Atonement, Fasting, Nausea, Purity, and the Obedient Wife

Scapegoat Retrieved from Creative Commons. Taken June 2007 by C. Chou.

I was about five years old the first time I tried to fast on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). I don’t remember it. My mother said I didn’t get very far into the fast, but made a good effort. By the time I was 8 or 9, I was fasting from sundown to sundown as commanded. Other children my age (and younger) had begun doing the same. Some members also removed food and water dishes from their dogs and cats, so the animals could observe the fast. Children were taught that fasting would strengthen our character, build empathy for impoverished children starving in other countries, and cleanse our bodies of impurities.

Purity and obedience were supremely important to “God’s End Time Elijah,” as Herbert Armstrong referred to himself. Armstrong emphasized these qualities to the neglect of the more traditionally spiritual and communal observances of Atonement. He and his ministers taught that Atonement was about obedience to The Law of God and the prefiguration of prophetic events – namely, the casting out of Satan the Devil (the scapegoat by Armstrong’s interpretation) and the removal of Satan’s influence from the millennial World Tomorrow. Fasting was meant to cleanse The Church – aka The Bride of Christ – so that she might “present herself without spot, wrinkle, or blemish” to Jesus Christ at the Second Coming. If The Church remained an obedient wife worthy of “God’s perfect seed” – the Holy Spirit – she would then “give birth” to all baptized members. Those members – “God’s children in embryo” – would be “born again as Spirit Beings” (assuming they were individually worthy), become “part of the Godhead” or “God’s family,” and rule the earth “with a rod of iron” in the World Tomorrow.

“God is reproducing Himself,” Armstrong always reminded us.

Breaking with other Day of Atonement traditions, which forbade bathing and grooming, the ministers admonished us to clean ourselves up, bathe, brush our teeth, comb our hair, wear nice clothes, and put a smile on our face so we didn’t look so miserable. Atonement was not a show of abjection. We were to demonstrate our goodness and character with the cheerful countenance of a submissive wife. Any physical discomfort was our own to bear quietly “without grumbling” and take up in prayer with God in whose sight we were to humble ourselves.

But children do not bear physical discomfort quietly. Fasting children get nauseous and they vomit. Even without food in their stomachs, they can vomit up the previous day’s meal or dry heave or bring up bile. Most of us were on the verge of vomiting from the moment we squeezed into the car with adults reeking of hairspray, cologne, perfume, and aftershave. We fought the urge to vomit through morning and afternoon services and the break in between. We slept it off if we could. We stretched out over the seats or lay our heads in our mothers’ laps. We draped like little limp noodles over chairs or sofas in the bathroom and lounge areas. We lay on the floor. We gagged again on perfumes in the car as we made our way to the restaurants where we’d break our fast. We wretched in the parking lots of steak houses and all-you-can-eat fish fry joints. We hung our heads out over the pavement with the car doors open. We asked our parents every minute how many more minutes before we could rush the salad bar and fill up on cracker sticks and saltines. We vomited full-force at sunset when our mothers fed us salty crackers and V-8 juice that hit our stomachs like a splash of acid. We vomited up the meals we’d dreamed about all day long. We vomited while our boisterous fathers in suits and ties joked with the waitresses about how they hadn’t “eaten in a week” and then ran them off their feet for seconds, thirds, and more iced tea.

“God is such a genius!” my father once exclaimed to a crowded table of Church members, “To put a day of fasting right before The Feast! To clean ourselves out before we spend a week eating!”

If our parents were “cleaning themselves out,” then we children must have been really, really clean after all that vomiting.

Eventually, I learned to control the nausea by carrying small salt packets and secretly pouring them on my tongue when I felt the bile swelling. With less success, I chewed the cuticle flesh around my fingernails, but gave this up when it wasn’t enough to sustain me. Other times I gathered saliva in my mouth and then swallowed, which quenched my thirst somewhat.

I knew all my anti-nausea tactics were cheating the “spirit of the fast” and “breaking God’s Law,” but I don’t remember feeling guilty about what I did.


Virginia and Two Murders (part 2): Horses

Continued from Virginia and Two Murders (part 1): Cars

One night, my young aunt Celeste* and I drove to the roller rink a few towns over. She wasn’t big on skating and so she didn’t have much interest in or experience with this silly thing of putting wheels on her feet. But she humored my interest. A couple of times she hugged the rail around the rink in a show of good effort or clomped her way on the soft padded floor to the snack bar or the bathroom. Otherwise, she sat on a bench and watched or talked to people she knew there.

I took breaks from time to time to join her on the sidelines and to smoke cigarettes. During one of my skate breaks, I met a cute boy: dark eyes, dark shaggy hair, and suntanned skin. He was older than me. Celeste knew him, so I figured they must have gone to school together.

He asked me if I wanted a slice of pizza and a soft drink.

I said, Okay.

We ate our pizza and then went to a bench by ourselves and sat and talked.

