Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Here’s a little snippet from one of my novels for all you religious history buffs. It’s fiction–made-up events about made-up people, but it’s based solidly in history. The Narrow Way is fictional sect that sprang in this little narrative up so I wouldn’t run afoul of Organized Religion. Enjoy.

In the 1830’s and 1840’s America saw a huge surge in religious interest. New churches opened every other Sunday—and sometimes on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, as well. For a while the Narrow Wayers, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Midnight Cryers, the New Lighters, and the Millerites worshipped together, but then they fell out over some damn thing or other and went their separate ways. I don’t remember it all now, but I do know that when the Adventists and Millerites and Midnight Cryers decided that Jesus was coming in 1844 Narrow Wayers jumped on the bandwagon and headed for glory right along with them. Among them was Andrew Smyth. He dragged his wife and sixteen kids with him.

Since Jesus was coming before harvest Andrew decided he didn’t need to plant crops. His wife put in a garden so they’d have something to eat in the meantime, but Andrew spent his time reading his Bible and pestering—he called it “exhorting”—his wife, children, and neighbors to shape up or they’d miss the cloud. He gave away his oxen and draft horses. He gave away the milk cow. He gave away the plow. He gave away the farm, although he arranged for his family to stay in the house until Jesus showed up. He gave away the furniture. He gave away their winter clothes.

The day came. Jesus pulled a no-show. Andrew and the other men got together and checked their daytimers. They re-read the prophecies. They checked their math. At first they thought Jesus had just gotten the date wrong, but they went back to mangling those prophecies that deal with good women and whores and horny beasts and horses and skeletons and stuff and figured out that there was another way to look at everything, if they held their Bibles up to the light, closed one eye and squinted just a little.  And it was a date that worked for them, too, which was nice. They got out their daytimers and penciled Jesus in again. It was only a few months; the garden truck would see them through.

I can see it now. Andrew’s wife goes back to gardening, trying to keep the kids clean and fed, and figuring out where the hell to sit in her empty house. Andrew goes back to reading his Bible and pestering people. The day arrives. And Jesus pulls another no-show. At this point Andrew’s getting a little peeved. I mean, Jesus is God’s son and everything, but like ministers’ kids everywhere he’s turning out to be just the teensiest bit unreliable. Of course, Andrew doesn’t say that. He and the boys get together, go over everything again, and irritably re-schedule Jesus one more time, this time for late fall. And they hope to hell he shows, because winter’s coming on and like Andrew, none of them have planted crops, most of them have given away their winter clothes, many of the have given away their farms and emptied their savings accounts and used the money to spread the gospel, and they’ve eaten the last of the garden produce. To do otherwise would show a lack of faith, right? The children are hungry. Surely Jesus wouldn’t stand up hungry children! Jesus loves children, right? They’ll give him every opportunity to redeem himself.

It’s November. Andrew stands on the hilltop with his family and stares up into the heavy autumn sky. The fields lie around them choked in gray, frost-coated weeds. His children have wrapped thin, tattered quilts over their ragged summer clothes. They shiver and wait for Jesus. They stare toward the middle star in Orion’s sword—Andrew and his friends have pinpointed that as the spot Jesus will emerge into Earth’s airspace. They watch, full of anticipation—and possibly just a lingering touch of irritation. After all, they’ve done this before. Andrew stands straight and tall, staring into heaven, willing Jesus to appear. A light streaks across the sky and one of the children screams, “It’s Jesus!”

But it isn’t. Their eyes follow the light’s long arc until the falling star winks out. They let out their breath and go back to watching Orion. “Let’s sing,” Andrew’s wife finally says to take their minds off the cold. They sing “Oh who will come and go with me/ I’m bound for the land of Canaan,” and “We see the gleams of the golden morning piercing through this night of gloom.” But they don’t see any gleams. The wintry night wears on. One of the children, perhaps chillier than his brothers, or perhaps just braver, suggests  singing, “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

“You know better than that,” Andrew says sadly. “I didn’t raise you up to mock the Lord.” Midnight comes. Icy stars twinkle overhead. Andrew looks around at his blanket-wrapped, shivering children, and at his wife. She holds their youngest inside her shawl. The baby’s sick and there’s no money left for the doctor, but Jesus is coming so it’s all right. Except that Andrew finally understands that Jesus isn’t coming. He looks at his empty barn, the barren fields, and the stripped house, and knows he has been betrayed for the third and final time.

Of course he won’t admit it to anyone, but he feels a sudden, unwilling sympathy for Judas Iscariot, who faced the same disappointment in his Redeemer, and salvaged what he could—thirty pieces of silver. Andrew himself will be lucky to come out of this fiasco as well. Though he never admits it—and Andrea sure as hell doesn’t now—the letters he writes tell the story.

They lived that winter with Andrew’s brother and his family, who pointed out rather more often than the Smyths would have liked that they were here and Jesus wasn’t. The baby died. Worn out from hard work and sorrow, Mrs. Smyth went into a decline and died, too. Andrew came west to “preach the message,” but ended up panning for gold instead. Guess he figured that the streets of gold might be beyond his reach, but the gold fields of California weren’t. He struck it rich, or at least well-off, sent for his children, and set about establishing a colony of Narrow Way believers in California.

He married again and had yet more children before his new wife died as well. Before he died himself he’d managed to establish a Narrow Way colony—many of whom were related to him by blood or marriage—and a substantial personal fortune, which he willed intact to his oldest son, cutting the other children out completely. The letters end shortly before his death, so I don’t know if the son actually got all the money, but it fascinates me that a man who would began by beggaring himself for faith would end up so intensely practical. Maybe after Jesus stood him up for the last time he decided that he’d better rely on his own resources. He may have worshipped God, but he sure as hell didn’t trust him.

Harvest Lord

The year I started school a back injury forced my father out of the woods. It would be hard to over-estimate the effects of this change on our relationship. Dad was “The Man in the Woods,” a man who knew the forests and the animals in them. He was the provider of wealth and sustenance. His sexuality—and my parents’ denial of it—had provided the mysterious framework on which they draped a whole assortment of “religious” beliefs.

He was the biggest man I knew at more than six feet four inches, and the strongest. He could lift car engines by himself. He was invincible, unassailable, and immortal. And then one day he stepped down off a Caterpillar tractor and twisted his back. They had to carry him out of the woods. He rode the two hours down from the mountains and to the hospital in the back of a pickup truck, laying flat on the metal pickup bed. At the hospital they put him in traction. And a few days later he was home, and lying on the sofa, because the bed he shared with Mom hurt his back too badly.

He seemed like a stranger to me—all the things that had defined him had been twisted away in that single step off the Cat. Who was he? Who would he become? How would we live? The questions were real. Though he had lettered in four sports in high school and had been awarded a full football scholarship to the University of Michigan he had refused the money to stay at home and work in the woods. The woods and a talent for squeezing the most out of any machine were what he knew. But the Man in the Woods was gone, stripped away as if he had never been.

I heard him telling Momma that the doctor had told him he would never work again, that the injury was too severe. I didn’t doubt it, and I was terrified. How would we live? Where would we live? I couldn’t ask these questions out loud; if I had I would have been denounced as selfish and self-centered, to be concerned about my own well-being when Daddy was the one who was hurt. And he was hurt;  I saw my father crying from pain as he tried to turn over, and then later, when he could move again, as he did the stretching exercises the doctor suggested. I had not thought tears were possible for him. Every morning he woke too stiff to get out of bed, did the exercises, tears standing in his eyes, groaning as he forced the wrenched and twisted muscles to lengthen, straighten, and ultimately, to let him stand.

The doctor still said Daddy would never work again. But he didn’t know our family story, and how powerful it was not just for us, but for Daddy himself. He had to be invincible, immortal, above such things as bodily injury. And so he fixed himself like he fixed engines, by turning the sparse pieces that remained unbroken over in his hands, fitting them together, and relying heavily on duct tape and wire, forcing himself beyond the point where most give up. His strength and ingenuity was what he had had to offer an employer, but now the strength was gone.

Eventually he found work drilling wells on a ranch fifty miles out in the desert. Our lives settled back into the familiar routine: Daddy drove out of the driveway on Sunday mornings, and drove back into the driveway on Friday afternoons. The first Friday he told us about the rancher‘s wife.

“She’s a water witch,” he said admiringly. “She crossed two welding rods and walked across the field, and when they dipped she said, ‘Drill here.’ And that’s where we’re drilling. She’s pregnant; she says it always works best then.”

Momma tossed her head. “I don’t think we should be associating with that sort of thing. It’s of the devil.”

“But it works,” Daddy insisted. “She witched for all of the wells they’ve drilled, and they’re all good wells. There’s gotta be something to it. Besides, she can‘t be a real witch. She‘s Catholic. It’s just an expression.”

“How does it work?”

“I don’t know, but I watched her do it. So did Father Connor. He was there to bless the well. ”

“You’ve already mentioned that—several times,” snapped Momma, tossing her head again.

Full of news about the water witch,  Daddy missed the warning signs. He went on to regale us with detailed accounts of how pretty she was, how clever with a needle, what an excellent cook, how charming, how hard-working, how feminine, how she glowed, how white her laundry was. I thought she sounded magical. I longed to meet her. What would she look like? What must it feel like to wield such  power?

“She’s a real nice-looking woman,” Daddy said. “Keeps herself up, even though she never stops working. Smart, too. She was a Rhodes scholar, studied in Germany, speaks German so well even the Germans can’t tell.”

Momma tossed her head angrily and stalked into the kitchen. Daddy looked up in surprise, then got up and followed her. “What‘s wrong, honey?” he asked, slipping his arms around her from behind. Momma just tossed her head and slipped out of his embrace. Daddy stood uncertainly for a moment, then asked again. “What‘s wrong?”

Silence. And then, finally, Daddy‘s voice again, small and uncertain. “Why can‘t you be happy?” More silence. Daddy finally turned and came back into the living room, crossed to his chair, sat down, and shook out his Gleaner, one of his church magazines.

“You girls go help Momma,” he said, as he always did at times like this.

I bumbled into the kitchen after her. Young as I was, I sensed that Daddy admired things about the rancher’s wife that he had forbidden to us, and to Momma. He had set up a standard, and then made it impossible to meet it. Daddy actually had reasonably good taste. The women he described as “nice-looking women” really were “nice-looking women.” He knew what made women attractive—and he forbade it to us while extolling it in others. And the central, deadly message hammered home once again—we were doomed to spend our lives with our noses pressed up against the candy store of life, forbidden beauty not because it was how our parents had chosen to deal with Daddy’s little problem, but because it was God’s will that, as Good Christians, we be ugly.

That summer, instead of going up into the fragrant forests we spent our summer weekdays in the desert. We returned to town each Friday afternoon in time to clean the house, cook for Sabbath, and wash our clothes. Sunday morning we drove back out to the ranch. From then on we would live there summers and weekends. In a real sense, it became our home more than the house in town. It would have been hard to devise a more complete contrast with my early childhood in the forest. The desert was white, tan, and sage green under a brassy blue sky. The sand blistered the soles of our feet until we learned to wear shoes or stay in the shade. Shadows lurked short and black under the wooden awning that ran along one side of our trailer. Sandstorms screamed for days on end, turning the air outside our windows into swirling white blankness, the air inside hot, heavy, still, and dust-laden. It was hot, dry, and arid, while at our last camp water had been everywhere.

The trailer, with its one small bedroom, was too small for the seven of us. I doubt anyone except Dad planned on all of us living there all summer. We swept mouse turds out the door daily. The bedroom‘s tiny closet gaped open. Inside, boxes of dynamite sagged and split. The blasting caps were stored far away in the living room. It was safe enough, Daddy said, as long as the caps and dynamite weren’t together. Momma and Daddy pitched a tent at the bedroom end of the trailer; we kids slept there in summers. In the winters, we slept in the car. In the beginning Momma worried about us sleeping the day away. Her worry was wasted. By nine a.m. the tent had become an oven. We staggered headachy and cranky into the trailer where Momma waited, also headachy and cranky.

