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.

Ode to Broken Commitments

I came across this blog post on good ol’ Facebook and it stopped me in my tracks.  So many of my own experiences and those I grew up around are piercingly described here, as is the truth their effect on young lives.  Please take a few minutes to follow the link below and read.

But I WANT It…

As a child raised in the extreme isolationism and clamped-down atmosphere of the United Pentecostal Church, I had a deep, insatiable desire for worldly things.  The state of females’ appearance was rigidly controlled:  dress length to the knees (even for children), no pants or jeans, no sleeveless shirts, uncut hair (not even trimmed), no make-up or jewelry and I lusted for it all.  My most prized possession as a little kid was a big fat gold ring with rhinestones that I was allowed to wear only when playing “house” in the basement.  Once, some poor soul got saved and turned over her entire collection of costume jewelry to my dad; three boxes full.  I was momentarily ecstatic, envisioning hours of fabulous dress-up play.  My sisters and I got to keep the empty boxes.  I have no idea where the jewelry went; probably into the garbage.  Oh, that just made me feel a little bit sick to my stomach.

As I grew towards adolescence, my cravings grew: a plastic Oreo cookie necklace with a bite taken out of it on a leather cord, a Donnie and Marie Osmond lunchbox.  I didn’t know who they were, but it sure looked cool.  The short flippy haircut of a girl at the mall, a Barry Manilow poster.  I had a plan, though.   When I was old enough, maybe 18, I intended to backslide temporarily.  I was going to have permanent eyeliner put on (it hadn’t been invented yet, I think I fantasized it).  I was also going to get my hair cut, all very quickly and then come back to church.  I would take a chance that the rapture wouldn’t happen and I could slide back in fast enough.  All that straggly hair would be gone, at least for a while and I wouldn’t be able to take the make-up off.  Even after my hair grew back out, it would still have that cool, straight edge across the bottom and the Farrah bangs would last for a little while.

This was my nefarious plan to look hot and still go to heaven.  I had it all worked out.

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.

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.

Missionaries In The Basement

When I was growing up we had missionaries in the basement.  They came and went with their stories and pictures; invading my play space and filling my head with images of other people and places.

Preacher Dad was employed by “Headquarters,”  the very big and important administrative center for the United Pentecostal Church.  He was in charge of the foreign missions department.  I have no idea what he did, really, other than travel a lot.   I do know that my parents converted our basement into a private bedroom and bath for missionaries on furlough.  Furlough happened every four years for those missionaries assigned to other countries.  They came home for one year to see family and raise funds for their next four years.  Their first stop was Headquarters, where I assume there was some sort of debriefing process. All I know is they stayed in our basement.

A few of them stood out.

The Herdmans had spent many years in Africa.  They actually spoke Swahili, which they would use if I encroached into their space with my big listening ears.  It was a fascinating language to hear, like music with kissing sounds thrown in.  Brother Herdman had a big wide face and a smile to match, Sister Herdman was a bit stern but not unkind.  They taught the African women to cover their bodies; to dress the way American Jesus said you were supposed to.  The African women put on the requisite white tee shirts they handed out and promptly cut holes in them for their breasts to hang through, so that their children could nurse.  I guessed they missed the point.  The Herdmans clearly loved Africa and the people there, despite the fact that they went there to save them from themselves.  There was always a slideshow, sweating black men in long sleeved shirts, ties and trousers, faces glistening in the sun, standing in front of a barren churchyard and cement block church sporting a UPC sign.  I always thought they had taken something interesting and made it not.

Then there was Brother Johns, a missionary to the Philippines.  He had a big personality, a natural entertainer and storyteller.  He would play our piano with gusto and joy, making up songs as he went.  If he made up a verse about me, the warmth of his personal spotlight created a glow that only faded when his attention moved to one of my sisters.  We all got a turn, Brother Johns was cool that way.  He brought beautiful Philippine dolls in beaded dresses with shining black hair made of thread.  And he couldn’t ever drink orange soda because once, on a very hot and thirsty trip in the heart of the Philippines, he bought an orange soda from a roadside stand and got very sick.

There was a constant flow of visitors and souvenirs, and while my personal world was so small that I wasn’t allowed in the neighbors’ houses, there was a sense of adventure and awareness of other cultures that broadened my perspective.  My father came home from trips abroad smelling like smoke from the airplane and my sisters and I would attack him for the gifts he always brought, most long since lost:  wooden carvings from Africa, glass from Israel, copper from Rhodesia, china from England, crystal from Germany.  I didn’t know it then, but he had several life insurance policies in case he was killed during his travels.  It was a volatile time and he was realistic about the odds.

So he traveled and he preached, with an interpreter.  During my ninth summer, the family went along on a six week trip to South America.  Our first stop was Ecuador.  We traveled by truck, through the jungle and high into the mountains to a camp where church services were held with Preacher Dad as the guest speaker.  The open air revival tent was filled with native Ecuadorean highlanders in beautifully woven garments, beaded necklaces piled from shoulder to chin and loose tops for nursing children of all ages.  That was the first time I ever saw a breast; a small child walked up to his mother, took her breast out and suckled while she calmly continued peeling an orange.  This blew my mind.  I lived in a home with four females and had literally never seen a nipple other than my own.  Some adults were my size at age eight.  The babies were so beautiful it hurt.  So were the young men; brown skin, brown eyes, black hair, easy smiles… I was lust-struck.  There were communal tents for the families that came to the revival and in one, a baby was born.  He was named Donald after my dad.

