My parents began shopping for their first house when I was around 11 or 12 and my brother was 9 or 10. My mother had grown weary of living in old places, mopping and waxing hardwood floors, and trying to make out-of-date styles look fresh. Both she and my father wanted something cozily carpeted with resale value that they could turn over quickly when the time came to get on the planes for Petra before The Great Tribulation set in. They were still giving up to 30% of their income to The Church (as all members were), but the financial hardship had lessened as my father moved further along in his career.
According to the strictest doctrines of The Church, my parents were becoming “worldly in their desires” – obsessing over things like neighborhoods and floor plans, cabinet styles and fixtures, and carpet and wall colors – but so had other members. By the mid- to late-1970s, many families had begun buying homes and televisions. They’d begun wearing stylish clothing. As a group, we started to “blend in” with The World (if only in appearance). The odd, old rules meant to “set us apart from The World” were slipping out of Church teachings.
According to the old rules: When pipe-legged pants are in style, put your shoes on before your pants. If you cannot get your pants over your shoes, do not wear those pants. They are “too worldly.” When bell-bottoms are in style, again, put your shoes on first. If you can get your pants on over your shoes, do not wear those pants. If “worldly women” are wearing pantsuits, “godly women” must wear skirts. Do the opposite of what The World is doing and never try to “blend in” – never try to pass as one of “them.”
Some men and boys had begun to let their hair grow long enough to touch the collars of their shirts. Some women, my mother included, cut their hair short in stylish shags. The Church lifted its ban on make-up and many women began taking pride in their appearance. Once dreary Church Services became fashion shows of sorts with adults, teens, and children parading the latest and best they could afford and handing out compliments as they would have Tic Tacs and chewing gum.
Even the higher-ups in The Church hierarchy had grown lax as the old man Herbert Armstrong faded into the background and a leisurely life of jet-setting around the globe and having his picture taken with world leaders. By the mid 1970s, Armstrong’s handsome son Garner Ted had taken over the radio and televangelism. By 1976, Garner Ted was singing on Hee Haw with Buck Owens, hobnobbing with country music stars, and bringing them on stage with him to perform during The Feast. By 1977, he had even done an interview with Penthouse magazine.
This “worldliness” wouldn’t last. Herbert Armstrong would “get The Church back on track” in the 1980s, but for a small window we would have a tiny bit of freedom – the same abuse, but with a little more autonomy.
During the house hunt, my parents, my brother, and I – dressed and looking like any worldly family – met in the offices of realtors and builders after school when my father wasn’t traveling for work. During one of these evening meetings, we were looking at floor plans when my brother and I spotted a city map on the wall. We ran up to it and started pointing to places we knew and talking about routes to get from here to there. Nothing extraordinary. Maybe we were less inhibited than usual. Maybe we were excited about choosing a house. Maybe we were just expressing curiosity the way “normal kids” did.
Whatever the case, our father took notice. And when we left the office, he praised us, saying, “I’d like to see more behavior like that from the two of you.” That’s what he used to call us: The-two-of-you.
I suddenly felt self-conscious and regretful that we had done something so out of the ordinary that it merited scrutiny and special mention. What did that say about who we were in every other circumstance and social interaction? His praise (which was rare) didn’t feel like praise as much as a backhanded criticism. After all the isolation and abuse (which hadn’t stopped), were we now expected to be vital and engaged participants in The World?
Something had changed. Before, we had only needed to keep up appearances for The Church. Now, it seemed, we were expected to care about what The World thought of us too. It may have been my age, but I noticed a change in my parents’ and my own relationship to The World. We were trying to fit in.
My parents settled on a wooded lot at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburbs where our house would be built. The neighborhood was one of those subdivisions that crept in multiple directions as bulldozers pushed dirt lanes through trees and wildflower fields. Dirt lanes turned into paved streets and concrete curbs notched with driveway stubs. Families with a mom and a dad and 2.5 kids (like us and so unlike us) bought the lots and tied bright orange plastic ribbons around the trees they wanted to save. Builders came in and decided which of those trees were convenient to keep before they bulldozed the rest, laid the foundation, and slapped up one of the 4 or 5 prefab designs that the family had chosen.
The newness of this place was striking – so different from the old houses to which we’d grown accustomed. Yet, I would come to enjoy suburbia. I’d make friends there. My brother and I would explore the streets on bicycles and skateboards and follow the trails and creeks on motorcycles. We’d become allies and look out for each other. We’d learn to tell lies when we had to protect ourselves.
Suburbia would be the place where my childhood anger would bloom and grow fertile with teen rage. Its streets and woods and remaining fields would be my new refuge. I’d learn how to escape into them and wander aimlessly, smoking Marlboro reds and picking wildflowers. Picking flowers would become my go-to excuse for getting out of the house, my consolation for sadness, and my first practice in converting anger into things of beauty.
*Houses that Man Built (part 2) continued in next post.