The DJ made a call to couples skate, which was pretty much the same call at every roller rink I’d been to in my entire childhood. It went something like: This is a skate for a boy and a girl or for two girls, but not for two boys.

He asked me to couples skate.

I said, Okay.

The music slowed, the lights dimmed, and the disco ball started reflecting bright spots around the room. We held hands and skated around in a circle with the other couples.

Then we sat on the bench and talked some more.

He told me he lived near my Granny’s house and, if I liked, he could come by and pick me up on one of his horses and we could go for a ride in the state park up the road.

I said that sounded fun. So, we made a date.

I didn’t tell him that I wasn’t great with horses. It would have been an odd thing to confess. Everyone had horses around there and everyone was good with them, it seemed. My great-grandmother had horses. But I hadn’t had the best of luck maneuvering them. I’d go out for a casual ride only to find the horse I was riding wanted to race the horse somebody else was riding. They all went way too fast and I could barely hang on to any of them. Whether I was on a trail or riding in a field, horses always seemed to know I had no idea what I was doing.

“They can sense your fear,” everyone told me.

True. I’d never gotten over the fear of being thrown that time when we were little and Celeste, my brother, and I tried to ride together on the same horse. My brother held onto the horse’s mane. I held onto my brother. And Celeste held onto me. The horse bucked and threw us into the rocky field as soon as my brother yelled “giddy-up” and kicked at the horse’s sides. Celeste and I both landed on our left arms on top of a rock. My brother flew off in the other direction. Fortunately, there was no rock on his side.

For the rest of the day, Celeste and I were both convinced we had broken arms. We could barely move them and spent the day stretched out on the sofas in my great-grandmother’s living room.

My father berated us relentlessly for “faking” our arm injuries.

I never got over my fear of horses. And Celeste never got over her anger toward my father and the way he mocked our pain.

On our way home from the roller rink, Celeste asked, “You know who that is, don’t you?”

“He said his name was Jesse*.”

“He’s the one who killed his father. Mary Anna*’s boy.”

Mary Anna lived up the road from my grandmother and great-grandmother. I remembered hearing stories about her. She was Italian and Catholic with several children. Jesse must have been one of her children. Her husband used to beat her and threaten to kill her. Granny told stories about how in the middle of the night Mary Anna would run down the road screaming and bang on windows and doors and how they always let her in and gave her a safe place to spend the night until her husband calmed down the next day.

“Two years ago. He was 16. They didn’t charge him for it. Self defense, you know.”

Retrieved from Creative Commons, WenPhotos

The next day Jesse came around on his horse. We rode up to the state park and sat on the rocks by the creek and smoked some cigarettes and talked.

I wasn’t afraid. It didn’t scare me to know he’d shot and killed someone. We didn’t talk about it. He never mentioned his father. But I felt like I understood. There’d been times when I’d prayed for my father’s death – prayed for him not to come home from one of his many business trips, prayed for one of his planes to crash, not caring about the other people on board. Like a horse can sense fear, I had hunches about dangerous people and Jesse didn’t give me a dangerous vibe. He didn’t seem much different than Celeste’s high-school sweetheart – just a boy who loved his family and wanted to raise his horses and never move out of southwest Virginia.

He said the annual wagon train was coming up soon and wondered if I’d like to ride part of it with him.

I said, Sure. That sounds like fun. Still not telling him I wasn’t good with horses.

When the wagon train came through the following week, he picked me up on his horse and we joined the others, some on horseback and some pulling covered wagons. We headed to the Clinch River where in the evening the wagon train would stop to build fires and camp for the night on the flat area with all the fog where they used to find arrowheads.

On our way, we had to cross over the little one-lane “hump bridge” that arched up over the train track. The bridge was steep and we could see the horses’ shoes ahead of us were slipping on the slick pavement.

Jesse said, “Why don’t you walk this part?”

So I got off the horse we were on and walked over the bridge while he rode ahead of me. The horse slipped and they both nearly fell.

I wasn’t afraid.

*All names have been changed.

Virginia and Two Murders (part 1): Cars

We made the move from North Carolina to Tennessee in stages. It might have been late summer or fall when we packed up all our belongings and put them in storage. By fall, my mother, brother, and I had moved “Home” to stay with my maternal grandmother in Virginia while my father started his new job in Tennessee and we all waited for our next tract house to be built.

I don’t remember if we spent weeks or months in Virginia. I do remember it was long enough for public school administrators to admonish my parents about our truancy and how far behind my brother and I would be when we returned to school. But we were accustomed to these kinds of warnings as we regularly took time off from school to travel for The Feast and to attend other Holy Day services.

At 14, I enjoyed school and learning, but I craved freedom more. Between The Church and my abusive father doing The Church’s bidding, I had little freedom that I didn’t create myself. I often skipped classes so I could hang out with other young people. I knew how to study on my own and catch up on missed work (years of traveling to The Feast had taught me that). What would a few more weeks out of the classroom matter?

Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Rural southwest Virginia didn’t afford many opportunities for me to hang out with other young people. If teens wanted to meet, they had to drive (or catch a ride) into town or out to some other town or further out to the closest city, which was over the mountain and into Tennessee. I was too young to drive, so I relied on my mother’s youngest sister, Celeste* – the high school student with the car who became the college student with the car – to drive us to fun.

Most days, Celeste and I hit the winding Appalachian roads, if only to “run down to the store.” A few times, I rode with her on her commute to the University of Virginia at Wise and sat in on her classes or flipped through magazines in the library. Celeste may have been embarrassed to have her barely-teenaged niece in tow, but she never let on. She let me feel grown-up and believe I could pass for one of the college students, all of whom seemed terribly serious and studious with their heads down over sprawled books and their vocabularies growing in conversations. I wasn’t anything close to being serious or studious. I was aloof and unsmiling, but I was also intellectually curious. And I looked older than other girls my age. The combination of those traits was probably been enough for me to pass or at least be ignored.

Some evenings, Celeste and I would ride around with my brother and male cousin (both 11 or 12 years old) in the back seat. She’d drive us to nearby towns where we’d hang out at the movie theater, a diner, or the roller rink. Sometimes we’d cruise whatever fast food parking lot the local teens had decided was the in-place to drive their cars around in tight circles or short blocks. Sometimes Celeste and I would pick up Shelly* before we headed out.

Shelly was about my age, another girl from The Church by default, like us, on account of her mother’s membership. She and Celeste were close, although I’d only spent time with her at Church, playing in my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s yards when we were younger, and in commuting. Shelly, her mother, and little brother (about my brother’s and cousin’s age) were part of our weekly caravan of ten plus people divided between two or three cars that traveled over the mountain and into Tennessee for Sabbath Services. Every Saturday morning, Shelly’s mother would pull up in my great-grandmother’s gravel driveway alongside the other parked cars. She’d get out with her two kids while this gaggle of perfumed and coiffed women and girls (save the three boys: my brother, cousin, and Shelly’s brother) swarmed the cars and figured out who was riding with whom and in what car and whether we could do it with two or needed three and what we might be doing after and who was going where and with whom and who needed to get back early and etc. Every week it was a new configuration of the same sort of logic problem.

On our own, Celeste, Shelly, and I would drive around doing nothing in particular. We’d go to nearby towns, stop in a park, go to a movie, or hang out in a restaurant. I’d smoke cigarettes. And Celeste and Shelly would join in, although they weren’t really smokers and didn’t inhale. Shelly would drink wine spritzers and pre-mixed tequila sunrises straight from the bottle. Celeste and I would, too, although we weren’t big drinkers.

Celeste would complain about our mothers and their fanaticism. She’d say, “Church, Church, Church! That’s all they ever talk about is Church! I am so sick of Church!”

So many Church kids were sick of The Church and the constant conversations our parents had about End Time Prophecy. We were angry and exhausted from being told again and again – in the invincibility of our youth – how The World was going to end, how God was going to punish us, how everyone we knew who wasn’t in The Church would be tortured and probably killed, and how we had absolutely no chance at a normal life. We were bitter and resentful. We wanted our chance to grow up. The adults already had their chance. And now we wanted ours.

Shelly’s mother, Maggie*, was my mother’s age and my grandmother’s closest friend. She and Granny spent a lot of time together toggling between conversations about The End Times and laughing at shared stories. They talked during their long Sabbath commutes and travels to The Feast. They visited throughout the week and ran errands together. Years earlier, they’d even worked together ironing men’s shirts at a nearby clothing factory. Maggie had been the driver, their transportation to and from work. The two loved to reminisce about how “dog tired” they’d been after working all day and how one evening on their way home Maggie “nodded off right there at the red light.”

Maggie was what The Church called a “spiritual widow,” a married woman with an unconverted spouse. She was “unequally yoked” with an outsider. Such marriages were frowned upon and discouraged unless the Church member had entered into marriage before “being called into The Church.” Members in Maggie’s predicament were advised (but not required) to stay with their spouses if the spouses were “willing to live with them” because “God hates divorce” and “God might choose to call” the spouse.

Maggie’s husband was a controlling and abusive alcoholic who didn’t like her being a part of “that crazy Church.” She held out no hope that he would “be called by God,” but she was also afraid to leave him.

Granny had zero tolerance for abusive men and not much patience for men in general. She never understood why Maggie “put up with that no good drunk of man” or why my mother stayed married to that rage-filled yelling screaming name-calling threatening shoving pinching slapping belt-wielding man that was my father. Granny never understood why my mother allowed my father to abuse her the way he did or how she could stand by and watch him abuse us kids as he did.

Granny wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand. Celeste didn’t understand. My mother’s other sister didn’t understand. My great aunts and our cousins, none of the women who surrounded us, understood. They would often say things to me like: “Oh, honey. He was so cruel to you, even as a baby. But you were strong. You always stood up to him. Not like your mother.”