Locusts the size of ballpoint pens were everywhere.  Revivalists were fed soup out of a huge metal barrel, black liquid with unknown substances floating in it.  I was relieved to know that we were not allowed to eat it.  I questioned why the Ecuadorean women were allowed to wear jewelry and was told something along the lines of “they didn’t know any better.”  It’s so hard to justify black and white rules to an eight year old.

In Argentina we stayed at the home of the Richardsons, missionaries in Buenos Aires.  One evening the adults went to a church service, leaving the children from both families home.  During the evening, we heard booming, explosions.  The next day we drove along the street and saw bombed out buildings.  It was 1974.

In Brazil, we saw voodoo shops, which struck terror into my heart.  My parents snuck into a sacred park area to watch a “witch” go into a trance and cast a “spell.”  They returned shaken and stirred.  People who protested the presence of the missionaries left chicken feathers on their doorstep.  This was solid evidence of the work of Satan.

Missionaries were not there to understand another culture, but to spread the word of god.  Their belief in their mission was very real and I believe they were well-intentioned and good-hearted people, if misguided in their religious arrogance.  Certainly, they were brave.  Despite my perspective on the concept of missions now, I am forever grateful for their stories that shed such light into the sequestration of my childhood.

*Names have been changed to avoid anything that might happen if I don’t.


The Rapture and Other Bedtime Stories…

The second coming of Christ was presented as a real and present danger of everyday life.  Jesus could return at any moment, with one loud trumpet blast by way of announcement. If you were not saved you would be left on earth, which would become hell, complete with Satan, fire and demons, where you would burn forever and ever.  Everyone who had followed directions would be whisked away to heaven and it was all going to happen in the blink of an eye.  Let’s just say I had some anxiety as a child.

Everyone was going to hell when the rapture took place, except for the handful of earth’s population who belonged to the United Pentecostal Church.  No other Christians of any flavor, nor even other Pentecostals if they were not part of the UPC sect, would be saved.  Period.  No salvation for you.  Once, when I was a kid, I asked my mother about people in other countries who had never heard about Jesus.  Would they go to hell?  Missionaries were a big deal, we heard a lot of stories about their coercion of poor brown skinned folks in other lands.  Mom said that was too bad for them.  Their ancestors shouldn’t have rejected God.  Thus the big push for missionaries, I guess.  This seemed remarkably unfair to me.  All those people were going to burn in hell forever and ever without having had the chance to choose Jesus.  I mean, if you personally rejected him, then you had it coming.  But to never have heard and still have to pay?  Rough.

The constant fear of the rapture could only be assuaged by being saved in a very specific way.  There were three steps:  repentance, baptism by complete submersion and speaking in tongues, in that order.   Repent for your sins and volunteer to be dunked in Jesus’ name.  You could not be dunked in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as that was acknowledgement of the Trinity, which was basically evil.  All three were one and the same and it mattered a lot.  They were absolutely not three separate beings and to believe otherwise was blasphemy.  You had to get the wording right or it didn’t count.  The last step, speaking in tongues, was by far the hardest.  You could repent and be baptized easily enough of your own free will, but receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost was beyond your control.  It seemed to happen to people during periods of free form worship during church.  Hands raised, eyes closed, praying out loud.  The Holy Ghost was supposed to take over your tongue and make you speak in another language.  Not a real language, just gibberish.  Apparently, you had to be praying out loud for it to happen.  I don’t think you could be praying silently and the HG would activate your vocal cords.  In retrospect, I’m not real clear on that.

Anyway, I repented about a million times for my kindergarten sins and got baptized when I was six.  The water in the baptismal was warm, which I was happy about; although it was weird to be wet in a long white robe.  I got good pats on the head for it, though.  Now, to get the Holy Ghost.  I prayed and prayed and prayed… seven years later… still nothing.   No unseen force ever took over my tongue.  Not once, not even close.  Finally, I just faked it and called it good. I knew it wasn’t real, knew I was just forcing babble out of my mouth and the deep unsettling fear of being an unsaved faker hung like smoke from the fires of hell.  Not really, I don’t remember worrying about it all that much.  As a matter of fact, it was kind of a load off because people stopped asking me if I had the Holy Ghost yet.  I stopped being afraid of hell about that time, in early adolescence.  Started smelling the bullshit.

Up until then, the fear of hell was real.  I couldn’t go to sleep at night, especially after church.  Preacher after preacher, especially those goddamn traveling evangelists, would tell tall tales of untimely deaths and tragic accidents.  If only they had come to Jesus right before that truck hit ‘em!  They would wax eloquent, in great detail, about the torture and flames of hell and how those things would feel.  Some preachers said the rapture would save us all in the nick of time from the horrors of the Book of Revelations. My dad said he didn’t believe we were going to get out without a scratch; meaning some of us would be tortured and killed for our beliefs before the rapture.  So he was no help getting to sleep.

There was a traveling evangelist named Brother Richard Heard.  He would visit the church, preaching nightly, sometimes for weeks at a time.  The Rapture was his thing.  He could scare the shit out of you before halftime.  I distinctly remember him saying, “I don’t think we are going to see 1977.”  It was 1976, I was 10 years old and had to sing myself to sleep with happy little tunes to shut out the voices.

One Saturday morning, I slept in.  When I got up the house was quiet, my parents having gone about their day.  It felt eerily empty.  I thought the rapture had taken place and I was completely alone. I ran down the hall, heart pounding, with a scream in my throat until I saw my sister asleep in bed.  TERROR.