Momma and Daddy bought a fan the second week. It could do little to cool us. The sun turned our silver metal trailer into an oven. When the well Daddy was drilling finally yielded water—the water witching had come through again—we ran sprinklers on the trailer’s western side; the windows acquired a mineral coating so thick we could no longer see out of them. When we heard an engine we had to run outside and around the end of the trailer to see who was coming. We also learned to hang damp towels over the screens on the open windows and let the wind, cooled somewhat already by its passage though the sprinklers, blow some of the heat away. We draped wet towels over the front of the swamp cooler. The towels dried in less than half an hour, but they lowered the inside temperature to tolerable, at least in the living room. We gave up on the rest of the house, sprawling on the linoleum and watching game shows in the morning and the Flintstones, the Jetsons, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Gilligan’s Island in the afternoons.

When the first moon landing was televised I was mildly interested for the first twenty minutes, then angry that I was missing the Hillbillies to listen to static-filled transmissions from something that looked too artificial to be believed. When the Watergate scandal broke. I was furious. Now, in addition to being hot, headachy, and cranky, we had to watch grown men telling each other lies at sonorous, convoluted length. Finally we gave up, switched off the TV, and turned instead to the dusty stack of old Reader’s Digests that filled the cubbyholes over the couch. Mice had peed on them. We held the stained, brittle covers delicately pinched between fingers and thumbs and read them anyway.

The biggest difference, though, was that for the first time our father was a constant presence in our lives. At the woods camps he left before we were awake and only returned shortly before bedtime in the summers; in the spring and autumn he was present only on weekends. In the winter he got jobs working on construction and was gone all day. At the ranch, though, he was always around. He knew where we were and what we were doing, and constantly pressured Momma to be stricter, to insist on more work, to not coddle us. He took to taking us to work with him. I spent countless Sundays sitting in a pickup truck, a tractor, or a grader, trying not to breathe in too much dust, or fall asleep. While doing such a thing occasionally might have been fun, doing it week after week turned into mind-numbing boredom. Pam and Marie, who liked it no more than I did, quickly designated me the official “rider-along.” If I objected they applied the guilt—“Don’t you love Daddy? Think how hurt he’ll be if you don’t go along with him”—and threats. I feared their anger when the day was done on the rare occasions I refused to go.

The desert might have been interesting, if it hadn’t been so hot, but the heat made it impossible to walk and explore as we had in the woods, and before the well was finished we had to be careful of the water, since it was trucked in for each week. The first day it merely tasted of minerals, but as the weeks progressed the tank rusted inside, staining and flavoring the water. It became so foul Momma started routinely mixing strong Kool-Aid to disguise the taste enough to make it drinkable.

By far the worst thing about riding along, though, was that I lived in constant fear of making Daddy angry. I weighed my every action, judged every word. I was afraid to look at him, and afraid not to. I had to carry on a conversation, but it seemed that every conversational path quickly led to one of the areas where he found me particularly lacking. And there I would sit, while he sliced me apart in well-modulated tones, all done reasonably, logically, rationally. And I couldn’t say a word. I was alone with him; there was no one to either take my side or draw some of the fire. If I didn’t talk, I was pouting. If I closed my eyes I was “sleeping the day away.”

No matter what I did, the tangle of anger, fear, boredom, and guilt grew and twisted tighter.

Back at the trailer, Daddy would switch on his favorite country-western shows. The melodramatic, sentimental music both defined and exacerbated the guilt. What if Daddy died and I never had a chance to confess my enormous guilt, to win his love and approval, to make myself Right with the Lord and Daddy? And yet, I didn’t even know what I would confess. Tiny offenses acquired vast payloads of guilt. If I looked at someone in anger, spoke unkindly, made a remark that might possibly be construed by someone in a way more favorable than I deserved, the guilt swelled until I could hardly breathe. Confession brought little relief; instead of guilt, it brought its own tangle of emotions. I felt dirty and selfish, as if I were showing off, confessing to curry favor, rather than to acknowledge guilt. And under it all lay anger. Why was I constantly being pushed into impossible positions?

And then one day I got greedy. I don’t remember this, but this is the story Dad told years later. It fits too well with the way our family took simple situations and built them into towering, oppressive behemoths for me to doubt it. “Daddy, what can I do to earn some money?” I supposedly asked one evening. He shaded his eyes and gazed at the nothing that rolled into the distance and up to the horizon. A wheat field had been planted next to our trailer that year. The field alone broke the desert. It stood green and tall, the wheat heads shimmering silver in the cooling evening air. The corner of the field closest to our trailer was blurred by the tall, shedding heads of wild rye—a native grain that infests wheat fields, lowering market prices.

“Pull the rye out of the corner of this field and I’ll give you a quarter,” he said. It was actually pleasant, that first evening. The field smelled of green growing things, rather than dust and mouse turds. The earth was damp from the passage of the sprinkler. The breeze blew cool. The newly installed circle irrigation system was in just the right spot to drift a light mist over me. Pam, Marie, Sally, and Matt saw me.

“What are you doing?”

“Pulling rye. Daddy said he’d give me a quarter if I pulled the rye in this corner.” I had already made a sizable dent in the task.

Wanting quarters, too, they waded into the field and started pulling with me. By evening we had grown bored with the task. The next morning we rose as usual, played outside as long as it was tolerable, and then came in to watch cartoons.

That night after work Daddy asked. “Why didn’t you finish?”

“We did a lot of it,” I protested.

“You have to finish what you start if you expect to get paid.”

I resigned myself to the loss of the quarter.

“Now get out there and finish.”

By then it was evening again, and the air was rapidly cooling. We stalked aggrievedly out to the field. Our parents were making us work after everybody else had finished for the day. Once there, though, it was again not unpleasant. We talked, laughed, and pulled the rye. Actually, it was a relief. By then we were all suffering from heat and cabin fever, snapping and snarling at each other, and trying to avoid Momma’s increasingly touchy temper. The rye gave us something to do. We finished the corner of the field and walked home laughing, our muscles pleasantly sore.

“Are you done?” Daddy asked when we came in.

“Yes,” we said righteously, expecting our quarters.

“Good. Tomorrow you can do the rest of the field.”

“All of it?” The field seemed huge to my nine-year-old eyes, half a mile square.

“I’m giving you a quarter a day,” he said, offended.

“But—”

“You’re not going to just sit around the house all summer.”

The next morning Momma got us up before sunrise so we could “get it done before the heat of the day.” It was a good thought, but the field was simply too big to be finished in a morning, even if it hadn’t been so thickly infested with rye. Through it ran not only the circle irrigation system, but Sand Creek, a seasonal stream that became a raging torrent when it rained, but was now a dry, sandy wash. The rye stood thick and tall along the dry creek banks—so thick and tall that wheat was almost completely crowded out. We gulped our cereal and hurried out, hoping to finish before noon so we wouldn’t miss our cartoons and the Hillbillies.

At noon we looked up and realized that we were not even off the highland where the trailer stood and into the valley, where the worst of the rye stood. The sun beat down on us. Pam and Marie, tall and fair-skinned, were lobster red. My skin tanned, rather than burned, and the wheat shaded me to well above my waist, so I was more comfortable—yet another thing about me that Marie found acutely annoying.  Sally and Matt, five and seven, were small for their age. The wheat, which arched over their heads in places, had largely sheltered them from the worst of the sun’s rays. We were all discouraged, thirsty, tired and hot.  The sharp leaf edges had sliced into our hands, and the sweat stung in the cuts.

Pam was being holy and responsible about the whole thing. Marie had been snapping off everybody’s heads since the sun got high. I was alternately whining and trying to emulate Pam’s holy resignation. Sally and Matt were whimpering. Pam stomped down a little cave in the wheat for them. They crawled in and fell asleep while we three big girls kept pulling.  Finally, hungry, thirsty, tired and dizzy, we stumbled home.

“Is it finished?” Momma asked.

“No. There’s still a lot left to do.”

“I’ll help you with it this afternoon.”

“But Momma, it’s so hot—”

Momma, fresh from her quiet morning, said briskly, “If we all work at it it’ll get done that much faster.”

“But there’s a lot—”

“Stop complaining and eat your sandwich.”

We dawdled over our sandwiches as long as we could, but eventually the last bite of peanut butter and jelly had been washed down with the last swallow of warm, syrupy, sandy Kool-Aid.

“Come on, kids, we’ll have it finished this afternoon if we get at it.”

“It’ll never be finished,” muttered Marie. Silently I agreed with her. Mom hadn’t seen the field. We had. We trudged back out into the blazing afternoon glare, hot, tired, and angry.

Marie was right. From then on, the work was never finished. When that field was done, Daddy set us to clearing another field, then another, then another. When we had finished the thousands of acres at the Sand Creek ranch, we held out some faint hope of stopping, but then he came home and said, “Tomorrow you can start on the Juniper Canyon place…”

After a few days of pulling rye with us Momma decreed that we would pull no more than six hours a day. Every day, until the wheat ripened in late July, we walked through first green, then golden fields, tiny and alone under the vast blue sky, pulling rye and stuffing it into plastic sacks we carried on our backs or tied to our belts. As the season progressed the wheat released its pollen. Pam, who had hay fever, stood in the fields, eyes streaming and puffed closed, nose red and swollen, and pulled. It was only hay fever, after all. In mid-afternoon Momma drove us back to the trailer, where we showered and fell asleep in the boiling heat of the trailer or the tent—she had decreed the naps again, since we were working so hard. “But we’re missing the Flintstones and the Beverly Hillbillies,” we protested.

“The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you’ll wake up,” she said inexorably. “You don’t need to be watching that trash anyway.” I didn‘t know how to tell her that The Hillbillies were more than trash—they were a tiny fragment of that winter at Grandma and Grandpa‘s house. They were a taste of my true home. The first few days we had pulled in our long, modest shorts and sleeveless shirts. When Momma started going to the fields with us she established a dress code. “Wear long pants,” she said.

“But why?”

“The wheat will cut your legs.”

“But it’s not that bad—it’s like grass.”

“You need to be modest.”

“But our shorts—”

“Put on your long pants now.”

“But it’s hot—”

“Do it.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so. They’re not modest out in public.”

“But we’re not in public. We’re miles from anybody.”

“Somebody might drive by and see.”

“They won’t see our legs; the wheat hides them.”

“Put on your long pants now. Don’t argue.”

We put on our long pants. The sleeveless shirts went next.

“I don’t want you wearing those shirts in the fields,” Mom said.

“But why not? They’re cooler.”

“They’re not modest.”

“But there’s nobody around.”

“Somebody might drive by.”

We put on short-sleeved t-shirts, which offered more sun protection, but felt hotter. As the season progressed and the wheat dried and the sharp cutting edges got worse, the long pants, decreed to keep us modest, proved their worth. The shirts probably minimized sunburn on our shoulders in those days before sun block. As the sun rose and the air heated we took to pulling them tight and knotting them above our waists. Momma allowed this, with the proviso that we untied them as soon as a plume of dust showed on the horizon. She even pulled her shirt up, too, sometimes, and stuffed it under her bra like Pam did.

Pam’s hay fever worsened as the season progressed. Hay fever medications were an evolving technology in those days. She spent her time in the fields sneezing, coughing, and weeping, her eyes so swollen, red, and aching they kept sliding shut of their own accord. Mornings she woke with her eyes gummed shut. The medications made her sleepy, but she had to pull rye. Every day, she went to the fields with the rest of us, Every day she fought her body. Every day she lost. Pam was miserable, but so were we all.

When harvest season arrived Pam graduated to driving the water truck. The rye fields felt even lonelier. Pam could be counted on to help us, to laugh sometimes, to be kind. Marie and Momma couldn’t be relied upon in the same way. For a few days I hoped that maybe, now that Pam was gone, Daddy would let us stop. I was wrong.

As the wheat ripened we found reason for hope; the rye heads were loosening. When we pulled the plants the seeds shook loose and fell to the earth. “We’re just making it worse for next year,” we told Momma reasonably. “It would be better to just leave it and let it get cut with the wheat. We’ve got most of it, anyway.”

“I’ll ask your Dad about it tonight.”

“It makes the fields cleaner this year,” he said. “Pull until harvest.” Discouraged, we trudged back out to the fields. Momma, who I suspect wanted to quit as much as we did, became positively vicious as our whining grew louder. Fights, tears, and spankings became daily occurrences. But we couldn’t quit. And no matter what we said, Daddy insisted that he was only allowing us to do this because we wanted to, had asked to do this work, that it was all our idea, that he was not forcing the rye upon us, that he had not taken an afternoon’s whim and fashioned it into a prison.