These women – Granny, the aunts, the cousins, my great-grandmother – didn’t understand because they weren’t forced to abide by The Church’s doctrines on marriage and female subjugation. They had no husbands with which to contend or submit to. My great-grandmother’s husband died when he was fairly young. Granny’s husband lived and worked in another state. Celeste would eventually stop attending Church, marry her high-school sweetheart, and become the sole breadwinner for her family. My mother’s other sister was a corporate executive in a male-dominated field who had a son but never married. None of these women – although many were Church members or attendees – were forced to negotiate that lived experience of being a “submissive wife.”

My mother, on the other hand, dutifully believed what The Church taught: women were to remain silent and subservient, even as they faced abuse. She believed (rather selfishly, I thought) that her reward in The Millennial Kingdom would be greater because of her long-suffering obedience, even when that obedience put us children in danger.

Like my mother, Maggie suffered decades of abuse. It wasn’t until her children were grown that she finally gathered the courage to kick her husband out of the house. Her husband agreed to leave the house, but refused to leave their jointly-owned property. And, instead, he set himself up in a trailer on a hilltop overlooking her house so he could “keep an eye on her” until the legal matters of divorce were finalized.

A few weeks after the separation, Maggie was standing outside her house in the driveway with another caravan of cars, a funeral caravan. She, her children, other family members, and friends had gathered to mourn Maggie’s sister whom they’d just buried.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s husband was up on the hill “keeping an eye” on her through the sites of his hunting rifle. Without warning, he shot her dead right there in front of everyone who loved her.

*All the names have been changed.

Continued in next post: Virginia and Two Murders (part 2): Horses 

All Growing up Now

I was 14 when we made the move from North Carolina to Tennessee. I’d meet my first husband Adam* soon after. And in 4 ½ years we’d be married.

Years later, a paternal aunt would call to discuss my father’s incarceration and sentencing. We’d stray off topic to catch up on decades missed. She’d tell me how worried she, her sisters, and my grandmother had been for me at the time of my marriage – worried that The Church had chosen my husband, worried that I’d been forced into marriage.

“You were a child!” she’d keep repeating. “And he was a grown man!”

But I’d tell her that that’s not how it was. I’d say that I made my own decisions and lay in my own bed. I’d tell her how marriage to a kind and decent person was (almost) my way out of the mess I’d been born into. I’d admit that I’d been too young to know other options. But I’d also tell her about how that marriage had been the first glimmer of peace and love and generosity I’d known in my young life.

And yes, that marriage would become a trap – a way to control my behavior and keep me in The Church. But it would also be my immediate escape from my father’s physical violence.

Photos taken at The Feast within a few years of one another.

The photo on the left is a Polaroid of me and my brother on a windy day at The Feast in Virginia Beach around the time of our move to Tennessee. He’s standing on the left. I’m standing behind him on the right. Our bodies are turned toward the wind and we’re looking over our left shoulders to face the camera. The beach, ocean, and sky recede behind us.

My brother holds a white surfboard against his torso hands-free to demonstrate the height of the board and strength of the wind. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and is darkly suntanned, as usual for him. His hair is longish and still platinum blond. It has yet to turn dark like our parents’ hair. He’s small still and hasn’t hit the growth spurt that will send him over six feet tall.

Behind him, I’m making a sympathetic hands-free motion that reads like playful glamour, a caricature of a model’s pose. I’m wearing eye makeup, blown-out straight hair, a light blue t-shirt, and Levi’s jeans. I’m holding my right hand up by my head with my left arm extended toward the camera. My left elbow is limber and twisted and my skinny body is bowed and awkward like a hinged-in-the-middle spider.

My and my brother’s poses are fun and funny in their phallic expression of childhood power – he with his mighty surfboard and me with my brazen display of gangly beauty.

I don’t remember, but I suspect my mother took this picture, which was a rare thing. She didn’t often hold the camera and tended to get flustered with my father’s over-direction when she tried. Still, she likely snapped the photo because 1) I wouldn’t have taken that glamour pose with my father present, 2) my mother wouldn’t have been holding the camera had he been present, 3) we look happy and, 4) I can’t imagine my father fighting such a wind to keep his comb-over in place.

A few years later, my parents would look at this photo and lament the length of my brother’s hair as if it were a spiritual failing: “I can’t believe we ever let his hair get that long!” And then they’d shake their heads in shame at how “liberal” and “permissive” and “Worldly” they’d become during our tween and early teen years.

By contrast, the photo on the right was my mother’s dream-come-true. I was finally fixed in a situation that would keep me secure in my place.

