The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid

The final, as-good-as-I-can-make-it version of my memoir, The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid, just swooped through space to my publisher.

After weeks (months?) of editing, reading, proofing, re-reading, re-editing, re-proofing, I am STOKED to be done, at least for now. My dog will be so happy to have my attention again. I am so grateful to those of you who have hung around while I went down the writing rabbit hole. The picture is my proposed cover (yes, that’s me). What do you think?

Pre-orders will be available in early spring. If you want a personal notification when they are available, you are welcome to email me at ronnarussell23@gmail.com and I will put you on the list.

And now, it’s time for a very large glass of wine. Or three.

Isolation

I’m thinking about isolation.  Not what you do on a Sunday morning? Just me?

Several recent conversations with my sisters and my mother have reminded me how isolated we all were from each other in years past.  The stage was set within our family for absolute obedience and we were a perfect storm of noncommunication.

Firstly, the cult of Pentecostalism required isolation from the world in general, effectively taking away any context for normality.  Intrinsic to that religious culture is the submission of women to men.  Women cannot hold positions of power or have a public voice.  Their submission must be evident in behavior and appearance.

But you know that.

Add in an ambitious, power-hungry, sexually frustrated narcissist on a mission from God with a public persona to protect and we have a family of women who were not allowed to talk to each other.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we were forbidden and didn’t know how.

When crises came around, we were already in a state of silence.  By the time my teenage fallopian tube exploded (see Close Call for the story) and I was near death, we were all perfectly trained. All Dad had to say was do not speak and we didn’t.  Our silence went far beyond lying to church people who would judge him for having a wayward daughter.  He didn’t have to tell me not to speak.  I hadn’t spoken out loud in my family for years and was not about to start.

Mom knew I was sick but was not allowed to visit me in the hospital, nor to comfort me afterward.  Dad told my sister that Mom didn’t know what happened to me and not to tell her, so she didn’t.  My sister was the only person who spoke to me during my six weeks of recovery following surgery.  I sat home alone with no one to blame but myself. My other sister was told nothing at all.

Silence filled our home, the air too thick to breathe. Not one word was spoken between mother and daughters nor sister to sister about the fact that one of us had a tragic, terrifying, near-death experience.

Thirty-ish years later, with the threat of Dad’s wrath long gone, we talk.  Now we know what we were forced to deny.  Now we say the words.  Now we are free to love each other.  And breathe.

Meanwhile back at the ranch…

While I was busy making bad choices, so was Preacher Dad.  While Mom and sister were out of town, PD’s friend showed up.  They retired together to my parent’s bedroom.  PD saw the look of shock on my face and said, “Oh, it’s just like when you have friend over.”

#1.  What friend?

#2.  I’m not an idiot.

Eventually, PD was caught in a gay bathhouse and secretly fired from the church.  A story was concocted for the congregation and he moved to L.A.  The concocted story was told to us all, including my mother.  NO ONE told my mother why her husband no longer had a job even though she was church secretary.  PD found work in L.A. and his partner joined him there. (No one was calling him “partner,” but that was the truth.) He would come home for an occasional weekend and pretend to be husband/father.  Mom was left alone, trying to make ends meet.   No one took her aside and told her the truth.  Except me.  I can’t remember how the conversation came about, but we were sitting on her bed.  She was unable to believe all the evidence that PD was gay, so I told her that PD’s partner had slept in her bed while she was out of town.  I asked how long it had been since he slept with her and she said not that long, so I recommended an AIDs test and saw the understanding settle into her face.  To her credit, she wasted no time in doing that.  She also packed her bags, moved back to Vancouver and divorced PD.  It is impossible to overestimate the amount of courage these actions took.  He never once had a real conversation with her, never apologized; never gave her any sense of closure or reassurance that he had ever loved her.  PD was done.

I had no understanding of regular relationships, no sense of how to be in the world.  It was clear that I did not fit in anywhere.  I worked in restaurant offices and could see that the wait staff, mostly college students my own age, lived lives I could not comprehend; attending school, living in apartments paid for by parents, socializing.  Shopping in malls and having relationships.  It was all so far beyond me.  I was weird, but I supported myself and was free of religion.  I was also desperately lonely until I struck up a friendship with a man at work.  He was creative, brilliant and funny and came from an atheist family, so I married him.  He married me because that is what I wanted.  We set about starting a family right away because that is what I wanted.  He was a companion and a friend and he loved me.  And we had beautiful babies.  I built a cocoon, wrapped up in a family of my own, ignoring the parts of myself I was neglecting.  Because you just can’t fix everything at once.

About a month after baby #2 was born, I came home to find a handwritten envelope from PD on the table and my heart lurched.  It could only be bad news, and it truly was.  He wrote one letter to everyone in the family and sent copies to us all.  He had AIDs; had been HIV positive for quite a while and the disease had progressed.  He was starting treatment, but the prognosis was not good.  It was 1995; just before medication that worked became available.  I went to see him with my sisters on Father’s Day and again in November.  By then he was hospitalized; it was near the end.  I had some time alone with him in his hospital room; knowing it was the last time I would ever see him alive.  We chatted about this and that.  When I tried to turn the conversation to a personal place, I choked on the words. He turned on the television.  A news story was running about a mother who had killed her daughter.  She was being dragged off in handcuffs yelling I didn’t did it, I didn’t did it.

Conversation over.  I left, heartbroken and stunned.