Only the combines rolling down the roads and into the fields signaled our deliverance. The day they began harvesting the fields in Juniper Canyon—the ones we hadn’t finished yet—we drove home jubilant. There would be no more rye. We could sleep in. We could lie under the fan and watch the Beverly Hillbillies in the afternoon. It was over. We had survived. We were giddy with the joy that fills survivors of a natural disaster.

And for a few wonderful weeks, we did get to sleep in and watch the Hillbillies and read pee-stained Readers’ Digests. We thought it was over, that we would never have to pull rye again. But what had begun as a character-building exercise, something to teach us the value of persistence and industry, turned into something very different late that August.

Daddy came home from work one Friday. Momma had driven us kids home to Paradise the day before so we could clean the house, wash the clothes, and make Sabbath dinner. We had finished the work by late Friday afternoon and, our baths taken, were playing carefully on the lawn, trying not to work up a sweat or lose our curlers. When Daddy drove in he came out onto the lawn. “Kids,” he called. “I got something for ya.”

We ran over. “What is it, Daddy?” Such statements in the past had resulted in anything from ice cream bars to fawns rescued from slash piles. When Daddy said that it was always good.

He reached into his pocket and drew out five checks. “Joe gave me these for you kids today. He said you’d worked so hard, and had done such a good job that he got a better price for his wheat than he expected. I told him I was already paying you, but he said he wanted to, too. Now see, this would never have happened if you’d quit like you wanted to after that first day. Aren’t you glad you finished what you started?”

He fell silent so we could contemplate Joe‘s largesse in giving us this money when he had never even asked us to do the work. And it was generous—something none of us had been expecting. Daddy handed us the checks. We had each gotten seventy-five dollars. I stood, staring at the check in my hands, bewildered by my wealth.

“What are you going to do with all that money?” Daddy asked.

“Buy clothes,” said Marie instantly.

“Put it in the bank?” asked little Matt.

“I was thinking you could put some toward your schooling, after you paid tithe and offering,” Daddy said sadly.

“I will,” said Pam, bravely putting aside a vision of what, knowing her, was probably some special piece of horse tack.

“I will, too,” I said. After all, I was rich. I could pay tithe and offering, put some toward school, put some in the band, and still have money left over to spend. I would never have to work again. Surely seventy-five dollars was enough to live on for a very long time. The interest alone would probably be more than I could spend.  Marie glared. Pam and I had made her look bad.

“I will, too,” she snapped.

Nobody pressed Sally and Matt; of course they would be delighted to help pay for church school. They were feeling as rich as I was. Matt was going to be the richest first grader in school. Daddy took us down to the bank, helped us open bank accounts, watched while we cashed our checks, and then waited while we counted bills into his hand. For the first time the money was real to me. As the stack of bills in Daddy’s had grew larger and the stack in mine grew smaller I began to regret my impulsive statement. And then, when the counting was over, Daddy said, “Okay, the rest goes in the bank.”

“All of it?” asked Marie.

“You want some to spend for Christmas presents, don’t you?” Daddy asked reasonably.

“Yeah,” she muttered.

“Cheer up; you look like you’ve lost your last friend,” Daddy told her.  Marie turned her face away and glowered.

We pushed our dwindling riches across the counter to a woman who took it and wrote a note in a little book, which she pushed back to us. Daddy took the books and tucked them into the same breast pocket where he had carried our checks.  “Can I have my book?” I asked.

“No, you don’t want it to get lost, do you?” he asked.

“No,” I said sadly. The money was gone.

I don’t remember getting the quarters Daddy had promised. I suppose he thought that the contract had been more than fulfilled with the checks. The one saving grace about the whole thing was that it was over. We would never have to pull rye again. Or so we thought.

Those checks, intended as a kindness and a gesture of thanks, turned into something quite different. One look told Momma and Daddy that they had a potential gold mine on their hands. The next June when school let out Momma was already talking about getting an early start, really hitting the rye hard in the first few weeks while it was cool, so we could get a lot done before harvest and earn even more money. Pulling rye had gone from being a character-building exercise to being a way that Momma and Daddy could ease the financial burden of sending us all to church school. It also increased our isolation. Before the rye we had sometimes invited classmates to come to the ranch for a week. We could sell the idea as “camping.” After the rye took over we spent our summers alone; who would want to spend a week trudging through dusty, baking fields?

From then on summer vacation meant getting up at sunrise, choking down a hurried breakfast, pulling on dirty work clothes, and slogging through thousands of acres of wheat with Momma, Pam, Marie, Sally and Matt, pulling the rye, shoving the tall, sticky plants into sacks we tied to our belts or overall straps, and, when the sacks were full, carrying them to the edge of the field and dumping them into a huge pile—which we would later have to go back, pick up, and haul to a dump somewhere.

And every fall, when we got our paychecks, we went through the little ritual. “What are you going to do with all that money?” Daddy asked.

“Pay tithe, save some, and put some toward church school,” we answered dutifully if not happily. There was no real choice.

“I’m so proud of you kids, working hard to put yourselves through church school, wanting to help out like this,” he would say. I found those conversations both infuriating and confusing because they highlighted something none of us had really acknowledged—that Momma wasn’t the only one in our house rewriting our lives, even as we lived them. Daddy was doing it, too. The rye fields had provided inspiration for a new story. It went like this: Once upon a time Daddy had children who were loving, holy, and perfect. And hardworking. They were crazy for work. Show them work, and there was no stopping them. They would rather pull rye than play, have friends, or read a book. And—listen carefully; this is the kicker—they didn’t do it for the money. Every fall, those checks hardly hit their hands before they were down at the bank and getting them cashed and giving the money to him to help pay for their Church School Education. He told this story often. Every spring we tried to set him straight: “We don’t want to pull rye,” we told him hopelessly.

“Yes you do,” he would say. “You told me you did, Bodie. You came to me when you were nine years old and said, “Isn’t there something I can do to earn a little money,” and I said, “Go pull that rye and I’ll give you a quarter a day,” and before I knew it you kids were all out there, and then Joe paid you more and you started earning your way through church school, and I was so proud of you.” Marie glared at me when Daddy first told us this story. The work was my fault. “But I didn’t want to work all the time,” I protested. “Not all the time, every summer.”

“The work’s there and needs to be done. I won’t have my kids laying around all day watching TV.” For Dad, the rye provided a way to keep us isolated and under control in the summers. The idea that we might have remained in Paradise, played with friends, even gotten the more usual sorts of jobs, never even saw the light of day. We were, of course, delighted to spend our summers on the ranch, so we could all be together as a happy family. Pandora’s box had been well and truly opened.

Pulling rye was not an unheard of way for farm and ranch kids to earn a little money in the summer. The local farming co-ops hired teenagers to walk through members’ fields and pull the rye. The difference lay in things other than the actual job.

For one thing, we not teenagers when we started. I was nine. Pam was fourteen. Mat was six. For another, we were all alone. The co-op rye-pullers formed a happy, shouting group. They had regular breaks, where they drank sodas and rested. We did neither of those things. “If we stop to rest we’ll have to be out here longer,” Momma had decreed. We pulled by ourselves, straight through from seven a.m. to noon, stopped for a quick lunch, and then pulled again  until two or three p.m. Our classmates saw summers as welcome breaks from school For me, school was the welcome break, even though I was miserable there. Perhaps the biggest, most significant way that rye pulling shaped us, though, was in how we came to see ourselves—and to be seen.

“We’re peasants,” Marie snarled one hot day in the fields when the rancher’s wife drove by carrying lunch to the harvest crews a few fields away. “We’re just peasants.”

And we were, not because that was how anybody else saw us in the beginning, but because that was how Dad saw us, because that was how we came to see ourselves, and ultimately, how others came to see us. It was easy to slip into the role, isolated as we were in our tiny trailer in the sand. Furthermore, our weekly trips back to Paradise to clean the house and go to church kept us from really settling into the ranch life. We lived in a doorway between two worlds, on a ridge between two valleys. Perhaps we would have fit better into one or the other if we had not spent our lives shuttling between the two. Our isolation on the ranch kept us from developing friendhips in town; our Adventism, and Dad’s insistence that we were not entitled to leisure time barred us from doing the same on the ranch.

Every summer we drove out to the ranch on Sunday morning, pulled rye all week, drove home on Thursday afternoon, worked feverishly to get the laundry done, the house cleaned to Mom’s satisfaction, Sabbath dinner cooked, and our baths taken before sundown Friday. On Sabbath we went to church and sat among children who became virtual strangers to us. On Sunday mornings we drove back out to the ranch, to what had become our “real” summer life—except that we were only allowed to participate in the hard, character-building parts of it. We never took another summer vacation again after Dad started working on the ranch; instead, we took vacations in winter, after the mechanic work had mostly been done, but before the spring gear-up for planting began.

He begrudged the afternoon we took off once each summer visit the County Fair, the Saturday night we spent going to the Carnival, evenings we took off before sundown, our annual trip to the dentist. The work became more than just work; it became a huge, ominous entity hanging over us, governing every aspect of our lives.  In the woods dad had worked as a man among other men. We stayed at the cabin and Mom looked after us—following Dad’s instructions, but with some degree of autonomy, and generally with the company of other women. On the ranch Dad assumed total control—and the work became his most powerful weapon. And so we, as well as Dad, became different people when we lost The Man In the Woods.

By fourth grade, I hated church school, and church school hated me. In a town where aspirations ran to dragging Main Street on Saturday nights, bowling, and emulating cowboys, I was more interested in reading, drawing, and poetry. Someone who reads a three hundred page biography of Joan of Arc in third grade is not likely to do well at playground politics.

Exacerbating the whole problem was that I was never around in the summers, so I was no more “real” to my classmates than they were to me. The final nail in the coffin of my social success was working on the ranch.

But I had no choice. I not only had to endure school—I had to pay for it myself. Of course word got out. Now not only was I the class freak, I was also the one who made everybody else look shabby by my industry. Other parents began to flirt with the idea of having their children help pay for school. My popularity would have plummeted even further, if such a thing were possible.

But to Daddy, none of that mattered. He had his story, the story that would allow him to send his pre-school son out into a field of wheat higher than his head with the instructions not to come back for six hours—and it really should have been eight hours, but Daddy was taking it easy on us—that would allow him to send his eldest daughter into the fields day after day, year after year, even though she suffered severe hay fever, that in later years would allow him to coerce us into jobs that left every one of us with permanent physical damage.

How could he justify it? I believe he used the old old story, the one he first told himself when we were small, and he was molesting us and knocking us over into creeks for wading where he didn’t want us to. He did it by telling himself, us, and anyone who asked, “It doesn’t hurt them.”

And so I believe work became a substitute for the sexual abuse of the early years—it became an exercise in domination, as well as a financial boon. The last time I can remember the hurting hands between my legs was shortly before we went to work at the ranch. But I was getting older; the risk that I might tell—and actually be believed—was greater. The abuse would quite likely have ended soon anyway.

I believe the ranch work provided a substitute, though. It provided Daddy with a more socially palatable means of inflicting the pain and shame that eased his own, achieving the power and control he craved, and the justifying both his past and his present. “That doesn‘t hurt,” he could comfort himself, and I believe the comfort extended back to include our early days. The rye also provided him with both the means and excuse for keeping us away from anyone with whom we might share an embarrassing conversation—away from anyone who might have helped us.

When Marie was old enough to be trusted behind the wheel of one of the farm trucks Dad set us to stuffing black, moldy straw into the ruts the irrigation systems dug in the sandy hillsides. In the beginning we congratulated ourselves on not having to pull rye every day. I felt like we had been freed from a form of slavery. And then I realized that we hadn’t been freed at all, we had simply switched to a more demanding master. Rye-pulling ended with harvest, and only lasted for six hours a day. We had been able to count on a few weeks at the end of summer for play. “Strawing wheeltracks,” as we called it, was a never-ending job. We were expected to keep at it, ten hours each day, all summer.

The flatbed truck had to be loaded from the crumbling straw stacks. We backed up to the stack, scrambled up the tottering bales to the top level, and threw the bales down to the person who remained on the flatbed to stack.  There is an art to throwing straw bales. Dad showed us how on our first day.

“See kids? You hefta throw the bales so they hit flat. If they hit flat, they don’t break. If they hit on an end or corner, they do.” He lifted a straw bale, turned, and with a quick little pop of his heavy, muscular arms, sent the bale shooting straight and flat to slide up and lie neatly against the backboard behind the cab. He turned, hefted another, and popped it next to the first. “See? If the man on the stack does his job right, there isn’t much for the man on the truck to do.” It didn’t occur to any of us that he was describing the job in terms of what men would do, but he was addressing children.