In the right photo, I’m sitting on Adam’s lap. My left arm and hand with wedding ring drape around his neck and shoulder. My right hand gracefully falls on his forearm. My face is scrubbed clean because (somewhere in the time between the photo on the left and the photo on the right) The Church had decided that makeup was a sin again. My hair is natural. My legs are crossed. I’m the picture of “wholesome” – as Church leaders were fond of referring to a certain look on certain female youths – wholesome like a loaf of homemade whole wheat bread. I’m wholesomeness personified, pretty in peach and wrapped in pastels: modest turquoise shorts, a sleeveless peach sweater, and a matching scarf tied under my hair and up over my head as a headband.

The peach of my sweater is the color of the bedroom wall paint my mother chose for me during my senior year of high school. She was thrilled that she’d finally gotten me to paint over that black (actually, very very very dark gray) wall color I’d chosen for my walls when we moved into the Tennessee house.

And so it was: No more black walls for me!

But I was okay with that. The time had come. I needed a grown-up color, a feminine color, to match my soon-to-be-grown-up life.

My mother wanted the peach wall color to match her gift to me for my high school graduation: new bedroom furniture. I was “getting married, after all” and she’d determined I needed a proper furniture suite to take with me as a dowry of sorts. She ordered the suite from North Carolina: 18th-century reproductions with inlay and dovetailed drawers, a triple dresser with two big mirrors, a four-poster bed (with canopy!), and a highboy chest. Big furniture. Lots of furniture. And there was a hope chest that she and I filled with skimpy lingerie and high thread-count sheets. She also spent almost a year hand-stitching an exquisitely beautiful cathedral window quilt out of colorful fabric scraps collected from Church and family members.

In the photo, Adam’s long fingers wrap around my hips and waist. He’s biting his lower lip as he did to tighten the fullness of his mouth. He has dark hair, a suntan, and a mustache. He didn’t always wear a mustache. Sometimes, he was clean-shaven. More often, he was stubbly, as was the fashion. When I left him, he grew a beard and his hair down below his shoulders.

Adam looked more like my relatives than I did. Once we had a family portrait taken, the five of us: parents, brother, husband, and I. The photographer took several photos of us all together, then removed me from the sitting and took photos of the four of them. We were all puzzled, but went along with the shoot as the photographer envisioned. Only when we got the proofs did we have the “aha” moment: the photographer thought I (the red-head) had married into this group.

Adam brought me back into the fold (acceptance) with my relatives, not because he cared for them – because he didn’t – but because he tolerated them and because neither he nor I put up any resistance to their and The Church’s control over our lives until it was too late for us.

Final note: Adam and I were on our honeymoon trip when the above picture was taken. It was also a Feast Trip because that’s how we scheduled it. My parents were there because we’d all been assigned to the same Feast Site in Florida.

My father probably took the picture.

*My first husband’s name has been changed.

Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 2)

Continued from Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 1)

Next Year in Jerusalem!

Translation: Jerusalem is ours! We will take it over! And we will rule The World!

For Armstrongites, the meaning of the phrase wasn’t simple. But neither was it nuanced by any long-standing tradition. The meaning had layers, but those layers hadn’t evolved slowly over hundreds of years within a tradition or a practice.

What “tradition” the Worldwide Church of God had (in its mere decades of existence) could be described more aptly as culture. Except, the peculiar cult(ure) of The Church hadn’t grown in ways similar to most cultures and sub-cultures. Ours was constructed for us through authoritarian edicts that came from one person: Herbert W. Armstrong. Those edicts were disseminated through propagandistic publications and a hierarchy of ministers. And they were based on lies, namely a false lineage of Anglo-Israelism, a manufactured “history of The One True Church,” and apocalyptic prophecy.

For members, Jerusalem was an idea – a loaded idea. And invoking it meant a whole host of things not obvious to those outside The Church. For one, it acknowledged our disjunction with “This Present Evil World.” Jerusalem (and our imminent return to it) reinforced that we were out of place, that our place was always some other place, and that we were displaced – always in The World but not of The World.

For another, the phrase and other appropriated traditions gave footing to members and seekers who were stumbling and fumbling for a past (like the Enochs of the previous post). It gave a lift to those who had fallen in The World and to those who had never been up off the ground with any sort of standing in the first place. The appropriated traditions returned those members to an inheritance – a place among God’s Chosen – that they didn’t know was theirs until Armstrong told them so.

Finally, the phrase gave members a future. Its meaning was as much about the destiny of The Church as it was about claiming an Edenic past. Members were promised an eternity of unlimited power. They looked forward to recreating that perfect Eden in The World Tomorrow (Armstrong’s other name for The Millennium). They looked forward to never again stumbling or needing a hand up in The World. They looked forward to the destruction of The World.

“Next Year in Jerusalem!” meant (in the longer version): Next year, the tribulation! Our enemies will be destroyed! In 3½ years, we will be revealed as God’s Chosen! We will be transformed into God Beings! We will sit on God’s Throne in Jerusalem! We will rule The World with a rod of iron for a thousand years!

Cover of The Good News (March 1979). The magazine was published by the Worldwide Church of God for its members. Articles in this issue give a small taste of The Church’s teachings, the authoritarian structure of the group, and the manner in which members celebrated the Passover Season.

