Lost Years

Preacher Dad was persona non grata at Jackson College of Ministries, so we up and moved all the way across the country to Conqueror’s Bible College in Portland, OR.  The day we pulled into the parking lot, after a five day cross country road trip, my sister looked at the empty brick building that was to become our home and started to cry.  We moved into the circular complex of offices, classrooms, dormitories and apartments, next to the Port of Portland, into a three bedroom apartment right off the main hallway.   It was surreal and empty and silent.  Preacher Dad went to work and I went 9th grade in an inner city high school in the middle of downtown Portland.  Wee bit of culture shock.  When I registered, they asked for my parent’s employer and I said Conquerors’ Bible College.  They wrote down Conkers Bible College.  I didn’t correct them.  I could see how silly it was.  I had no idea how to explain who I was, why I was there or even where I lived.  You live by the dock where they unload the new Toyotas?  I didn’t know there were any houses down there.  There weren’t.  Awkward.

And, oh boy, church was different; no trumpet sections, no thumping bass, no black gospel influence.  It was church without the show; soft, mellow, snoozy church.  When everyone around you appears to be swept away by a sappy kind of emotionalism, feeling something that you aren’t feeling, it’s a lot like being the only sober one in the room.  Being forced to sing (or mouth the words-I never could carry a tune) sedating hymns with lyrics of false truths based on intangibles that utterly escaped me, rage began to grow. Rage at being forced to sit, forced to pretend, to never be heard, to never have a voice.  The only acceptability was compliance, of going along, playing the part, only now it was boring.  I hated it all, with the white-hot contempt of a teenager.

Roosevelt High School may as well have been Mars, it was so different from anything that I had ever experienced.  I did meet a few nice girls there that somehow accepted me and were willing to be friends.  It was amazing.  I asked if I could go to school five minutes early in the morning so I could talk to them in the hall, and was told no.  The request had to be submitted to Preacher Dad and the verdict handed down through Mom. No, they did not want me to hang out there, did not want me to associate with those people or to have those friends. I was forbidden from having friends.  There was nowhere else to hang out, no one else to be friends with.  It was odd.  It was lonely.  Surreal.

So I got a part time job at a nursing home around the corner, doing dishes.  I was kind of happy there, comfortable, even though it was just mopping up after incontinent old people and cleaning up their tables. They were lovely.  They loved me and I loved them in return.  But it was just a job and I was desperate for connection anywhere.  Then I met a boy from out of town.   I was nuts for that guy.  PD had an orange and green striped velour couch in his office (it was the seventies) and that is where I lost my virginity, in another bout of 15 year old fuck you, actual this time.  Someone I know recently heard this story for the first time and paled.  Turns out they still have that very couch.  I am uncertain of its current fate.  Perhaps it has been burned.

I’ll ever forget the last time I had sex with that boyfriend.  I had snuck into his dorm room in the circle building; heard the outer door slam, PD’s pissed off footsteps echoed down the hall; he was looking for me.  His anger was palpable through the walls and my heart pounded against my chest.  As soon as the next door slammed, I ran like hell back to the apartment, ripped off my clothes and jumped into bed beside my sister.  Boyfriend’s visiting parents were sleeping in my room and thank goodness for that.  PD, foiled and furious, came into the room and in his low hiss said, “If we didn’t have company I would drag you out of this bed and beat the hell out of you.”  I had no doubt about that.

Tensions grew.  Things were going very badly for PD at that point.  He arrived in a place he considered home, to be among lifelong friends, only to find himself in a religious/political fight for his career.   He was alone and scared and hurt, I think.  His desire to change things, to allow some free thought into this closed religious system whose basic tenant was to forbid free thought, was a big mistake; his efforts misguided.  At the time, I didn’t know what was going on.  No one talked to me about any of it or talked about it in front of me.  Or maybe they did, it’s entirely possible I wasn’t listening.  All I knew is that PD’s temper had a hair trigger now. Mom all but vanished and I withdrew.  My only interest was my relationship, which I clung to with the love-struck insanity only a hormonal teenage girl can muster.  The subsequent demise of that relationship left me near suicidal.  That is not an unusual thing in an adolescent, however, coupled with the underlying belief that I was now damaged goods and going to hell, I sunk into a depression that went unrecognized.  The problem was my attitude, of course.  Considering PD’s situation and my attitude, I am pretty sure I was a liability.