A few weeks later, the phone rang at 2:00 am.  I lay in bed feigning sleep, knowing what the call was.  PD’s partner called again at 6:00 am and this time I answered.  It was over.

I read this poem at his funeral:

Only a Person who Risks is Free

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your ideas, your dreams,
before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the
greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing, do nothing,
have nothing, are nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow,
but they cannot learn, feel, change,
grow, love, live.
Chained by their attitudes they are slaves;
they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

– Anonymous

After I read the poem, I took my still-nursing daughter back to the car, out of the wind of the Oregon plains.  Unfortunately, I sat in the driver’s seat to feed her, where she promptly kicked the car horn, which emitted a very loud blast and everyone attending the service turned to look. I thought it a fitting end.

Close Call

Another new city, another new state, the third one in high school alone.  My sister had tickets to Hawaii and was taking my mother along for a vacation.  Preacher Dad took them to the airport in San Francisco, a couple of hours away.  He wouldn’t let me come along and then stayed overnight, doing whatever it was closeted gay men did in the 1980s.  That is how I found myself home alone on my 18th birthday, six weeks into a new place, knowing no one.  I had a car, a bright orange Pinto wagon that ran most of the time, and I remembered the way to the Casa Maria restaurant and bar. I was damned if I was going to sit in that house by myself, staring at the walls. Also I hadn’t had sex in three years.  I drove to the restaurant and walked in.  The bartender saw me, but before he could ask for ID, the only guy sitting at the bar said, “Come here.”  The bartender wouldn’t serve me.  We walked out together moments later, tried another bar, but I got carded again, so we cut to the chase.  We climbed in the back of the Pinto wagon, and he fucked me doggy style right there in the parking lot.  Afterwards, as I pulled myself together, he peed on the ground.  I watched the steam of urine flow underneath my shoe, a beige net peep-toe flat with a bow on the toe.  Terribly ugly.  He hopped into his sports car and drove off with Prince’s “1999” blaring through the window.  I went home to stare at the walls; the whole thing didn’t even take an hour, but I was pregnant anyway.

Back in those days, pregnancy tests were only available at doctor’s offices or clinics, nothing of the kind was sold over the counter.  The yellow pages and accompanying maps were a mystery to me.  I had no idea how to get to the free clinics in downtown Sacramento.  There was an ad for a free pregnancy test at a church nearby, so I made an appointment for 1:00 in the afternoon.  Told my mother I wasn’t feeling well, stayed home from school.  Feeling remarkably better at 12:45 as planned, I headed out to the “library.”  As I raised the garage door, I heard a voice behind me.  Turning, I saw a heavily made-up Asian woman standing on the sidewalk.  She said, “You know what means the word slut?”

“No” I responded, got in and shut the door as fast as I could; pulled the car out. She was gone.  Not on the sidewalk, not in a neighboring yard.  Vanished.  Hallucination?  Maybe.

I found the church, handed over my pee cup and was told that in exchange for the information I sought, I was required to watch an ant-abortion film.  When it started, I realized I had seen it before.  Off the hook!  My test results were negative, however it was too soon to really know for sure, she said.  I could still be pregnant and I knew it was true.  Knew that I was.

Days later, leaning against the church’s bathroom cubicle wall, twisting cramps contorting my body, I slid down the cold metal to a squat.   After catching my breath, I drove home and went to bed only to wake hours later with violent abdominal cramps.  PD was out of town. Mom called him, wondering what to do and PD instructed her to take me to the emergency room.  No questions, no exams, no x-rays later, I was sent home with possible pneumonia.

A day or so later, the cramps began again with terrifying force.  I called PD at work, “Come get me.” And he did.  We went to the nearest walk-in clinic.  There were questions this time.  The doctor said to go to the emergency room right now.  We did, I in my enormous lime green sweats that I wore to bed.  I knew this had something to do with being pregnant, but had no idea what.  While waiting for a turn in the ER changing room, Dad asked if this was the first time I had had sex.  I told him about my first boyfriend.  He didn’t say anything.

In the changing room, my head started to spin and I had to sit down, unable to undress.  The ultrasound technician came in to see if I was ready, but I could no longer stand.  She helped me onto the ultrasound table; turned the machine on.  Instantly she was on the phone, urgency in her voice; words I could not decipher.

Wheeling down the hall, operating room, bright lights, lime green sweats shredded with scissors, masked faces, count backwards.

Recovery room.  Slide from the gurney to the bed.  Really?  So far away.

Someone explained later that I had an ectopic pregnancy and my fallopian tube had ruptured.  I was lucky to be alive.  The ultrasound technician came to visit, stood at the foot of my bed, still pale and shaken, surprised I had survived.  I remember the metal staples across my lower abdomen, a sponge bath, snarky birth control comment from the nurse.  PD stopped by to read bible verses.  My sister came to see me, but not Mom.  No conversation, just a big fat Holy Shit atmosphere.  Silence.  I found out years later that PD did not tell my mother why I was hospitalized; would not allow her to see me.  He told her she didn’t need to know and forbid her to talk to me about it. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up; I knew how ashamed they were of me.  And how angry.

Six weeks home from senior year, no one noticed when I went back. I had been a new face, anyway.

Nothing was ever said to me about what happened, except when the insurance bill came.  I needed to make monthly payments to dad for the $3000.00 deductible.  They barely got the new health insurance paperwork filed in time.  It was a close call.

Later, I asked PD why he didn’t sue the first hospital for negligence.  He said he would have if something had happened.