The Church observed both the Passover Eucharist and the Passover Seder, although they didn’t call them the Eucharist or the Seder. The Eucharist was commemorated on the 14th of Nisan and was referred to simply as Passover. The Seder was celebrated on the 15th and called the Night To Be Much Observed or, sometimes, The Night To Be Much Remembered.

The Passover Service was exclusive to the baptized adult members of the group, so I never took part in its rituals. From what I gathered second-hand, it was an intimate and solemn service. Members washed one another’s feet and each ate a small piece of unleavened whole wheat bread and drank a shot glass of red wine in commemoration of the broken body and blood of Christ. Women were separated from the men during the foot washing. And there were readings and prayers.

However, baptized adult members could be excluded from the service if they “weren’t right with God.” Ministers were the arbiters of who was included or excluded. If someone was “struggling with a sin,” a minister could refuse that member’s participation. Some members excused themselves from the ceremony (with ministerial permission) if they were “in the grips of Satan,” which meant they were struggling with a visible sin that made The Church look bad. Common reasons for exclusion included: having a bad attitude, disagreeing with Church doctrine, adultery, smoking, over-drinking, working on The Sabbath, being pregnant out-of-wedlock, and being unequally yoked to outsiders. “Not taking part in Passover” was serious and often indicated that a member was close to “being disfellowshipped” – excommunicated and shunned. Members who refused to shun friends or close family members were also threatened with exclusion from Passover, excommunication, and shunning.

Because Passover was a sacred and private event that outsiders – even unbaptized Churchgoers and members’ children – were not allowed to witness, my peeks into the service were only through watching my parents in the preparation – “helping out with Passover” as they called it.

“We’re going to help out with Passover this year,” they’d say. And most years they did.

One year, my father stitched large curtains out of gray canvas to cover the windows of an over-exposed venue. He did this to protect the privacy and sanctity of the service. In other years, he joined some of the other deacons and elders as they retrieved boxes of shot glasses from storage, washed them before the service, rewashed them after, and stored them again. The men also moved stacks of serving trays from another location to our house and then back out again.

Some years, my mother and other Church women baked the unleavened bread for the 200 or so local members taking part in the service. It was the same bread she always baked for The Night to Be Much Observed and for us to eat throughout The Days of Unleavened Bread. My brother and I used to hover in the kitchen and watch her with the rolling pin as she turned lumps of whole-wheat dough into sheets of paper-thin, near-perfect circles. She would put them on cookie sheets and bake them until the edges curled. We loved to eat the bread hot out of the oven. It was delicious smothered in butter – much better than the Triscuits, Wheat Thins, or Matzo Crackers we had otherwise.

If their husbands were “helping out with Passover,” the women would leave later for the service. Sometimes they would carpool together with their long skirts rustling. On Passover, all the women wore slip-on shoes and long skirts or dresses that touched the floor or grazed their ankles. They dressed this way out of convenience and modesty, since their usual pantyhose would have gotten in the way during the foot washing ceremony. Some of the women wore formals because those were the only long skirts they could find. Others stitched their own skirts. In the early years, my mother would have stitched her own. I remember one year when I was a teen, my mother wore a store-bought skirt made out of a gold taffeta that crunched and crinkled when she walked or sat down.

Passover was the one time of year when my brother and I were left on our own or (when we were younger) left with a babysitter. The babysitter was always a non-baptized Churchgoer, never anyone from The World. She was also a woman or a girl. Men and boys were not allowed to be alone with children lest they be tempted to do sexual harm or otherwise “give the appearance of evil.”

Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 3) will be about The Night to Be Much Observed and the High Holy Days. Part 3 will probably be picked up next year.

Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 1)

During the Passover Season, some arbitrary male member would always rise to the occasion and speak the phrase: Next year in Jerusalem!

It happened every year.

This arbitrary man would stand behind some arbitrary Sabbath lectern set up in an arbitrary over-lit school gymnasium or Jewish Community Center. Or, he’d stand at the head of a candlelit table on The Night To Be Much Observed. He’d stand in someone else’s home or maybe his own. He’d hold a glass of red wine up over his head, over a white tablecloth set with silver and crystal, roasted lamb and unleavened bread, vegetables and bitter herbs. He’d make a toast.

He might be a minister or a deacon or maybe our father or any lay member desperate to be all those things: minister, deacon, or father (authority figure of some kind or other). Most often he’d be that goofy accordion player with the very old, Old Testament name – the one named Enoch or Jedediah or Amos or Obediah who annoys everyone with Fiddler on the Roof songs at Church Socials. Every local congregation had an Enoch or two, but not all could play the accordion. Our Enoch played the accordion.

Whatever the case, this arbitrary Enoch would speak with artificial authority as if his words had power to conjure deep traditions that bound us to something other than a manufactured and imaginary past.

The Enochs, they trafficked in nostalgia.

