“I go to prove my soul!” my father announced before his departure. He grasped the doorknob as if it were the doorway to a vast horizon of windmills to conquer. He looked up at the closed door leading to the garage and continued his morning recitation.
“I see my way as birds their trackless way. I shall arrive!”– at which time he threw his fist into the air toward the ceiling. He squinted as if looking into a brightness too intense for human eyes and whispered the reprise. “I shall arrive.” He looked down at the doorknob and turned toward me.
“Do you know that?”
“No,” I mumbled, with a mouth full of toast, playing my part in our morning ritual.
“I didn’t think so.” And with briefcase in hand, he left for the day.
* * * * *
When I was a hospice chaplain, I visited a little old lady who was originally from New York City. She’d followed her military husband from the Bronx to the Midwest, yet never lost her stereotypical Bronx accent. She showed signs of dementia, but some days were clearer than others. I enjoyed listening to her stories of her Catholic childhood in the Bronx and her trek west as a young Italian bride.
One day she asked me if I had any siblings. I told her, yes, I was the youngest child with three brothers.
She immediately let out a rather hearty laugh and clapped her hands. Then she leaned in and grasped my hand in hers. “Tell me dear, was that a blessing or a coise?”
I wanted to hug her. She was the first one in my over four decades of living, who suggested that being the only girl with three older brothers may not be a picnic. Most people said, “Oh, I bet you were spoiled!” And I’d smile a polite smile.
When I was about nine years old, my friend Beth and I were playing with my Barbie dolls on the living room floor, deep into our little drama, when we heard a long, agonizing scream from upstairs. I paid no attention.
Beth’s eyes went wide. “What was THAT??” She was a little scared, halting the strange kissing and moaning noises she was making with Ken and Barbie in her hands.
“That’s just my brother Mark,” I shrugged, explaining, “he does that every once in a while.” I made my plastic horse gallop across the flat green carpet, away from the dollhouse and all the unbridled passion within.
“Is he ok?” she asked, as Barbie knocked Ken back onto the hard plastic bed and rubbed up against him, while Beth still provided a very strange vocal soundtrack to their activity.
I stared at the dolls, wondering what they were doing and why Beth was making such weird noises. “Uh…yeah. Daddy says that it helps him get his anger out.”
“Augh! Sh–damn cat!” My brother Don yelled from the hallway.
I held my breath. My cat Frisky liked to hide behind the closet door when he heard people coming down the stairs. When the person reached the bottom, Frisky would pounce, digging his claws into the victim’s leg. Don was wearing shorts.
I closed my eyes when I heard the cat screech and I opened them just in time to see the white streak that was Frisky fly into the living room from my brother’s punt kick. Frisky ran under the couch. I bit my lip, and tried not to cry.
Meanwhile, Barbie and Ken were still going at it. Beth looked up, alarmed by the flying cat. Only for a moment. Then she began to aggressively pull off Barbie and Ken’s clothes while they rolled around on the bed. When she noticed my confused expression, she giggled.
“They’re having sex,” she said, proudly enlightening me.
“They’re having sex. It’s how babies are made. Boys have a penis and women have a hole and so they get naked and get together and the baby gets in the woman from the man and gets bigger and bigger. My Mom just told me. Gross, huh?”
I didn’t know whether to believe her. She was a year older than me and knew a lot of things that I didn’t. I found this explanation quite disturbing. Looking at the plastic dolls, I couldn’t quite figure it out, but I wasn’t about to ask questions.
“Aauuuuuuuuuuuggggggggghhhhhhh!” Mark screamed again upstairs.
“That’s weird.” I made a mental note to ask my mother about this. Barbie and Ken, meanwhile, rolled off the bed and onto the floor, apparently really wanting a baby.
As a United Methodist pastor’s kid, I lived in four different places in my first 18 years. Red Bank was where I lived the longest, moving there when I was five and leaving when I was 14. Yet still, I don’t regard it as my hometown. When people ask me where I’m from, I usually say, “South Jersey.” I was born in a town called Cape May Court House, right at the very southern tip of the state. I usually have to explain to people that that really is the name of the town, and that I was not born in a county courthouse. I have absolutely no memories of it, however, because my mother and I moved from the hospital to Pennington, NJ, my father’s next appointment. I was three days old.
While it is true that as a pastor in the United Methodist Church you don’t get to decide where you live, where your children go to school, what house you live in or what salary you’ll accept, I enjoy adding that the UMC even decided my birthday. I was due to arrive in the world on July 4th, but that interfered with the moving schedule of the Church Conference. As per advice from a district superintendent– my father’s boss–my father asked the doctor to induce labor on June 22.
We lived in Pennington for five years, then went on to Red Bank. When I was 14, we moved to Woodbury, where I graduated high school. My brothers were old enough that by the time I was 10, they were all out of the house. I was mostly an only child after that, though occasionally, they’d move back in for short intervals.