We moved across the river to an actual house in Vancouver, WA, with the bible school housed in a strip mall and the church sublet from some other church. Things deteriorated from there until PD was forced out of the UPC, to my great relief, because I thought that would be the fast track to cutting my hair and wearing make-up, maybe even blue jeans. Maybe I could finally be normal!  It didn’t work that way, of course.  Normalcy was not in the cards.  So I went to my second high school in another state, knowing no one, starting over again and withdrew further.  Went to school, did my work, at least the parts that were easy, I snuck a book into the hard classes and tuned out.  This would be why I still don’t know anything about physics.  Living in silence, working at Baskin-Robbins for $3.35 an hour, getting fat.

One night a guy came in to Baskin-Robbins with his dick completely out and ordered a Rocky Road cone.  I did not react at all, just handed him his cone and took his money.  It strikes me as very odd now, that lack of reaction.   My own daughters would ridicule him, kick his ass, berate him with a feminist rant and call the police.  Probably in that order.

Right around about this time PD started stealing my money.  I saved almost everything I made, always plotting an escape.  His name was on my bank account and one day my money was just gone, almost a thousand dollars.  I asked him about it and he said he needed it, but would pay me back.  What did I want him to do, take a loan out from a bank and pay interest to some Catholic or some Jew?  I didn’t say anything, just went to the bank and opened a new account, without his name on it.  He figured it out the next time he tried to steal from me.  He was super mad.

It was a confusing time.  The college closed and the church soon after.  PD took a position at a church in Sacramento and we moved again.  Those three years are difficult to define and yet they set the stage for the next period of my life.  I wanted nothing more than to be rescued from that place, but no one came.  Eventually, I figured out that the only person who was going to rescue me was me.

Silence and the Stage

Preacher Dad decided he needed to be around more.  My mom had been a good mother in our early childhood but it was time for him to take over.  Her usefulness as a parent had been served and she could step aside, he told her.  He took a job as the vice-president of Jackson College of Ministries in Jackson, MS.  This small church college was owned and operated by the local UPC pastor, Brother Thomas Craft.  If you have ever seen the movie The Apostle with Robert Duval, that’s the man.  If Mr. Duval did not study Brother Craft with a microscope in preparation for that movie, I will eat my hat and yours.

We arrived in the Deep South on a pedestal.  Big announcements were made, public introductions, etc.; PD went to work and I went to fourth grade.  Socializing at school was not allowed.  All other kids were sinners from sinner families and had to be kept at arms’ length.  I was, however, allowed to witness to them or invite them to church so that they, too, could be saved.  Knee length dresses with sleeves were required at all times; my uncut hair hung to my knees.   Television and movies were strictly forbidden.  There was no secular information of any kind in our home.  I lived in Jackson, MS in the mid-1970s and knew nothing of the civil rights movement or of Martin Luther King Jr.  A classmate made a diorama of the solar system for their science fair project; I didn’t know what it was.  Any acknowledgement offered to me at school was refused on my behalf.  When my teacher chose me to be hall monitor, an honor given to responsible kids, my mother wrote a note refusing because it would make me too bossy.  My personality just wasn’t good enough.  To be fair, mom probably did me a favor.  When the teacher told the girls in class (me) to leave our little dresses at home and wear blue jeans the next day for field day, mom wrote another letter explaining that because of religious beliefs that wasn’t gonna happen.  The music teacher asked who had seen Star Wars and everyone raise their hands.  Nope, no idea.  I had seen stars outside at night… but that wasn’t what she meant… I kept my nose in a book as much as possible.