Film still from Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Fundamentalists traffic in nostalgia.

They trace imaginary lineages to pasts that never were and to places they don’t know. They tout deep roots dug-in to a pure and more perfect historical period that contains All The Truth undefiled by modernity or interlopers or dissent.

They claim tradition where they have none.

Matzo Crackers

In the weeks leading up to the Passover Season, members would begin ridding their homes and vehicles of leavening agents, leavened breads, crackers, cookies, and any crumbs that might have fallen throughout the year.

The Church taught us that leavening was not just a metaphor for sin during The Days of Unleavened Bread, but was SIN during the Passover week. If anyone had any leavening agent, leavened product, or missed crumbs on their property or residence or if they accidently ate a sandwich, they were sinning. Like leavening, SIN had power to permeate and defile. It “puffed them up” with vanity and pride. Even a tiny bit could ruin a whole batch of dough or a person or The Church itself.

“The wages of SIN is death,” ministers always repeated.

“Getting out the leavening” was serious business, especially for our already obsessively clean father who could go into a violent rage upon spotting a piece of thread on the carpet or touching his hand to a sticky refrigerator door handle.

As such, he always led the charge against the unholy crumbs. Starting in the basement or garage, he’d have us move everything, vacuum and mop every corner, wipe down every surface, and clear out the deep freeze. He’d have us take all the loaves of frozen bread and all the things with crusts and breading out of the freezer and run them upstairs to the kitchen (to eat or discard later). He’d have us remove seat cushions, vacuum in the cracks, unplug any electronic equipment, wipe down the shelves, and vacuum behind and underneath the shelving. He’d have us read the labels on the bags of dry dog food because SIN could be hiding anywhere.

My brother and I never quite did the work to our father’s satisfaction and standards of cleanliness. Inevitably, he’d yank the vacuum from us and do it himself as we stood there looking at each other sideways, not talking, and getting bored.

Next, we’d detail the cars – remove the floor mats, clear the trunks, lift seats that could be lifted, vacuum every crevice, wipe everything down, and use toothpicks or brushes on the vents. Again, my brother and I spent a lot of time standing around watching our father “do it right.”

Then we would each take sections of the house like our closets and bedrooms, the bathrooms. We’d move all the furniture and belongings and vacuum behind and under and between everything. We’d come back together to work on the living room. We’d move furniture, take out all the cushions, vacuum everything, and wipe down every surface. In the years we had carpet, we’d shampoo the carpet.

My brother and I did our part, but we also spent a lot of time standing around feeling useless as our father took over.

The last room would be the kitchen. Our mother would take care of most of this herself. She’d clear out all the cabinets starting with the top ones and the ones less used. She’d save one lower cabinet for leavened goods until the trash day before Passover when she’d throw everything out. She’d also take everything out of the refrigerator and clean it thoroughly. My and my brother’s only role in the kitchen cleaning would be to help move appliances around and hand tools to our father as he took apart the toaster and other small appliances and dusted out the crumbs.

Every household in The Church went through the same ritual.

*Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 2) continued in next post.

Houses that Man Built (part 2)

Continued from Houses that Man Built (part 1)

My parents chose a split-level floor plan out of the handful of designs available from the builders. The house went up on the wooded lot at the end of the cul-de-sac alongside others of its prefab kind: the ranch, the split-foyer, and the two-story – all customized from a limited palette of paint colors and bricks or stones and flipped one way or the other depending on buyer preference and terrain of the lot.

No two houses in the neighborhood were exactly alike. The builders had restrictions about that and about adjoining lots and about how close houses of the same design could be to one another. And while I don’t recall the exact rules, the purpose was to balance conformity and cost reduction (things that set limits on the available choices) with variety and some semblance of originality. The goal was to upset the monotony while still giving the appearance of each house “fitting in.”

And maybe this was the project of suburbia and of my Churched parents: to fit into The World in a way that was easy and made prefab, noncommittal sense. In the subdivision, we could live “in The World but not be of The World” as The Church always taught. We could conform so as not to draw attention to ourselves. We could hide behind a veneer of ordinariness where no one need know our true beliefs or take notice of our strange customs. We could surround ourselves with enough trees and yard to muffle the sounds of abuse.

Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

When we moved, I was on the cusp of puberty. I was 12 and my brother was 10. We were both at that tween stage of development where we needed to determine what belongings we’d take with us from early childhood, what we’d give away, and what we’d relegate to other uses.

We both still had the grade school furniture suites that our father had designed and built. We each had a corner desk with shelving and cabinets above. We also had a booth, which included a center tabletop and seating upholstered in orange vinyl (probably purchased on sale and in bulk) with storage cabinets below the seating. The two suites differed only in the color of the wood – mine was painted white to match the head and footboards on my bedframe and my brother’s was stained a dark, near-black walnut to match his bunk bed.