Don and Mark gave my parents hell, and Stan says that by the time they got to him they were too tired to care what he did. By the time they got to me, apparently, they were even more tired. Mom mostly told me not to ever do what the boys did, and when I saw her wrath, I decided to be the good kid. The perfect one.
It’s no secret that Don and Mark got in trouble with the police, mostly in regard to their driving, and Mark had a reputation with the Middletown police. He finally lost his license for a while. It was the 1970s, so both of them grew their hair down past their shoulders, drank too much, and blasted their music too loud with the windows open on Sunday morning (the church was right next door). Don painted his room all black and had pictures of Satan on his wall, lit by purple lights. Mark took the door off his bedroom and hung a bead curtain. He burned incense and played his electric piano much too loudly. Both of them were kind to me, though, when they weren’t getting yelled at, slamming doors or punching holes in the bathroom door.
Stan was a quiet rebel, sneaking around all the chaos and doing his own thing, completely unnoticed. He’d get on a bus and go into New York City when he was 14, attending concerts that my parents knew nothing about. I didn’t know this until years later, but I noticed he was missing. He wrote controversial articles for the high school newspaper that got the principal on the phone to my parents. He refused to get confirmed at church when it came time and devoured Kurt Vonnegut books.
I had a vague idea of what my rebellious brothers were up to, as every time they got in trouble and got yelled at, my mother would turn to me and say, “Don’t you ever do that!”– which was everything from having sex before marriage to drinking to dating a “black boy.” When I was 12, my mother said to me, “If you ever have sex before you’re married, I will know…”
I believed her.
I thought the best way to win my parents’ love was to not make them mad like my brothers all did. I decided at a very young age to be the best little girl in the world. I became quite obsessive at this, trying hard to get through an entire school year without getting scolded once by the teacher. My offenses were minor, but I could not achieve perfection in that regard.
All of my brothers stopped going to church very early. I was the only one who stayed. It was the 1970s when pop psychology was big. It was the time of I’m Ok, You’re Ok and “growth groups.” I distinctly remember a dance group as a part of the worship service. Women of all ages and sizes danced down the center aisle of the sanctuary, wearing leotards and bodysuits. It was considered “modern dance” and didn’t have the class of current liturgical dance. It was just weird– and a little embarrassing.
My father started reading psychology books when he was in Pennington, trying to keep up with the intellectual culture of nearby Princeton. His sermons were full of the psychological theories of Carl Rogers and Carl Jung. They were way over my head, but the congregation loved it. I learned early that my father was put on a pedestal by a large number of his parishioners. When we left Pennington, the church lavished many expensive and generous gifts upon my parents that included a Tiffany lamp and two airline tickets for my parents to go to India, my father’s birthplace. In the Red Bank sanctuary, the pulpit was high above the congregation, so that my father had to climb a few stairs to ascend it. All during my childhood, the image of my father as pastor was one of ascendance. He flew above my life in his doctoral-striped black wings, delivering words of wisdom that was far above my understanding. But people were enthralled.
My mother taught me about God, my father taught me psychology. My mother told me God loved me. My father told me I had penis envy. Being the only child at home, my father began dinner table lectures on psychology. I was a trapped audience. I believed from as far back as I can remember that as a girl, I was “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” “too this and too that.” And I was stupid. I didn’t even consider ever becoming a pastor back then; I truly believed I wasn’t smart enough or strong enough. There weren’t a lot of women pastors in the 70s and 80s in our Conference, but the ones that were there were women that my father didn’t like. They were “trying too hard to be like men,” he thought. They were too “angry.”
My mother was very well-read, perhaps more so than my father, but she rarely got to share her insights. In my memory, my father had center stage both at home and at church. I tried to understand what all my father said, and occasionally argued with him when I was sure that what he said didn’t speak to my experience. But I still figured he was smarter. My father’s pontifications at dinner left me feeling anxious and vulnerable. I found hope in the books on my mother’s bookshelf.
She had books published by Guideposts magazine, a Christian magazine that was full of personal stories of hope and triumph. She had inspirational books by Unity, a Christian but more liberal denomination, that focused on the positive, on resurrection, on God’s love, on healing and growth through faith. I read a lot of books by Henri Nouwen, a humble and profound Christian writer who wrote a lot about suffering and struggle, but hope in Christ. There were more mystical writers like Brother Lawrence and Quaker writers. She also read novels like All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, books that had soul even without being specifically Christian. I learned early how to find spiritual food in secular writings, though I couldn’t have named what I was doing.
Meanwhile, my brother Stan took notice of me long enough to teach me the power of music. Again, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate then what music did for him and also for me. But he chose music that he thought “fit” me. Music became a lifeline for me– as I believe it was and is for him as well. I always found Truth in books and music and discovered how it all only enlarged and expanded my growing faith. My childhood creed that developed early and stayed with me for the rest of my life was penned by Mac Davis: “I Believe in Music, I Believe in Love.” “Stop and Smell the Roses Along the Way.”
Though I don’t remember a precise moment when I truly became enamored with God, my interest in Jesus specifically, was influenced by Johnny Cash.