuasion, starting with my mother who was the easier mark of the two.
“Mom, do you see this pretty necklace? May I buy it please?”
Mother hesitated. We were perpetually short on cash and this would definitely be a discretionary purchase. “We’ll ask your father.”
“Please? I don’t have any necklaces. And look! It’s a cross of Jesus!” That type of manipulation would work only on my mother. With Dad, he’d quote Profound Rule #5 (as listed above) and remind me that people who really believe don’t wear it on their sleeve – or their necks. So I’d have to clinch this with Mother.
“How much is it?”
I checked the little paper tag. “It’s only five dollars. Please? I’ll work it off somehow.”
She sighed and handed me the money from her purse. Jesus immortalized in mother-of-pearl shell that probably came from Bali and sold by a Native American woman at a rest stop in Arizona – mine. I gave the Native American woman the money and latched the necklace around my neck. Dad came out of the restroom and noticed it. He rolled his eyes a little and shook his head but didn’t say a thing.
I never wore the necklace often. Every time I was tempted, I anticipated Dad’s reaction and heard him say in my head, “people who believe don’t wear it on their sleeves.” So I took it out every once in a while and caressed it. I used it like a rosary without knowing what was one was at that point in my life, caressing the cross and using the coral beads to remind me of a prayer to say for each sibling, each pet, each moment of significance in my young life.
A few years later we lived in Montana and had chickens. One of the hens had been pecked badly by a rooster that took a disliking to her. I disliked chickens and their feathery filth but I pitied this laboring creature that bled and could barely take a breath. The hen was working so hard at living that I could see every moment of her trying to blink. I remember crying little crocodile tears of rage at the injustice of chicken-on-chicken crime. My older brother, Wayne, came into the barn to collect the broken hen.
“Are you taking her to the vet?”
“Nah,” he brushed his moustache with his hand. “I’m taking her to the dumpster.”
I was aghast. “But she’s not dead!”
“It will be though. It’s not going to live.”
“You can’t throw her away like she’s trash! She might live!” I felt the passion of Fern Arable and this chicken had suddenly become my runty piglet.
Wayne snorted. “Whatever. I’ll kill it before I throw it in the dumpster if you want but it’s just going to die miserable if you leave it here or one of the dogs will get it.”
I looked for some compassion in his face but Wayne’s never been one much for it. “Look,” I negotiated, “put her in a box with a lid and holes in it for the night in the barn. Let’s see what happens in the morning.”
Wayne shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me.” He grabbed a box from the stall next door and tossed it to me. I threw in some feed and straw, a low cup of water, poked holes in the lid, and placed the hen inside. Wayne stood there watching me, leaning back against the barn wall legs and arms crossed looking like a drug store cowboy. When I started wiping the chicken’s head clean with a cloth, he blew a puff of irritated air and walked out.
Relieved of Wayne’s judging presence, I ran into the house and found the cedar box with my 12-year-old treasures. Inside was the rarely worn mother-of-pearl coral Jesus necklace from the Sunset Point rest area and my Mormon CTR ring. Back in the barn, I strung the CTR ring through the necklace and hung them over a corner inside the hen’s box where she could see the pink shine of the cross if she were to look. Kneeling over the box, I clasped my hands and said a little prayer to God for the chicken that she would get well. God doesn’t need chickens in heaven. They’re dirty and stupid and smelly – no one needs them for food because no one’s hungry in heaven and I’ve always been pretty sure God is a vegetarian (evidence of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament to the contrary). I covered the hen with the ventilated box lid and went to my bed, sure everything would work out in the morning.
I awoke to my dog barking as Wayne unceremoniously entered my room. She didn’t like anyone but me in ‘our’ room and she detested Wayne in particular. He lifted his arm and opened his hand. My pink mother-of-pearl Jesus cross necklace with CTR ring attached dropped onto my comforter.
Wayne looked down on me. “Here’s your jewelry back. It didn’t work. I threw the chicken out today.”
Even with the chicken dead, I still had faith – although I wasn’t as sure about how God felt about animals anymore.