I was told as a child that my father (full-blooded Italian) was Catholic and my mother (full-blooded hillbilly from Arkansas) was Lutheran. Back then when filling out school paperwork or any other identifying paperwork for that matter, one line was for “religion”. My mother always entered a “P” on that line for me. Questioning this, I was told that I was a Protestant. Okay, so then I knew I was adopted and a Protestant. After hearing something vague about Protestants fighting the British in Ireland, I deduced that because I was part Irish, I must indeed be Protestant… check.
We never went to church. My mother once explained it to me that since she and my father were different religions and that they adopted me sometime after my first year of life, they didn’t want to baptize me; preferring to take the rather progressive stance (or so I thought) of letting me choose what I wanted to be when I grew up. Telling this story to my BFF (who happens to be Born Again Christian and believes in the Rapture), she has gently explained to me that children will never choose on their own if they have no foundation or religious teaching on which to build. Oops.
Growing up in Los Angeles surrounded by everything Mexican, I learned to love the people and the food and also gleaned my first knowledge of the Catholic faith. Sara, our neighbor often took me along with her son Mark when they went to church or on outings to Disneyland or the beach or any of the other cool things to do as a native of Southern California. In the 60’s neighborhoods were like that…everyone’s mom was a part of the village that cared for and watched over us. (Being an only child, I got to go to Disney a lot). Usually Sunday would be church, then straight to the beach. This is what I learned:
The service was in Latin so I learned to watch everyone else and stand, sit, kneel, stand and sit again. I dutifully endured the ritual of communion, understanding this somehow cleaned up all the bad stuff one did (they called it SIN) each week. It sort of wiped the slate clean for another 7 days. After church we would drive to the beach where Mark and I were “watched” by Sara’s niece while she strolled up the beach to the nearby hotel and disappeared for a couple of hours. The “niece” was a girl maybe 14 years old who taught me my first lesson about make-up: you must re-apply your jet black mascara at least once every 30 minutes and add another layer of Johnson’s Baby Oil with the same frequency. The darker your arms and legs the better, and the thicker and clumpier your eyelashes, the more grown up and beautiful you looked. I think she also smoked cigarettes which was also very grown up and cool-looking. I learned years later that Sara had been cheating on her husband, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him sort of lump-like whenever I saw him at their house. He had terrible sleep apnea which was kind of scary as a kid to be sitting in their den watching TV and all of a sudden the dad would be snoring. Those weekly visits to the beach were more for her benefit than ours and I then understood why it was necessary for her to have her weekly “sin-cleansing”. Catholicism…check.
My mother let me go with a friend and her family at age 6 to a sleep-away camp that turned out to be a bible thumping holy roller circus where we had craft time and meals in between religious services. Nightly they would preach and holler until very late in the evening. I remember a lady spoke up one night as my friend and I were practically falling over on our bench asking if the younger children could be dismissed to go to bed, that 10:00 was much too late for such small children to be up. One night, the preacher screamed on and on beseeching those of us who wanted to be “saved” to raise our hands while he wailed. I thought this over and figured if I could be “washed clean” of all my “sins” for the past 6 years, that would be a good thing. I could start fresh and all the times I lied to my mom or sneaked goodies out of the kitchen would be wiped away and I could start my life anew. I gulped, raised my hand and was ushered into a line of people tall and small and eventually made my way to the front of the huge cabin in the religiously confusing mountain woods. I think the man touched my head, said something or other and it was done. I went to the bunks that night feeling happy, fresh and privileged about something or other. I don’t think I ever told my mom about the church-y part of this summer camp, but I never begged her to let me go to another one. Baptists…check.
After giving birth to my first child, I recall another friend explain her take on baptism. She said that because babies were conceived from an act of “sin”, that they would not go to heaven if they died before they were baptised and thus “cleansed” of this “sin”. Speaking solely for myself (and my husband, upon whom I thrust all of my opinions), I could not conceive of a God that wouldn’t take innocent babies into heaven. When he was three months old, we were gifted a trip to the ritzy suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, where we shared our new son with his paternal grandparents for the very first time. Unbeknownst to me, Mother Dearest had arranged for my son to be baptized into their Presbyterian church. I was informed of this by my well-meaning husband on the eve of the upcoming event. Out of earshot of Mother Dearest I refused, citing my opinion that this would indeed be merely a ritual to appease his parents and would be virtually meaningless to us; and besides, if we really wanted to do this, wouldn’t it make more sense to have it in our city, surrounded with our own friends, pick Godparents, etc?. We did go to church with his parents the next day and nothing was ever said directly to me. The service was similar to others I had attended over the years and at least they spoke English. Later that evening, Mother Dearest threw a lavish dinner party for swells of her friends who each arrived with lovely, expensive, and mostly useless gifts for our baby. (Really, does anyone ever use that sterling silver baby cup, suitable for engraving but wasn’t because it was bought on the fly and no one really knew the baby’s name anyway?) I don’t mean to sound ungrateful and back then I really wasn’t. It was very nice of all of these people to give us pretty things for our son; oh, and I loved the limited edition Beatrix Potter porcelain cup that was too expensive to use…crap, there I go again.
This attitude is something that developed in me a full six years after that swanky party. Six years!
We were sitting around the Thanksgiving table, Mother Dearest, her mom and her daughter. The men had since retired to the living room for man talk, football, and avoidance of dirty dishes. At least there was the Almaden white wine that was always a staple at these food related events. The woman talk had been bromidic as usual when, without warning, this bolt of lightning produced a six year old elephant that had been lurking in the room: “And Debbie, I’ll NEVER forgive you for the way you embarrassed and humiliated me when we were going to have [the baby] christened.” (WTF?) “What are you talking about?” She proceeded to tell me that she had meticulously arranged this glorious day that had begun with a christening and ended with a dinner party in the baby’s honour and all of her friends were there and they brought me gifts and the priest was brand new and she was so humiliated and I was awful and extremely thoughtless…no one else in the room spoke at all. I was aghast. Where the hell did that come from? My back against the elephant, I parried, “I cannot believe you would have gone through all of that without asking my permission or informing me at all. If we had wanted to baptize our baby, we would have done so at home, with our friends, Godparents, whatever. I cannot believe in a God that wouldn’t take a baby into heaven just because the mother didn’t believe in this ritual. Of all the religions I have studied in school, most of them seem kind of hypocritical to me. Do you really think this would happen?” I could not believe my ears when I heard her response… “I’m just saying it doesn’t hurt to cover all of your bases.”
Cover all of my bases?
Presbyterian, (Mother Dearest style)…check.
That night I did tell her that of all the religions we explored in that class, the one that made a lot of sense to me was Judaism. She was not amused.
I’ve lived my life believing in the Golden Rule and I’ve had a couple of very close calls that cannot be explained away in terms of coincidence. The only thing that saved me one night was what had to be a Guardian Angel.
What do I really believe? That’s a conversation I don’t have with many people, but I will tell you that I’ve arranged one thing with my BFF…if/when the Rapture comes, she’s letting me have her condo.