He popped another bale on top of the first. Pam turned, lifted a bale, heaved it onto her thighs, and then tried to pop it onto the truck. It flew a little way, then fell with a thump and split open.

“A little more oomph, Pam, and you’ve got it,” Dad congratulated her. She tried again, did a little better. I turned and found a bale, slid my fingers under the wire and lifted. The wire, rusted through, snapped and cut my finger.

“Here, Bodie, let me get that one,” Dad said. He grasped both ends of the wire, lifted, and heaved the whole mess onto a nearby mound of broken, moldy bales. He held onto the wires. Wire, one of the deadly dangers of ranch life, had to be carefully controlled. Even a tiny piece could kill a cow if it got into the feed, or maim a horse, if it became embedded in a hoof. I was idly watching Dad twist the rusty wires into a tight knot so he could throw them onto yet another pile when I heard cheeping. I looked down where the bale had been.

“Dad, there’s a nest,” I cried, charmed. “Look, baby birds.”

“I know it,” he said. “They’re all through this stuff. So are the mice. They dig into the straw and build their nests there.” I squatted and looked, being careful not to touch lest my scent drive the mother away and leave the babies orphans. The half-fledged babies opened their bright orange mouths and screamed their hunger. I looked around for a bug to feed them.

And then Dad leaned down and scooped up the nest, babies still cheeping, and threw it. It fell apart in the air, the babies falling free, their cries lost in the wind and in the distressed calls of their parents.

“Dad,” I gasped.

“You have to,” he said, picking up another bale. “They’re all through this. We gotta get the straw, and there’s nowhere to move’em. No point, anyway; their parents won’t come back once they’ve been handled.” He unearthed another nest. His hand scooped down, picked up the babies, threw them into the wind. I found myself weeping. Sally began to sing, half under her breath. It was an old song, one we all knew from Sabbath School. “He sees the little sparrow fall/it meets his tender view/If God so loves the little birds/I know he loves me too. He loves me, too, he loves me, too, I know he loves me, too. If God so loves the little birds, I know he loves me too.”

A nest of mice came next. I hated mice, but the sight of the tiny pink babies torn first on the tumbleweeds and then by the circling gulls and crows was more than I could bear. When the next bird’s nest appeared—this one with the babies half-fledged—I begged, “Let me take them home.”

“You can’t,” said Dad. “They’ll die anyway. You can’t raise wild birds. It’s kinder to let’em die quick.”

“Let me try,” I begged again.

“No,” he said, irritated, “we gotta work.” He seized the nest and threw, and the babies went fluttering and cheeping to the gulls.

Later, when we were older, harder, stronger, I sometimes saw the others throwing the babies—but I also saw them sometimes carrying them gently and installing them in safe crannies far from the end where we were working. When we were pulling apart the farthest reaches of the straw stack, we sometimes came upon the nests, filled with tiny skeletons. Dad was right; once we had polluted the nests the parents refused to return.

By then we kids worked alone. I sometimes tried to rescue a nest of fledglings. I took them home and fed them bread soaked in milk, only to find that Dad had been right again. They always died. I wept, something my sisters and brother found a source of amusement for years afterwards. “Do you remember, Bodie, how you were always bringing baby birds home and then they’d die on you and you’d cry? And they’d shake their heads and laugh at my foolishness.

There was no easy answer. We needed the straw. The animals had colonized it. We couldn’t take it without destroying their nests. Moving the nests wasn’t an answer; once we had touched them the parents would not return. We couldn’t take the babies home and raise them. But the sight of my father’s hands—the same hands that years before had reached into burning brush to pull silent fawns from the flames—ripping open the nests and casting the babies to the wind still haunts me. How could both sets of hands belong to the same man? I didn’t know then; I still don’t, but when I think of that terrible sight the music I hear is Sally‘s piping voice, singing about a God who loves birds, and notes the falling of even the smallest.

We eventually graduated to other jobs, but the wheeltracks always lurked in the shadows. If we finished repairing a sprinkler system early, if we finished swathing or baling a field a little ahead of schedule, if we found ourselves unexpectedly at a loose end before sunset, there were always wheeltracks to be strawed.

And every fall the ritual happened. Dad brought home our checks, handed them to us, asked what we were going to do with them. The year I was fourteen I toyed with the idea of simply not offering my money for church school, but sixteen-year-old Marie beat me to the punch.  “What are you going to do with your money?” Dad asked that fall.

“I’m going to use it for braces,” she said.

“Isn’t that pretty selfish, to spend it all on yourself like that?” Dad asked.

“No,” said Marie boldly. “I worked for it. I‘ve already paid my tuition for the whole school year. And I need braces. The dentist said so.”

“That’s just vanity,” Dad said. “Your teeth are fine.”

“I need braces,” Marie said stubbornly. “I’m going to use my money for braces.”

“No you’re not,” said Dad. “You’re going to help pay the others’ church school tuition.”
And he took her down to the bank, where she cashed her check, and then he took the money. I don’t know how he coerced her into giving it to him; it couldn’t have been easy. Marie was mean as a snake when she was crossed, and nearly as stubborn as I could be. At any rate, he took the money—all of it, to teach her a lesson—and he used it to help pay for Sally and Matt‘s tuition, even though she had already paid her own.

In those years it was hard to remember the man in the woods who taught us to walk gently on the earth, to respect life, who sang us songs in the evening. I tried not to think at all about the father from those nights. It seemed to me that the father I lived with at the ranch courted pain on our behalf. He turned our summers into forced marches from field to field. He instituted a dress code that guaranteed ridicule at school among the Good Christian children who he insisted should be both be our friends and our persecutors. He maintained a policy of isolation that prevented us forming close friendships—and in some cases, any friendships at all. In the context of our lives, throwing the baby birds off the strawstacks was perfectly believable. No one except me seemed to be bothered by the sight of the man who claimed to stand in the place of God destroying the helpless, just because they were in the way. He took the money we earned and used it for his own purposes, buying himself credibility in the church for his dedication in keeping all his kids in church school. He implied that it was at great personal sacrifice, but the sacrifice was ours, not his.

This is not to say that he didn’t work hard: He demanded as much of himself as much and more as he demanded of us. If he had no boundaries when it came to our well-being, neither did he have any in regard to his own.

And so the story developed. Our father, the guardian of forest life, had become the destroyer, and the controller of wealth. By then I had given up trying to reconcile the man I lived with and the God he said with increasing frequency that he represented.

And therein lay the central conflict of our home. Dad claimed to stand in the place of God to his children; he said so often. The God he claimed to represent was Jesus, who felt pain at the suffering of even the littlest things, and watched over even the sparrows. Dad himself frequently sang a song: “His eye is on the sparrow…and I know he watches me.” But it was impossible for me to see him as the representative of the loving, tolerant, one-dimensional Jesus. Dad was far more complex, evoking a far more ancient, complex myth. He was the Man in the Woods, the Lord of the Animals who protected and the Hunter who destroyed, the Harvest Lord. Dad was many things. But he wasn’t Jesus, and he kept insisting he was.

It’s Only My Body

My first  job wasn’t much, but the office was wonderful. It was dark-panelled, with a wall of windows and a door that opened onto a small, private walled garden. I would be helping to promote and track the sale of Ellen G. White  and Uncle Arthur books—books I had never read and didn’t believe in. I turned out to be good at it, and eventually took over many of the department assistant director’s responsibilities when he left. “I know you deserve it,” my boss, the director, said, “but I can’t make you assistant director. The men wouldn’t stand for it.”

I might not have the title or the salary, but I had the office, and I had the private walled garden. When I moved in the sandblasters had been at work. Slag and gravel lay rippled over a war zone of torn plants. I set to work in odd moments, resurrecting what was there. The garden recovered. Eventually a bougainvillea, a small palm, roses and ferns half filled the space. I bought impatiens and violets, dug up the earth and created gentle slopes and hollows, then planted the flowers in clumps and rows to mass as they grew.

Every morning I stood on the step leading from my office into the garden and misted the flowers with a low-pressure garden hose. The garden bloomed in violet, burgundy, and red. Ferns arched under the bougainvillea and palm tree. The air was cool, moist, and sweet. A soft green light filled the shade inside the walls. I started thinking about investing in a park bench, and maybe a small birdbath or fountain.

I hung pictures in my office to match the garden—giant burgundy-veined white peonies and purple irises that I had painted and framed—and quilted green, burgundy, and cream satin into a throw for the nubby white couch. A brass lamp stood on my desk. It felt cool, peaceful, and safe.

I pleased my boss. My parents were elated. “He’s such a nice man,” they said. “He can’t do without you. You’ll always have a job there.”

That was a bit depressing, but at least I had a regular paycheck and, as Pam pointed out, I was gaining experience. Overall, I was happy. I pleased him. I had never pleased anyone before in my life, and I would have done anything to hold onto that. I looked for ways. They were easy to find. He liked pies? I baked pies. He needed presentations written? I wrote presentations. He needed a party for 100 organized? I organized the party. He needed accounts balanced? I balanced accounts. He was pleased. I was surprised.

The day he hugged me I got shaky. But then I remembered the old men who had hugged me before—I had gotten shaky then, too, but it had turned out to be my imagination. This must be the same.

When he hugged me again I felt nervous, but knew I was making too much of it. Normal people hugged all the time, didn’t they? Questioning it would make a friendly hug—probably an act of Christian charity—into something dirty. He was a nice man. If I said anything everyone would know that I had a filthy mind, and that I was vain. He was a preacher, and preachers didn’t do things like that, particularly with plain, doughy, stolid young women who were better with trucks than they were with people. I knew how the story went; I had lived it before.

“She must have misunderstood,” he would say. “I was just being fatherly.” And then he’d fire me, more in sorrow than in anger. My family would find out what I had said and, because of my past history, would know that it was all my imagination. They might even call and apologize to him for the damage I had done to his reputation. They would say nothing at all to me, but I would see the accusation in their eyes. Could I not see myself in the mirror? Why would such a good man do such a thing? I had misunderstood. If by chance it had actually happened, I must have led him on. He was a nice man.

I hung onto the fact that I pleased him. I refused to risk that. It was all my imagination. I had called “wolf” too often in the past to trust my instincts. When he asked me out for dinner I felt funny, but I wanted to get out of the house, I liked him, and after all, he was a preacher, and I was always blowing things out of proportion. Why would a man who had a beautiful wife, a health club membership, and a lovely home in the suburbs want me? I wasn’t really a woman at all.

He told me stories sometimes, about his wife’s uncontrollable rages. I thought of Mom and Sabbath dinners, and sympathized. Even though I was nervous, I felt safe in my story. I was ugly. I was not really a woman. No man could possibly see me as anything other than a good worker. That was my sole asset. Everything would be fine, as long as I didn’t let my sick, dirty mind make me look foolish again.

When he asked me to join him for breakfast, when he hugged me, when he asked me not to tell anyone about the time we spent together, when he looked at me with a strange light in his eyes, I told myself firmly not to let my imagination run away with me. I understood what it felt like to be trapped, and my sympathy grew. We had formed a friendship; surely that was all he wanted from me. This man didn’t want my body; he was only being nice. I had finally found someone who was satisfied with me, who took pleasure in my company, who felt I was valuable. I didn’t want to lose it.

The day he backed me up against the office refrigerator, kissed me and said he thought he loved me I was frightened, but also relieved. I wasn’t crazy, or dirty-minded. This man wasn’t “just being nice;” he actually professed to find me physically attractive, desirable. I didn’t believe it for a minute, but I did believe that, for some unfathomable reason, he wanted me to believe that he believed it.

I wish I had said, “No,” even once. But I didn’t. It wasn’t allowed. Besides, to acknowledge what was happening was to acknowledge something unspeakable. I had suddenly become part of his story—and his wife’s story—in a shameful, humiliating way. I had become The Other Woman, the Home Wrecker, the Wicked Woman, the Slut, the Whore. There were all kinds of words for a woman like me. He has a wife, my mind screamed. But does he really? another part of my mind argued. He told me their relationship was over; he just hasn’t been able to find a way to leave without losing his job. Adventist preachers may not divorce for reasons other than adultery. If their marriage is over and they both want out but are just trapped by church rules, does it count? Are they married in the eyes of God?