Social ostracism deepened as my parents’ need for control grew. They were strict even by churchy standards.  Free time before and after services was to be spent on my knees in the prayer room.  Other church girls had sleepovers.  I wasn’t old enough.  Sunday afternoon play-dates between church services?  Sometimes. The only place I had any freedom was the college campus, so I hung out with the college kids.  I learned titillating things, heard scandalous gossip and wore padded bras and high heels. Made out with 18 year old boys.   It was pretty fun.  At least there people would talk to me and I learned to kiss. Well.

Dad’s explosive temper grew; triggered by any little thing.  It was always there like a scary movie soundtrack, setting the scene in the background.  I remember him yanking my sister off the couch onto her back because he didn’t like her tone of voice.  And the shocking smack of his hand on my face, again for tone of voice.  I just couldn’t see it coming because I never stepped out of line on purpose.  He had a low Slytherin-like way of reaming your ass in a pants-wetting hiss.  This was back in the days of 45 records.  My sisters had Andy Gibb, Rita Coolidge, Climax, Debbie Boone, John Denver. (Don’t you just remember every word to every song?  They’re embedded.)  So on a rare outing to the local mall I purchased, for $1, a 45 of the song A Little Bit of Soap, by Nigel Olsson.  Dad found it and made me play it in front of the entire family, then proceeded to give me a humiliating lecture on the evils of secular music and my personal shortcomings for listening to such unholy crap.  When I found the courage to speak up, I pointed out that my sisters had records, too (yes, I sold them out; yes, they were mad). Any perceived rebellion (a breath that sounded like a sigh), sitting when we were told to stand (the man of god told you to stand up), suspicion of promiscuity (being out of sight for a moment), asking a question that put him on the spot (can I go over to so-and-so’s house?), cheeks flushed with humiliation (scrub check for makeup) resulted in his seething rage.  Endless lectures on my shortcomings, which I received silently, constant fear of dad’s wrath, disdain and dismissal of my needs and feelings, evolved into my almost complete withdrawal.  To be seen and not heard, while never actually put in those terms, was the rule.   This did not go well later on.

Scrutiny was the name of the game at church also, and invisibility at school; hours of primping before Sunday night service and oddball denim skirt-centered frump on the bus left me swinging between two worlds, silence and the stage.  It is impossible to underestimate the warped nature of my development during those years.  Appearances were paramount; skirt length measured by fractions, hair length was glorified and uneven, uncut split ends were mandatory.  Any female whose hair had an even bottom edge had clearly sinned with scissors.  (A few years later, I clipped some long bangs around my face in a 15 year old bout of fuck you and was told that I had ruined my dad’s career.  The sick thing is, it really was a nail in the coffin.  Dad was an asshole but he wasn’t making it up.) Teenage girls rubbed Vaseline onto eyelashes and eyelids in lieu of mascara and eye-shadow.  Clear lip gloss was allowed, but not clear nail polish and oddly placed Vaseline was pushing it.  The youth pastor’s wife spoke against the use of Vaseline during a girls’ only service.  I asked why it was okay to put shiny stuff on your lips but not on your eyelids. She openly mocked me, but didn’t answer.  I also asked why we were not allowed to go to baseball games. (A hot new guy came to church and rumor had it he played; thus my interest.  I hadn’t heard about Title 9.) Sister Youth Pastor told me not ask dumb questions and never answered.  Maybe she didn’t know, but I never found out.  Brother Youth Pastor wouldn’t let me get off of the choir bus with everyone else because he could see my bra strap through the cap sleeve of my shirt.  He cornered me, placing full blame for my promiscuous clothing choice squarely on my inadequately covered shoulders.  I was 14.

Many years later, after Dad died, I had a series of nightmares about him that left me terrified.  I would wake up shaking, my heart pounding and sick.  I do not remember the details of those dreams.  Then one night, I stood up to him.  I faced him and, with voice quivering and knees buckling, told him what I really thought of him, how I really felt.  I never dreamed about him again.