Love, sex, and religion were not discussed in my household when I was a kid. Each brought embarrassment, awkward stammering, and red faces. Kissing relatives or saying “I love you” was out of the question. My mother once said, “Nobody in my family ever talked about love.” Well, neither did she until she got old and we forced it on her.
And sex? That was just a distinction between male and female. When I was sixteen, my mom and I had our one-and-only sex talk. She squinched her forehead, “You know, don’t you?” I said, “Yes,” and left the room.
It was the same with religion. No questions. No answers. No discussion. Church was just something I did once a week unless I had junior choir rehearsal or youth group later on in high school. The whole system was a big interference in my life. I had better things to do.
If my parents wanted me to believe in a traditional religious doctrine, other than a fundamental, all-encompassing fear of the Almighty, somebody missed the boat. My Federated Church experiences as a kid left me melancholy on Sundays, guilt-ridden all the time, and scared of God. The only thing I liked about church was Communion Sunday when everybody received fresh bread chunks and tiny glasses of Concord grape juice served in silver trays. Other than that, church was a place I suffered through if I wanted to see the light of day for the next 24 hours.
Westport is on the eastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains where Lake Champlain meanders from Quebec to Lake George, and the western heavens send Canadian Highs directly to our village. We called these glorious visits Westport Days. And if on Sunday the bright rays of a Westport Day stretched across my bed, inviting me to play in the back yard, the thought of spending the best hours of the morning in the dungeons of church made me miserable. I’d curl into a ball and moan and moan until my mother heard the commotion.
It was always the same. Mom lowered the shades and stood over me - hands on hips, fingers tapping the lace of her apron. “If you’re too sick to go to church, you’re too sick to go anywhere - until tomorrow. That means breakfast, lunch, and supper - right here.”
I went to church.
But it wasn’t just church – it was Sunday school first and then church. In Sunday school, I sang songs from old hymnals that smelled like my cellar, and I colored pictures of Jesus feeding loaves and fishes from his little lunch bucket to hordes of people at the beach. Our lessons about miracles and creation left me bewildered. It all sounded too preposterous. How could a man, any man, even a great man, walk on water or bring sight to the blind, unless of course, the water was frozen and the eyes had an infection easily cured? And it seemed impossible that God built the earth, animals, and people all by himself. I couldn’t even make a decent blueberry muffin for Girl Scouts without help.
Sunday school, church bazaars, spaghetti dinners, choir rehearsals, and the Dreaded Dunkings were held in Beebe Hall, the little white clapboard Baptist church across the street and up the block from the big stone Methodist Church, where the real services were held. We were Federated - merged - because there weren’t enough Baptists or Methodists in our town of 800 to keep separate Protestant churches going, especially with the Catholics taking about half the population.
The chapel of Beebe Hall had long wooden pews with musty, threadbare, red velvet cushions and a pump organ with missing keys. Dead center of the altar behind the pulpit, covered by a trap door and a carpet, was a miniature swimming pool, not even long enough for a hamster to get in a good lap. That was where the minister dunked us to purify our souls. The adults called it immersion. I called it terrifying.
I was dunked at thirteen and became – well – Federated, I guess. I went to special classes to learn what to say and do when I was dunked. I don’t remember any precepts I memorized before taking this leap into God’s territory, and I don’t remember any promises I probably made to Jesus or Mary or anyone else on their staff. What I do remember is the terror I felt. First Reverend McDermott would recite a bunch of religious stuff - which I would have to agree to – and then he’d throw me into the swimming pool. My take on the whole thing was first God would watch me flat-out lie to him, and then I would drown.
God saw everything. He saw me cheat at school and play sick on Sundays. So far, he hadn’t hurled any wrath on me, but what would he do once I swore absolute devotion to something I didn’t understand and didn’t’ believe - right in front of him, my parents, relatives, and anybody else who came to behold this miracle of salvation? Right under his very own roof? It was fear to the core of my being. Though sometime later I was relieved to learn that Beebe Hall was just a social gathering place, and according to the townspeople, the Baptists hadn’t laid any particular claim that their ramshackle bungalow with a steeple was a legitimate House of God.
I stood chest deep in the cold water wearing an adult-sized black choir robe over my favorite blue organdy dress trimmed with grosgrain ribbon. I was supposed to take the dress off, but I refused to strip down to my underwear and slip in front of anybody. My Sunday school teacher tried to get me to undress in the coat closet, but I wouldn’t do that either. If I was supposed to take my clothes off, what was the minister wearing? The idea that he might be standing next to me in his underwear horrified me.
So there I was in the dunking pool, trying to press air puffs out of my billowing robe, freezing, trembling, and scared, feeling the broken tiles and grit on the bottoms of my feet, waiting for Rev. McDermott to . . . just get this thing over with.
On cue, I pledged the requisite allegiances to God and testified to my faith – Baptist? Methodist? I didn’t know. Then Reverend McDermott put his hands on my back and stomach and plunged me backward into the dunking pool. I couldn’t hold my nose, and I wondered if this withered old man had the strength to lift me up again because there was no rehearsal in dunking. I rose out of the water sputtering, coughing, sneezing water out of my nose, and shivering – with sopping hair and my water-heavy robe, dress, and underwear clinging to my skin. Everyone clapped and retired to the social hall for cookies and punch to celebrate my rite of passage.
Besieged by humiliation, I ran into the girls’ bathroom before anyone could congratulate me and sobbed – and sobbed - about what? Lying to God? Not comprehending this mystery everyone else seemed to grasp? Being drenched and wrecking my favorite dress? Or being thirteen and forced to go through such mortifying hoops to become an adult?
I was supposed to be at the party, but I didn’t want well-wishers staring at my sopping head and soaked dress. I refused to come out of the bathroom until my mother brought me dry underwear, another dress, and a barrette to hold back my straggling hair. When I finally joined the others, I sat in a corner beside the kitchen and stared at the floor, arms crossed, mad at everything, especially church. And there I sat until it was time to leave. I barely spoke. My mother thought I was really sick, so she took me home and sent me to bed. It was the one time I went willingly to my room in the middle of the day.
For years I waited for God to wield his hammer on me for my hideous behavior and lack of devotion, but he must have figured my goodness as a person and my strong moral code was worth something, because from what I can tell, he never saw the need to make me pay for my transgressions.
Today I look for truth in the natural world. I am far too pragmatic to subscribe to the idea that a supernatural being built the planets and their pathways around the sun. However, the mysteries of the universe baffle me, and the vastness of the cosmos gives me pause. I marvel at the enormity of the heavens and the secrets of nature - Orion, Cassiopeia, and the North Star; Venus peeking over the horizon; the reappearance of birds and buds every spring, and the monarch butterfly’s 5,000-mile flight to Mexico.
I accept these heavenly and earthly wonders with a thankful grace. As long as I remain a virtuous person with virtuous intentions, and as long as I tend our world with care, I’m satisfied I’ve lived up to my part of any bargain I may have made.