I chose to keep only the corner desk and my mattress and box springs. Now that my room would be covered in wall-to-wall carpet rather than the usual hardwood, I thought a cozy bed-on-the-floor set up would be more teen-like. I replaced the kiddie play booth with a stereo and a beanbag chair. The stereo gave me comfort and hope, not only because it played music, but because I saw it as my ticket out of that house. I figured (probably wrongly) that I could sell it for a couple of hundred dollars if I ever decided to run away. Running away was something I considered more and more as I moved into my early teens.

But I was still a kid in a lot of ways. I liked to tinker and build things and experiment as if I were a scientist. In one experiment, I tried to find out if nail polish would harden on top of water. I filled a glass measuring cup with water and poured the polish in. The polish created a film on top of the water. I wondered if it had hardened enough to support any weight. I discovered it wouldn’t after putting a penny on the film and watching it break through and sink to the bottom. Granted, it wasn’t the best experiment I’d ever performed, but when you’re 12, things like this make more sense.

My father came home, smelled the nail polish, saw the water and the penny, and was outraged. I could always tell when he was outraged because of the way he clinched his teeth and twitched his jaw muscles. He was outraged, not because I’d done something foolish (although often this was enough), but because he was convinced I was “doing drugs” and that someone told me I “could get a high” by putting a penny in water with some nail polish.

I don’t remember what I said in response to his accusations, only that I must have argued about how ridiculous they were. Whatever I said set him off. He hit me so hard across my ear and jaw that my gold earring bent against my head. The cartilage in my ear became sore after that. It was several days before I could lie down comfortably on my left side.

Gustave Doré (1855), Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Retrieved from Wikimedia.

We would live at the end of the cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Raleigh for only a couple of years. By the time I was 14, we would move out of state and back in time and Back Close to Home and back under control of the silliest little tyrant of a young minister – a minister who, in the birth announcement for his first child (a girl), lamented his lack of faith and hoped that God would bless him with a boy next time.

We would move to Tennessee – a miserable place where kids from The Church fretted over whether they or I were “too worldly” and kids from The World fretted over The Church kids and I for having such a strange religion and for not being Southern Baptist and “not being saved.”

My mother would be miserable. She’d end up on sedatives too desperate and friendless to care about The Church’s prohibition on medications and medical care. She’d be okay though and would learn soon enough how to fit back in with the pious crowd.

I’d be miserable and stay miserable. My drugs of choice would continue to be black tea and iced tea and cigarettes. I wouldn’t care that The Church “didn’t believe in” tobacco products or that my father beat me for smoking.

We would move because I smoked. That’s what my parents would claim.

We’d move (not because my father had grown weary of flying to the west coast or overseas and elsewhere every two weeks, but) because “fathers need to be present in their homes as role models to provide structure and discipline.”

We’d move (not because my father had been having a years-long affair with a young Church Widow and my mother had given him an ultimatum, but) because I had “fallen in with bad company” and needed to be removed from their influence.

We’d move because my parents wanted to be closer to Home. This much they’d admit. But the official story would remain that we had to move because I’d become “too rebellious” or “stiff-necked,” as my father was fond of saying.

And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people. And, behold, it is a stiff-necked people. (Exodus 32:9)

My father loved to use Biblical language.

He also loved to cast himself in the role of God The Father of the Old Testament. I was cast as the stray stiff-necked child of Israel, which I guess made my mother Moses, the sometimes intercessor, and my brother Aaron, the assistant intercessor.

My father loved to tell the story of his first fight with me. It was but one of many stories that made him laugh as he told it. He had a skill of making jokes of traumatic events and getting others to join him in laughing off his cruelty. There was the one about how our pet Cocker Spaniel used to get into the trash on trash day and how when my father kicked him “the hide on that dog’s back rolled” and how his foot came down on the rolling flesh and he lost his footing and was thrown into the street. Though his bare feet and bony knees were scraped up, the dog was fine, my father would tell.

This was the same Cocker Spaniel that my brother and I found as we were leaving the driveway for school one morning. We found our pet dog half-hanging out of a black garbage bag on trash day. Set on the curb with the rest of the garbage, not even given a burial.

But my father particularly loved the story about his first fight with me because it proved just how stiff-necked and rebellious I was by nature from birth.

I don’t remember the fight, but the story goes like this:

I stood up in my crib and refused to lie down. My crib was in my parents’ bedroom and my father had to get up and go to work the next morning. I had no reason to stand up. I wasn’t sick or hungry. I wasn’t crying (until he started hitting me). I was standing for no reason, holding on to the edge of the crib rail, and looking at my parents. For reasons not included in the story, my father didn’t like me looking at them. And so he fought with me all night like Jacob with The Angel of The Lord. It was an epic battle with yelling and spanking and crying and restraining.

And yet, after all that, I still wouldn’t lie down.

He lost.

And his loss spoke my character: I was incorrigible, beyond rebellious, mean, and selfish.

I was a bad seed.

And maybe my father is right. I have sometimes wondered myself what good could have been conceived from such a bad person.