The kiss felt odd. I supposed it improved with practice. I hoped so. I was twenty-seven years old, and had kissed two people other than family in my entire life. When he touched me, kissed me, I thought I would throw up, but that couldn’t be right. He was a nice man. Normal women didn’t throw up when nice men kissed them. I wanted more than anything to be normal. Besides, the idea that someone who didn’t have to wanted to be with me was a drug. It was beyond my power to deny him anything.

My body nearly defeated him that first night. By the time it was all over I was exhausted, light-headed, and nauseated. I limped into the bathroom to wash, hoping I wouldn’t throw up or faint. I wanted the unfamiliar, sticky residue off me, but felt so faint, sick and shaky I hoped to get away with a sponge bath. When I saw the blood running down my legs and splashing on the white tile floor between my feet I was afraid. Was that normal? Would I die, here in a sordid hotel that stank of urine, disinfectant and stale cigarettes? I sat down on the toilet, leaned my arms on the sink and my head on my arms, and waited for the dizziness to subside. The bleeding didn’t stop. I was afraid I would faint if I got into the shower. Finally I gave up, wadded up some toilet paper, tucked it between my legs, and pulled my panties on.

Then I limped back to bed. He, accustomed to sharing a bed, was already snoring. I lay beside him alone, shaking, my belly cramping and aching, icy tears slipping down my cheeks, hating what I had become, knowing that somehow, in spite of my best efforts, my one chance at love had twisted into something awful. I had slept with someone’s husband.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Lovers held each other, looked at each other, satisfied each other. They didn’t cheat on wives. They didn’t lie side by side a million miles apart. It didn’t hurt like this. There wasn’t so much blood, and above all it didn’t happen in cheap hotels with brown and orange sunflowered bedspreads and nameless bridges painted in dried blood and mustard on black velvet. I had been stupid, stupid, stupid. And if he asked, I would do it again, because I wanted to please him, and it was better than nothing. And if I didn’t, I would lose my job.

“I can’t stand working with you and not touching you,” he said the few times I hesitantly broached the idea. A part of me felt flattered. This person actually thought I was desirable, worth pursuing. Another part felt sick, guilty, and terrified. If the affair became public knowledge I knew exactly what would happen. A friend had told me long ago. “When they discover an affair between a minister and a secretary the minister gets transferred and the secretary loses her job.”

“But what if it’s a case of sexual harassment?”

“Same thing.”

“Can’t the secretary sue?”

“She can—but she’ll still lose her job, and her church membership. You can’t sue the church. The men just won’t stand for that. Look what happened to Merikay.” Merikay was a writer who worked for the church in the seventies. Her books were enormously popular. She asked for a raise, one that would have put her salary on an equal footing with the similarly qualified men in the office. She was turned down. She sued for sexual discrimination and won her case—and lost her job, her church membership, and her publisher. Merikay proved a powerful example to us all.

I was a statistic, and I knew it. According to a survey, 70 percent of all married men claim to have had an affair. The survey people figured that about ten percent were lying, one way or the other. Of the men who admitted affairs, most considered it “playing house,” quite apart from their “real” life. I knew I wasn’t part of my boss’ real world. I tried to tell him. “I’m under a lot of pressure,” he said. “Please, wait for me.”

I clung to the peace in the garden behind my office, and agreed. For three years, I agreed. And then his wife called me. “He’s a good man,” she said. “But he’s weak. Just leave him alone.” She had been crying. I had no words. When she hung up the guilt, shame, and fear swelled into something bigger than I was. I sat, shaking. He had lied to me. Their marriage wasn’t over if his wife would call me to beg for it. What I was doing was indefensible. It didn’t occur to me then that she was blaming me for something he had instigated and perpetuated; in the end, it really didn’t matter. Nobody held a gun to my head in those cheap hotel rooms.

I walked into his office. “Your wife called,” I said.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this.” He sighed, shook his head, and said, “I know what we’re doing is wrong, but I love you, and I just can’t help myself. I feel so bad about what I’m doing to her. Please, just give me a little more time to work this out.”

I looked at him, and for the first time it occurred to me that he had never said he was sorry for what he was doing to me. I thought about that, and felt the falseness of regret. I watched dust motes dance in the sunlight slanting through the blinds and listened to him explain for the hundredth time about the pressure he was under. For the first time I saw there was a simple solution—he could just leave, walk out, and take the consequences—and I didn’t want him to do it. I had lost all respect, affection, even liking for the man. I could never trust him. If he cheated on his wife now, he would cheat on me later. What we were doing was wrong not because it was breaking nonsensical rules, but because people were being hurt. I also realized that none of those things mattered to him, just as it never really mattered to him how I felt when we were together. He simply assumed that once he was satisfied, I was, too. As long as I pleased him, that was enough. It had been for me, too, in the beginning, but staring at those dust motes, I realized that while I pleased him, he didn’t please me. And that it mattered a lot.

Somewhere deep inside the dark place in my soul, a heavy, smoldering anger was born. I wish I could say I ended things then, but I didn’t. I didn’t know how. I didn’t even really know how to be angry. Every time he used my body, my mind, my skills; every time he asked me to be patient, every time he talked about everything he would be giving up to be with me and expected me to be grateful, every time he talked about his family obligations, about how it hurt him to deceive his wife, every time he complained that he had called and I hadn’t been home, every time he made promises that I knew he would never keep, the anger grew. He never noticed, and that made it grow even more. Still I didn’t leave. I would never find another job. Who would hire me?

And then one night as I lay with my legs spread on my office floor, cement chill seeping through the cheap diamond patterned indoor-outdoor carpeting and into my buttocks, heels, and shoulder blades in rhythmic surges, the sordidness of what I was doing overwhelmed me. Vomit and fury rose in my throat. And he never noticed. I gulped and followed the foul mixture deep inside myself. There, in the dark, the cold was less, the hard thumps hurt less, the shame was less. I was safe. I was not there.

Afterward I yanked up my flowered, tucked jumpsuit—they were fashionable, just then—buttoned every button, tied my shoelaces firmly in double knots, braced myself for one more hug I didn’t want, one more protestation of love I neither wanted nor believed, and let myself out while the man I had just decided was my ex-lover smiled roguishly from the bathroom door in his underwear. I still didn’t have a job or a place to go, but that didn’t matter anymore. I was leaving anyway.

I ran home through the warm, smoggy night, but didn’t go inside. Instead, I slammed into my car and drove straight to the mall, stomped through the muggy parking garage and into the chilly twinkling promenade, turned left, and strode straight to Crabtree and Evelyn’s, weaving through the crowds, dodging strollers. The store smelled of herbs and roses, clean and sweet. I strode to the toiletries shelf and opened one of the cool, delicate bottles. It smelled clear, tart, and fresh. I filled my arms with loofah, soap, shampoo, cream rinse, bath beads, potpourri, and cologne.

Back home, I let myself into the house and stripped on the way to the bathroom, wadding up my clothes and thrusting them deep into the bathroom wastebasket. I cleared the bathroom counter with one sweep of my arm, heaping the wastebasket with the exotic toiletries he had preferred.

I poured the new, sharp herbal bubble bath under the steaming water streaming from the tap, then, sitting on the toilet, I took wads of toilet paper and scrubbed between my legs until nothing was left but a slight stickiness, a slight soreness. I stepped into the burning hot water, steam rising in clouds around me, eased myself down, and scrubbed with the new harsh loofah. I shampooed my hair over and over until the bottle was empty. When the water cooled I refilled the tub straight from the hot tap. My skin glowed angry red; my fingers and toes wrinkled into deep creases before I stood on shaky legs. I dried with a new towel, then dropped it into the laundry.

On the way to the bedroom I pulled clean sheets from the hall linen closet, pulled a new cotton nightgown from my drawer, yanked off the tags, stripped the bed, sprinkled new cologne on the mattress, and remade it with clean sheets and fresh blankets.

Then I climbed in, curled my knees to my chest, hugged my aching stomach, and shook. I didn’t cry. If I cried, I would be given something to cry about. The night was endless.

The phone rang. It was Marie. She was angry again. “You remember when Uncle Mac lived with us?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“He molested me.”

“What?” Her words barely registered.

“He molested me.”

“But you’ve never said anything before.”

“I didn’t remember.”

“But you do now?”

“It’s a recovered memory. I’ve been going to some therapy sessions with Andy.” Andy was her son. “And I dreamed about him, and then I remembered.”

“When?”

“When he was sleeping in our bedroom,” she said angrily.

Until then it had never struck me as odd that a grown man would share a room with four little girls.

“Are you going to tell Mom and Dad?”

“No, Dad’d kill Mac,” she said. I didn’t doubt her; this was part of our family wisdom. Our father would kill anyone who hurt us, would lay down his life for our safety and happiness.

“Oh, Marie, I’m sorry,” I said, hoping it was the right thing. I never knew with her. A part of me doubted her; Marie was adept at creating stories with just enough truth to them to be convincing.

“Did you know?”

“No…”

“You never saw anything?” Don’t ask me this now, I thought. I had to answer, or she would know. “Maybe once,” I said slowly, carefully. I had to be exact, precise, because whatever I said would be repeated, used as vindication for a position. I didn’t want Marie twisting my words. “I came running into the bedroom once and saw you on the bed, and he was sitting below you and your dress was up…”

“Yes,” she said.

“You can’t keep something like this a secret. You have to tell.”

“No I don’t. I don’t want anyone to know. You can’t tell, either. If you do I’ll deny it.”

“All right,” I said, exhausted.

“What’s wrong with you?” she snapped.

“Nothing,” I lied. “Everything’s fine. Are you going to be okay?”

She laughed bitterly. “Yeah, I’ll be just dandy.” She hung up.

I curled around my belly in the blackness.

The phone rang again. It was Pam. I did not tell her, either. Pam was good, clean, and holy. She had never done a despicable thing in her life. Besides, he was a nice man, a good man; she had told me so. He would never do something like this unless I had somehow led him on. I curled tighter into myself, forced a lilt into my voice, and tried to keep my shaking from rattling the bed. Finally Pam hung up. I had no idea what we had talked about. I turned my face into the pillow and just breathed slowly, evenly, like I was all right, like I was normal.

What made that the last time? That night, as we lay as close as people can be, as I slid away from him, down into the dark place where nothing and no one could reach me, as I huddled there feeling proud and a bit foolish for not remembering such an obvious thing before, I thought, “This is the key to surviving sex. I can just go away inside, and he can’t get to me. It’s not so bad. It’s only my body. He doesn’t have me. It’ll be over soon.” I was a bit surprised, because the knowledge felt familiar, like something I had learned long ago. But I couldn’t remember when, and it terrified me.

The Valley of the Shadow

I stood in my pretty peach bathroom. An ivory tapestry print shower curtain masked the tub. Rose-and-green-striped Crabtree and Evelyn toiletries filled a basket on the peach carpet by my feet. The air was sweet with peach and Elizabethan Rose potpourri. I’d put a lot of time and money into getting this room exactly right. It didn’t help. I stood in my perfect bathroom and stared into the mirror. The face was young, but its lines were heavy, its eyes ancient and bruised. It hurt to look into them, even for me, trapped behind them.

What went wrong, and when? The face should be pretty, the woman behind it happy. All the parts were there—even features, a good brain, an adequate education, taste, even a decent body, now that I was too unhappy to eat—but they were locked away out of reach. They always had been.

Tonight I accepted for the first time that they always would be. I stared into my own face and understood that there would be no “when.” Things would never be better. I would never find the key to the talents and advantages lying locked out of reach within me. I would never remember how to be happy.

There was no magic. Love was a myth. I had all I would ever have, and it was not enough. Life and I had failed each other. My throat ached. I could not spend one more minute trapped inside myself, but there was nowhere else to go. The rot had filled my world. I swung the mirror out and stared at the bottles that lined my medicine cabinet. Aspirin. Midol. Thyroxin. Vicks. A wrinkled tube of yeast infection ointment.

I wondered if, mixed, they were lethal. Probably not. I closed the medicine cabinet. The pain swelled inside, black, nameless, sucking me in to the endless night in which I had lived since that long-ago day when I first realized I had forgotten how to be happy. I had reached the end. If I had to die to end the pain, well, that was all right. I lived an isolated life; the first people to know would be my neighbors, and that wouldn’t happen for a couple weeks if I turned the heat off and the weather didn’t warm up. I had missed my opportunity to join life, and life had gone on without me. And it was my fault.

Midol, thyroid medication, and yeast infection ointment wouldn’t end things. I had failed at death as surely as I had failed at life. I thought of buying a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of pills, but I didn’t know the proportions and I didn’t know what pills, and was afraid I’d just wake up in a psych unit somewhere and embarrass my family. Drinking wasn’t countenanced any more than depression was.

In such circumstances, my parents taught me that one knelt and asked God’s help, and he sent an angel if you’d been good and worthy and then it was all right. If you hadn’t been good and worthy nothing would happen. Nothing might also happen if you had been good and worthy and God was testing you. The central requirement was your belief. God himself was bound by no obligation. I had failed him along with everyone else, if he even existed. I never learned to truly believe, and to love the pain. I resented my cross rather than embracing it. I had refused to say, “Jesus.”

Until that night a part of me had still hoped there was a God, and that he would bend the rules and allow me happiness. Jesus was a nice idea; it just didn’t apply to me. The god I had grown up worshipping wasn’t the god I had been told he was, and at last I acknowledged it. I sat on my bed, and finally acknowledged that the god I knew best was a dark, capricious, vengeful dealmaker, an eater of souls, a god one flees if one can, not the sweet, gentle Jesus who loves and protects children. One cannot pray to such a god for mercy. There is none. Finally I let go of the idea of God as loving father. What would I know of such things, anyway? My loving father and equally loving mother had nearly destroyed me, for my own good.

Such a god is for the strong, not the weak, the broken, the lost. He was not for me. My doubt had already damned me. Why should God do anything for a doubting, adulterous, arsonous, conceited, bed-wetting show-off? Reasons fade, but guilt endures.

I had been a fool. Making up my mind to be happy hadn’t helped. Studying my Bible hadn’t helped. Counseling hadn’t helped. Even anti-depressants hadn’t helped. All I had were the forms with which I had tried to trick God into thinking that I was a good Christian. I walked into my bedroom, fell on my knees, bowed my head to pray—and couldn’t. If I prayed, God might notice me.

Prayer had been a part of my life since before I could remember. We prayed at family worship every morning, then again at breakfast. At school we began every day with yet another worship and yet another prayer. We had prayer before lunch, before we went home in the afternoons. We had prayer before supper, and again at evening worship. We had regular “Weeks of Prayer” every year, both at school and at church. We attended a midweek Prayer Meeting. We attended church every week, where prayers could evolve into altar calls, and last up to forty-five minutes. Our church held regular revival meetings, all of which we attended. We attended Friday night vespers. I couldn’t remember not knowing about Jesus, not knowing that I was responsible for His death. I knew how the world would end. I knew what would happen when I died (I would take a dirt nap). I knew what God loves (“a cheerful giver”) and what he hates (“a liar,” or alternatively, a Laodicean, both of which I was).

I looked exactly like a Good Christian. If anybody knew how to pray, I should—and I had thought I did. I knew the polite, public prayers for forgiveness of carefully vague, unspecified sins, for the missionaries and colporteurs, for the conversion of heathens of every shade of brown, yellow, and red, and for Jesus’ soon return. I knew how to talk politely to God about what interested Him—nothing that would make any demands on either of us, nothing too personal. I hadn’t been praying at all; I had been making cocktail conversation.

That night, on my knees, staring death in the face and finding it appealing, I realized I was afraid to really talk to God, that he was not my dear kind heavenly father, and that in fact he scared the shit out of me. I had lived my life carefully evading his notice, because I was afraid if he noticed me he would hurt me. I hadn’t been good; I had simply been unobtrusive. Now, when I had fallen so low, God’s message was that it was my own fault I was unhappy, and that if I couldn’t solve it on my own not to come crying to him. He’d already died for me; what else did I want?

I wanted to be happy. It was simple—and impossible. The silence filling my house stretched all the way to heaven. I had reached the end of something. What good was God, if he couldn’t offer comfort in the black times? Why had I spent so many years trying to please someone who terrified me? I didn’t have an answer. And then, suddenly, I did. I knew what I had: anger. I had wasted my life trying to please someone for whom I was never going to be good enough, who hated the very things about me that made me unique, who found my soul repugnant.

I was more than angry, I was furious—furious enough to speak rashly to God. Too depressed and angry to care if I pissed him off—after all, he had pissed me off—I delivered an ultimatum: “I don’t know if you’re real, God. I don’t think you are. If you’re there, and if you’re who I think you are I don’t want to know you anyway. If you’re hearing this and you’re not the god I know, you’re going to have to prove it, and you’re going to have to prove it now, because I’m finished. I’m not going to try to please you any more because trying is destroying me, and I can’t do it anyway. I’m going to be happy. I’m going to enjoy my life. If you’re real, and if you want me, this is your last chance.”

And then I took my Bible, let it fall open, and stabbed my finger on a verse, fully expecting to hit a genealogy or a smiting. What I got was Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” My finger was over the rest. When I read the passage now I realize that the whole thing is a diatribe against the pagans—that in fact Saint Paul is making the same point my own parents made, that one’s failure to be saved is very much ones’ own damned fault.

But that wasn’t what I read that night. I read that God’s nature was revealed in the story of creation, and in nature. “Fine,” I snapped. “So I’ll read Genesis, and because I’m a fair person I’ll keep a journal. But this isn’t going to be some exercise to prove the historical accuracy of the Genesis record, or the importance of the Sabbath, or the reason why women can’t be ministers. I’m going to ask one question: What does this story say about God’s nature?”

And so I started with Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” I read the chapter, then opened my journal and asked, “What does this tell me about God?” I thought of the order of the story—and realized that it was written in a time when the scientific necessity of air and light in creating and sustaining life weren’t understood in any but the most general, practical terms. And yet the story of creation moves from light, to air, to land, to plants, animals, birds, fish, man. The logical progression impressed me as much as the pleasure God takes not just in the end product, but in the process of creation.

I found myself thinking of fertility gods and goddesses—and how they honor not just the fact of life and regeneration, but creativity, freedom, and the triumph of life over death. As I read the story of creation, I saw more and more evidence for God either fertility god or mother—and indeed, the concepts of the great goddess and the earth mother bear me out. God brings life from nothing, nurtures it, sustains it—all the things traditionally associated with fertility gods and goddesses. I remembered a sermon in which the speaker (a renegade woman psychologist who had been invited into the pulpit at church as a special Mother’s Day treat) explained that the word for “God” in the Old Testament—and the associated pronouns—are gender neutral. I might have a heavenly mother—or a heavenly something else. Who knew?

I didn’t, and neither did anybody else. And yet I had been raised with the concept of God as a stern, demanding, father, one I could never please. Where had it come from? Partly from the Bible as translated and interpreted by generations of men who feared and hated women; more from my own experience. I had been afraid of God because I was afraid of my own father—and with good reason. “Fear means love,” my parents had said. “Fear God, and keep his commandments.” I obeyed them; I feared God as I feared them. Sitting on my bed, my cheeks stiff with the salt from my dried tears, I realized that if I was to survive I had to somehow separate the concepts of God and Parents. Unless I could find a face for god that I could approach, a god who valued and sustained life, a god that I could trust, that I could feel accepted me, I would die, because I couldn’t do it on my own.

I wrote. The fact is that I don’t even know that most basic fact of the divine identity—whether he is male, she is female, or they are both or neither. I don’t know. I don’t need to know. What I do know is that God is orderly, methodical, and at the same time an intensely creative being, one who loves beauty, who makes things for the sheer joy of it. In some ways, God is like me. Writing that was liberating. My religious education had been one long exercise in Giving Right Answers. Bible study guides were lists of questions—paired with the Bible verses that gave the “right” answers. For the first time I realized that there might not be a “right” answer, just many ways of looking at a question.

I read on. Enter the serpent. Satan wasn’t there. Nor was sin. Stripped of 20/20 hindsight designed to reinforce cultural and religious biases the story is at once more simple and more complex. A tree holding the secret of the knowledge of good and evil somehow appeared in the midst of the garden, along with a serpent—an ancient symbol of wisdom. How did it get there? Did God put it there? Did it sneak in on its own? Was it always there? Did the serpent bring it along with him? However it arrived, God clearly feared the knowledge it held, and that the serpent offered to Adam and Eve. Eve accepted, and stepped into a new world. Adam followed her for love. And everything changed.

I wrote again. Was what they did right or wrong? I don’t know. And that’s not the question I’m asking right now. The question is, what does this say about God? If God created the tree and put it into the garden, it tells me that choice and freedom are so important that even when we don’t realize a choice exists, God makes sure it’s brought to our attention. God doesn’t want a captive audience; he—or she—wants to be loved on his—or her—merits, freely. It also tells me that there are consequences for every action. God is orderly. The laws of cause and effect are powerful. Adam and Eve choose knowledge of good and evil—and in learning the difference they find great pain. Are they less or more for the experience? They are no longer innocent, certainly, but are they less? I don’t know. They are changed. And God deals with that reality. No recriminations. No punishment. There was simply cause and effect—and hope. God didn’t offer to take the knowledge of their experience away from Adam and Eve—sort of an emergency lobotomy. He, or she, or it, simply offered hope that someday the pain would end—and then God showed Adam and Eve how to deal with the immediate consequences of their knowledge. I realized that the “oldest profession” wasn’t prostitution or farming, as I had heard suggested. It was tailoring.

God as problem-solver. God as a way of ending pain. I had never thought in those terms. I wondered why. As I read farther I saw the pattern over and over—God repeatedly appeared in moments of great trouble and offered solutions—sometimes, as in the story of the flood, before the problem has become obvious.  Why did I never meet this God? I wondered. How could I have gone through all those years of religious education, of church attendance, and never met this kinder, more practical, more accepting God, this God who helped, and did not hurt, one who served life?

There was another inescapable conclusion. No matter how I read the story, the lesson was there. God was not all-powerful. If he created the tree, he had chosen not to be. If he had not created the tree, there was another force at work in the universe, one capable of defying him. An all-powerful God should prevent messes, rather than causing them, or simply doing damage control. So who was God? I didn’t know. All I knew was that the question was far more complex than I had ever realized.

That was a long time ago. I have no more answers today than I ever did.  As the years have passed I have gained not answers, but more questions. Which is God’s true face? Is there one? Or do we each find the God or Goddess we need? But my question has changed. I no longer ask “Who is God?” Instead, I ask, “Who is my God?” And th

The Man in the Woods

I lay shivering on a patchwork quilt in a logging camp cabin, bare below my waist. Daddy sits by my feet in his red and black plaid shirt, his face hard. He does something between my legs that feels nice and tickly at first. I jerk and giggle. He does it harder..too hard…it hurts. My body jerks again. “Hold still,” Daddy snaps, his face angry. But I can’t hold still. My body moves without my willing it, the tickle now a huge pain. I kick away, but he clamps a heavy hand on my thigh, locking me in place. I start to cry.

“Don’t be such a baby. Hold still.” His other hand, rough like old towels, hard like wood, scrubs between my icy legs. “This doesn’t hurt. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. You should be ashamed of yourself.” His face, like his voice, is hard and angry.

I am two and a half, and want more than anything to be a big girl, to not have to have the hard, hurting hands on me. I want more than anything to please him so he will love me and call me a good girl, but I can’t stop crying, and I can’t stop moving.

It is a terrible way to start a story, particularly my own. But life is what it is; the story my father and I wrote together begins on that bed, in that cabin. What was happening? I’m not certain. I suspect he was molesting me, but I will never know for sure. There is no one to ask anymore—at lest no one whose words I can trust. Our story must begin with a terrible question, in one of the most beautiful and primitive places imaginable—a  woods camp in the Central Oregon mountains in the early 1960’s.

Three families lived in that clearing in the woods. Our closest neighbor believed in Modesty, Nuteena, and God, probably in that order. Momma and our other neighbor lady believed in Modesty, too. I knew this because I heard them discussing it one day, sitting on the flat deck that jutted out from the sunny hillside like the prow of a ship.

“I believe in Modesty,” said the Nuteena lady. “I wear my dresses halfway between my knee and my ankle.”

“I believe in Modesty, too,” said Momma. “When my kids wear shorts I make sure they’re almost to their knees, and their shirts cover their stomachs.”

“I believe in Modesty myself,” said the third lady. “I make my kids wear panties.”

That exchange illustrates how we saw ourselves—we were somewhere in the middle of a continuum between the freakishly devout (the Nuteena lady) and the frightening (the I-make-my-kids-wear-panties lady). Understanding that continuum helps explain why my sisters and I grew up regarding ourselves as normal—we fell in the middle somewhere. We had two examples, one on each side of us, illustrating how things could be carried much, much further, and be much, much worse.

The Nuteena lady force fed her young foul concoctions and smacked them around because Sister White said so (a justification my own mother would use in later years, but didn’t at the time). The consensus among  the loggers and Forest Service men who worked with the fathers in our three houses was that she was a good woman, but a bit odd. Public opinion was less charitable to our other neighbor. Popular wisdom held that she “had a good heart, but was crazier than a loon.” Young as I was, I knew enough to stay well away from her. It was too bad, because her three children were the same age as my older sisters Pam and Marie, and me, and they were funny, bright, and incredibly creative. They had to be.

From time to time they escaped their own yard and sneaked up the path to our cabin. In between those visits we watched , fascinated, as their mother lurched around their yard, stick, flyswatter, dishtowel—whatever was available—in hand, screaming invective and imprecations at them for sins like not picking up their toys, not finishing their sandwiches, making her angry, being her children, being alive. Her violence  provoked comment, even among the notoriously violent loggers. One story whispered that she had tried to drown her three children in the river. A passing logger had seen, stopped, gotten the children away from her until she had calmed downed a bit—and then returned them to her. After a few months of watching the running battle being waged in the fenced patch of meadow just down the hill I believed the story. There was a horrible fascination in watching the beatings—and in watching the many and varied stratagems the children devised to keep body and soul together and functioning reasonably well. At the time, it never crossed my mind that they were anything other than exceptionally naughty children—why else would their mother be forced to enact such vengeance upon them? The fact that such beatings might result from something as trivial as stealing one of her aprons and doing a chorus line routine on the porch, or from nothing at all, didn’t really register with me. I believed what I had been taught, and what I saw acted out not only in my own home, but in the homes around me: that children were so naughty mothers were often forced to beat them.

The upshot of all this was that even though we were three families with children living in the midst of a vast forest we didn’t mingle as much as might have been expected. We observed each other, but we walked warily in those days, and kept to ourselves to a great degree. And when we got hurt, there was, implicit in the experience, the understanding that things could have been much, much worse. My sisters and I counted ourselves fortunate that we didn’t have to eat the Nuteena lady’s vile brews, and that while our own parents might hurt us sometimes, at least they never actually tried to drown us in the river. We tended to discount their excesses, simply because the world in which we lived not only accepted violence against children as the norm, but saw it as a positive virtue.

Loggers follow the trees. Our next camp was actually a small temporary town. Old white railroad cabins on skids lined one side of a rutted, muddy lane. A thin line of fir trees, a wood post fence, and a cow pasture lay across the lane from the cabins. Though the cows were gone, they had recently been there; the cowpies had hard gray crusts, but they were still squishy green inside. I knew this because I loved stomping in them.

My second memory of my father is seeing him, tall, strange, young and lean in his black jeans, plaid flannel shirt, and steel-toed boots, rattling an old push lawnmower back and forth across the rough cow pasture as the evening chilled and purpled around him. I was too young to understand why he would do such a thing. When I was older my oldest sister, Pam, told me that he did it because he worried the camp children might be bit by the rattlesnakes that infested the area. And that is my second memory of my father. Those two—Daddy on the bed, and Daddy mowing the meadow in twilight—sum up most of our life together. At the time, though, I was too young to understand the contradiction in the memories—that the man who hurt me in one would go to great lengths to protect me in the other. At the time, it was just life, and for me, life was the logging camps. Even Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Wisconsin, the place where my memory really begins, was a lost, vanished world. The second camp—fragile, temporary cabins, dappled sun on pine needles, and people, everywhere people—filled my days.

During the days I followed my sisters, whining because they ran too fast. I made myself sick on the tire swing Daddy had hung in the tree for us. I stomped in cowpies in the field. I dug red worms from the gold-flecked mud by the pond. I looked for the water snake in the clear green water where the cattails and purple and yellow flags grew next to the bathhouse. I laughed at Blondie the dog tumbling in the dusty road with Ginger our Siamese cat. During the day I ran through dusty, pine-scented sunshine, sang, fought, wept.

When Daddy got off work before dark he took us for walks in the woods. On those walks Daddy said we must be quiet, lest we miss the life happening all around us. “Look around you, kids,” Daddy said quietly. We looked at the sun dappling the red fir needles carpeting the ground, at the trees tall and straight, at Daddy in his flannel shirt and black pants, the sun glinting off the curls, waves, and spikes in his hair. “See all these trees?” he’d say. “See how lacy their branches look? These are tamarack trees. Tamarack trees are different from all the other evergreens around here. They lose their needles each fall. A fire gets going in tamarack it doesn’t just burn; it explodes. It jumps from tree to tree, then burns to the ground. Out here in the woods you could never outrun it. It’d trap you, and you’d burn to death and nobody’d ever find your body. Don’t let me ever catch you playing with fire.”

On those walks he seemed at home in a way I never saw him anywhere else. Something in him resonated with the forest and the animals that lived there. He became an easier man when he moved among trees. The thought of taking that away from him, from us all, was unthinkable.

“We won’t play with fire, Daddy,” we promised, solemnly. And we didn’t. In the cold blue and purple evenings before fire season Daddy built a careful fire in our fire pit and Daddy toasted us marshmallows and sang to us of frogs courting, girls coming round the mountain driving six white horses, grasshoppers sitting on railroad tracks, turkeys in straw, great-granddad who washed his face in the frying pan, shortnin’ bread, Bill Bailey, and Old Black Joe. I gazed past the snapping orange fire and watched the deep green mountains turn blue, then black against the gold, then rose, then purple sky, and I shivered, for night was coming.

Our bedtime ritual began with a trip to the outhouse for Pam, Marie, and me. Pam went first with the flashlight, since she was oldest and most responsible. The beam shone a sickly, dim orange on the path before her feet. Marie came next, because she said so. I brought up the rear, stumbling over the exposed roots, rocks, and pinecones that littered the path. I must stay close enough to see the light and not get lost—though it did me no practical good as an aid to avoiding obstacles—but not so close that I crowded Marie. We groped our way through the night forest, the firs making jagged black shapes against the blue, starlit sky far overhead.

I wasn’t afraid of bears or cougars, though both were present; Daddy had explained that if we didn’t hurt them, they wouldn’t hurt us. My fears were more real, and more immediate. I was afraid Pam and Marie would leave me behind in the dark. I hurried as fast as I could, trotting in Marie’s wake, stumbling through the dark, occasionally irritating her by falling against her. We crossed the flat valley, then started up the slope to where the outhouse stood. This outhouse was a two-holer, and it stank.

Pam and Marie hurried in together, taking the flashlight with them. I stood outside, shivering, rubbing my arms, and whining. When they finished they came out together, bringing the flashlight with them, and the outhouse was mine. Pam held the light for me so I could see to scramble up on the bench—“Don’t fall in,” she cautioned me each time—and get myself positioned over the hole. Then she closed the door to preserve my modesty and I was alone in the dark, crouched over a hole down which I might fall, a foul pit beneath me.

And now I must try to go, and go fast. Sometimes Marie teased me: “Don’t fall in, Bodie…don’t fall in…oops, be careful, you’re going to fall in…” When the teasing failed Pam and Marie grew impatient. “You done yet, Bodie?” “Hurry up; it’s cold out here.” “You done yet?” “We’re leaving. Goodbye…..” I tried to hurry, there in the dark, stinking, cold, clutching the splintery wood seat, hoping I wouldn’t fall. At last I finished, slid off the seat, yanked up my corduroy pants, and fumbled my way to the door. Pam and Marie, already well down the path, shouted at me to hurry up. I hurried, stumbling in the dark, my hands aching from hitting the gravel when I fell, and from the cold. Oddly enough, what I remember best about those trips is the sky, impossibly purple-blue-black, and the huge stars set in the cut lace of the fir trees’ silhouettes—so, so many of them. I have never seen such a sky since.

Back at the cabin, evergreen tang drifted icily through the chinks in our silvery, unpainted interior walls, stealing the warmth of the day. Kerosene lanterns cast a warm, buttery glow over the patchwork quilts on our beds. It was nearly time to put out the light and sleep, but first, there was the ritual of Daddy’s hands, and his angry face.

His face and hands were there in the morning, too, when he leaned over the bed’s iron foot in the misty gray morning light. Mountain air flowed bitter clean over my stinking wet body as he pulled off my wet night diaper. This time his words were different. “A great big girl like you still wearing a diaper at night… I’m ashamed you’re my daughter.”  And so for me, the two things—my father’s hands and night time urination—became inextricably linked, and both of them happened because I was a bad girl and needed a night diaper, because I was lazy, because I was two.

If I had to assign a descriptive title to my father in those years, I would have called him The Man in the Woods. Throughout my early childhood, in all our various cabins in all the various camps, the one constant was that Daddy knew and loved the forest and its animals—that it was his true home.

In spring, before logging season started, Daddy worked for the Forest Service gathering the winter-felled trees and branches into “slash” piles and burning them. This reduced the danger of forest fires later, or at least so the theory ran. It had to be done early, while the forest still held its deep layer of winter moisture—the time of year when the fawns are born. The does saw the slash piles as ideal nursery sites—nearly impenetrable tangles of brush and boughs, manifold hiding places close to the ground.

One night Daddy came home carrying a tiny fawn. “I had already lit the slash fire,” he said. “The whole thing was blazing away. And then I saw this little guy, laying so still on the ground, just like his Momma told him to do. He was going to obey his mother, even if it killed him.” He stopped and looked at us to see if we had gotten the point. Our guilty eyes dropped. It was a point Daddy made often—that we should be instantly, unquestioningly obedient, even if it cost us our lives. That the fawn had achieved this level of obedience at such a tender age and I had not was a black mark against me.

“I pulled him out. I would’ve left him for his mother, but with this kind of deer, once humans have touched their babies, they won’t come back.” Daddy said this to justify an action that he had frequently condemned in others—picking up “abandoned” baby animals and carrying them home. “Most times the mothers are just off hunting,” he’d say. “If you take the baby you hurt the mother, and the baby probably won’t live anyway. If you see a baby animal in the woods, don’t touch it. Its mother will be back.”

Our faith in Daddy’s woods lore was unshakable. After all, he had grown up in the forests of Upper Michigan, and now worked in the woods. He came home at night smelling of sweat, diesel, and pine. His hands were black and sticky with pitch. Daddy slept in the cabin at night, but he really lived in the woods.

The Face of God

“Home” was a slippery concept in our house. For Daddy, ‘home’ wasn’t the woods camp, where he slept at nights and where we lived or the woods, where he seemed most at ease within his skin. ‘Home’ was heaven. He was just waiting for the go-ahead to go live with Jesus. “Christians have to be ready to give anything up at a moment’s notice,” he said over and over. “I’m ready to go at any time. Eternity is just a second away.”

“This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through/My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue/The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door/And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore,” he sang on the long drive to church on Sabbath mornings. The song frightened me. What if Daddy took the beckonin g angels up on their invitation? Where would we live? It never occurred to me to consider heaven my home as well. Heaven wasn’t home to Momma, Pam and Marie, either. For them, home was Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Wisconsin, where Momma had been born and the town where she had sipped sodas at the drugstore, and where her parents brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends still lived, and where Momma had taken Pam, Marie, Sally and me last winter.

If anything proved the impermanence of my life, it was Momma’s sacrifice. She had already given up her home for the Lord and Daddy. “I wasn’t raised an Adventist,” Momma told her friends, tossing her head coltishly. “I never heard of one until I met Dan.” Momma was a New Convert. I wondered if she was happy about it. She spoke longingly of family picnics, of chicken dinners, of summers on the farm, of after-school trips to the drugstore, of her many cousins.

“Momma cried every day for a year after the move,” Grandma told me later. “She didn’t want to go, but your Daddy thought Grandpa would interfere with how they wanted to raise you kids.” So there it was—Momma had sacrificed her home so we could be ready when Jesus swooped down and carried Daddy off to heaven. It seemed a little hard on Momma, to have sacrificed her home so Daddy could go to heaven.

The story was that we could all go with him if we shaped up and turned into Good Adventists. Regrettably, I was not a Good Adventist by nature. Nevertheless, Momma and Daddy persevered. The centerpiece of their effort was family worship. Family worship was as tightly choreographed as Swan Lake. First came memory verses, which we must memorize each week. We all learned them quickly. We forgot them just as quickly—a source of constant frustration to Daddy. He spoke fondly of the golden days in Symington, when Pam, age five, memorized her memory verses for the entire year—fifty-two Bible verses, which she could spout, chapter and verse, on command. Flash a picture at her and she could rattle off the Word of the Lord in nothing flat. This both pleased and irritated Daddy. He was unbearably proud that she had once achieved this—and more than a little annoyed that none of us had succeeded in mastering scripture to that degree since. We had become Laodicean children, lukewarm, fit only to be spewed out of the Almighty’s mouth, and I wasn’t even three yet.

Momma tried. She had us repeat our verse for the week, then the verse for last week, then the verse for the week before that. Occasionally one of us showed a flash of the Holy Spirit and managed to repeat ten or eleven verses. Daddy would get his hopes up when this happened, but they were invariably dashed as we foundered on the shoals of some verse memorized back in the ancient past nearly a quarter of a year before.

The second part of family worship, right after the memory verses, was the Lesson. The Lesson was a Bible story that I found mildly interesting on Sabbath night, slightly less interesting on Sunday night, and increasingly annoying as the week progressed. After that we might have an improving story from our Little Friend, the magazine we got each week in Sabbath School.

If we said our memory verses nicely, listened quietly to the lesson and the improving story, and if Momma wasn’t too tired, the third part of worship was Sam Campbell.  Sam Campbell lived in the woods, like we did, and wrote books about the remarkable animals around his cabin. He also wrote about his wife, Ginny, and their friends. He, Ginny and their friends told jokes and took canoe trips. They ate bacon, because Sam Campbell was a Non-Adventist. Ginny, was rumored to Belong to the Church, and we all assumed was working tirelessly to Bring Him Into the Fold, probably regaling him with God’s Final Message for These Last Days—also known as the Three Angels’ Message—and surreptitiously dumping the bacon into the lake as they paddled their canoe through the wilderness.

But Sam Campbell remained apostate. Though he clearly believed in God and made frequent references to Him in his books, he continued to eat bacon and other meat, didn’t keep the Sabbath, and stubbornly maintained that the important thing was treating the earth and other people kindly.

Sam Campbell didn’t Live Up to the Light He Knew, thanks to Ginny. He was bound for Hell along with Grandma and Grandpa, and it was Ginny’s fault. In spite of his lost condition, we all loved his stories, Momma in particular. Sam Campbell lived in Wisconsin. His lake was clear across the state from where Grandma and Grandpa lived, and where Momma had grown up, but still, Wisconsin was Wisconsin. Sam Campbell made family worships worthwhile.  Momma read us a chapter each night, sometimes two.

After Sam Campbell came the prayers. Prayers were subdivided into two parts, the Lord’s Prayer, which we recited together, and personal prayers, when we were expected to address God on our own. This required us to be not only bilingual—God spoke only King James Version—but eloquent. Instead of “thanks that it didn’t rain today,” God wanted to hear, “We thank thee for all thy manifold blessings, and especially for the gift of the sun, which thou gavest to warm the earth.” Apparently God might forget why he had created a sun in the first place if we didn’t jog His memory.
In the beginning, Momma helped us with our prayers, prompting us into the paths along which God’s interests ran. Few of God’s interests coincided with mine. God was not interested in my lost doll, in the fact that Marie had been mean to me that day, in my hopes that Grandma and Grandpa would come visit soon. God didn’t care about worldly things, which meant that he didn’t really care about the things that were most important to me.

God was interested in public relations. When I grew older and my language skills improved I learned to pray for “the missionaries and colporteurs all across this vast harvest field.” I knew that missionaries took shirts, pants and brassieres to people in Africa, but I had no idea what a colporteur was. I had a vague idea that the “vast harvest field” was comprised of woolly-headed heathens standing at attention, waiting for missionaries with enormous scythes to give them good Christian haircuts. I prayed for forgiveness of my sins in general, but didn’t go into details—God already knew about the day’s screw-ups. I prayed that Grandma and Grandpa would get baptized and not go to hell with Sam Campbell. I didn’t pray for comfort; being a Good Christian wasn’t supposed to comfortable.

Every member of the family who had learned to talk prayed, every night. All of us covered the same territory, and all of us who were up to it spoke in godly language—the more circumscribed, archaic, and parenthetical, the better. God liked asides, subordinate clauses, interjections, prepositional phrases, compound structures. Godly language was very hard on the knees. In my earliest memories we knelt by a couch, our hands folded. But then Momma and Daddy heard about the Family Circle, and we knelt in the middle of the floor, clasping each other’s hands. Before she closed her eyes Momma made sure that all of us were Kneeling Up. Kneeling up—standing on one’s knees—was more uncomfortable, and therefore more respectful, than Kneeling Down—or settling one’s bottom on the calves of one’s legs.

Sometimes I started out Kneeling Up, but wore out halfway through all the godly language and settled my bottom quietly onto my calves. If Momma, Daddy, Pam or Marie felt me do it through our linked hands they yanked forward, eyes closed, until I either Knelt Up again or did a nosedive into the cabin’s rough wooden floor.

After the prayers we stood, knees stiff and aching, and sang a song. After the last notes we released each other’s hands, and worship was over until tomorrow night, when we would do it again.  Actually, to say that family worship was over is a bit misleading. The memory verses kept seeping out into the rest of our days. Daddy never gave up hope that one of us might someday actually duplicate Pam’s feat. He imagined us reciting the all the year’s memory verses in church and making him proud, as Pam did in that lost and golden age. Memory verses were something he could quantify, a spiritual value that could be measured in concrete terms. He could count the verses and know our spiritual condition.

“Drill them,” he told Momma in the dark, cold mornings while she was sleepily flipping his breakfast pancakes on our Coleman stove. He leaned his pitch-stained, muscular brown arms on the table beside his battered tin hat. That tin hat had saved his life. A small dent in the crown bore witness to the day a tree fell wrong and glanced off Daddy’s head. If not for his tin hat, Daddy would have been deader than a doornail. He said so often. “Eternity is just a second away,” he said. “We always have to be ready to meet the Lord. Drill them during the day, not just at night. They have to be ready for the Big Test.”

And Momma did drill us, calling us from our play each morning to listen to the Morning Watch reading and to parrot back the word of the Lord. We did it quickly, wanting to get back to our tire swing, pet fawns, and mud pies. But nothing helped; we were still Laodicean children, unable to remember more than about twelve verses at a time. Daddy would be a batching it in that jewel-studded, glittering mansion.

Worship was morning and evening; Sabbath came once a week. Sabbath was unlike any other day. For one thing, on Sabbath mornings Daddy slept in until six-thirty, then lay in bed and re-read his Sabbath School lessons for the whole week, leafing through his Bible, making notes in the margins of his Quarterly. He led a class at church, and had to prepare just like we did.

Instead of oatmeal or pancakes we had cold cereal and fresh fruit for breakfast, the boxes bright beside the milk bottle on our table. Momma dressed us in our Sabbath dresses—pastel pink, baby blue, puff sleeves, round necklines—and then hurried into her own dress while Daddy took Pam and Marie for a walk.

Sally and I were too little. I watched through the window every Sabbath morning as they walked along the deer path that ran across the hillside up behind the cabins. They acquired a glamour on those walks that they didn’t have on weekdays: two flaxen-haired little girls in soft pastel dresses, and tall dark-haired Daddy, elegant in his pleated and pin-striped suit instead of his red and black plaid flannel shirts, black pants, and steel-toed boots. Sometimes they returned laughing and frisking and Daddy was smiling. Sometimes they returned in tears and Daddy was thin-lipped. “I just wanted a nice picture,” he snapped at Momma one Sabbath morning. “Just one nice picture, and do you think they’d cooperate? They wouldn’t sit still, and they wouldn’t smile.” We drove to church in tense silence. Pam and Marie’s faces were white, their eyes red. They stared at their laps. They had ruined Daddy’s nice picture. No excuse was good enough for that.

The ruined picture faded into the past. Pam and Marie learned to laugh and play again. Daddy gradually forgot. Then film came back from the laboratory. We sat in our cabin, an electric cord run up from the cookhouse for the big event, a sheet hung on the wall, our slide projector shooting bright trapezoids onto the sheet. Me swinging. Momma holding Sally. Our pet deer. And then Pam and Marie on a stump, faces tense and set. Marie’s left leg was slightly blurred. Daddy was angry all over again. “You kids just ruined it. That would have been a beautiful picture, if you would have just smiled. It wouldn’t have killed you to look cheerful for once.” Pam and Marie hung their heads. Their tight, white faces stared down at us from the wall. There could be no doubt; they had ruined Daddy’s perfect picture. Daddy never really got over that. Even after we were all grown up, every time he flashed that slide on the wall his mouth got tight.

In my earliest days Daddy was an uneasy combination of the Man in the Woods, protector of animals and nature on weekdays, and God the infallible accuser at night on the bed, in the early mornings, and on Sabbath.  My father often said that parents stand in the place of God to their children. I believed him. And that‘s where things got confusing. My father said that the God he represented was God-the-Father and Jesus (I think the Holy Spirit was too airy-fairy to make the cut as far as Daddy was concerned), but the Jesus I learned about in the Bible stories and at church was kind, loving, and patient. He lifted the children up to sit on his knees. He didn’t smack them around. He looked at children and saw them as they were, and liked them. Daddy may have seen himself as Jesus, but I saw him another way; for me, he was the Man in the Woods, and I both feared him and sought his approval. My father was indeed God to me. The question was, which God? Jesus and Daddy were simply too far apart for the symbolism to work.

And this brings me to another of the central facts of my entire life with my father: He was obsessed with seeing to it that we presented the perfect picture—that we were modest, devout, loyal, obedient, cheerful, industrious, and responsible. When we ruined his perfect picture—Pam and Marie by refusing to smile and sit still; me by wearing a diaper to bed at the advanced age of two—he responded with all the weapons in his considerable arsenal—shaming, angry, belittling remarks; guilt; Divine censure in the form of Bible verses condemning our behavior; and in the end, by teaching us to use the same weapons on each other. The picture was all-important. The picture was how Daddy judged us—and how we judged ourselves. And none of us measured up.

The odd truth of the logging camp was that it existed to serve the loggers’ needs, but while the men were out in the woods women and children ruled. During the day it was a magic place, the trees tall and stark around us, the meadow wide and rolling, the purple and yellow flags in the bog by the bathhouse tall and brilliant, the sun lemony warm, the air pure and chilly in the shade. We children played in mobs and throngs in the rutted lane and drifted from cabin to cabin, younger ones watching the older ones play endless games of Monopoly, or Sorry, or Trouble. We sang tunelessly about working on the railroad, ants marching, and old men rolling home—counting songs, mostly, and ballads.

Just to the east of camp there was a raft on a shallow marshy pool. I was not allowed on it because I was too little, but I loved watching the bigger children stand carefully in its center and pole around the pond, avoiding the tall cattails that grew in the shallows, chasing frogs off grassy hummocks, looking for water snakes. I loved listening to the frogs croak in the bathhouse, even though I was not allowed inside. The bathhouse was communal and tainted. Men were sometimes naked in there, Momma said, and they called “come on in,” anyway. It was no place for women and children, not even during the hot day when the men were far away in the woods. Momma sluiced us down in our cabin in a tin tub.
When men’s voices filled the air, shouting for their suppers, laughing, talking, and sometimes fighting Momma called us home. “You kids stay inside now,” she said. “The men are back.” The nighttime camp seemed not quite safe. The men were unpredictable, like bears or cougars. We spent our evenings close to the cabin, or inside.

Religion was a big part of our lives, but I don’t remember it being a crushing burden. It was just there, a part of the day, but there were many other parts as well. God was the Man in the Woods, im mense, powerful, and concerned about bigger issues than a small child’s feelings.  God neither liked me nor approved of me, but it was nothing personal; he didn’t like or approve of any of his children. God was good. I was evil. Those were our definitions. I was too young to even wish things were different; God was what he was, just as I was what I was. There was nothing mysterious about it. It was just the dark side of His face.

Former Fundies.com

A place for former fundamentalists to meet and share their experiences both withing fundamentalism–and after.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.