I remember strange details from that day. I remember wearing a pink Strawberry Shortcake shirt and denim overalls. I remember that my white-blond hair was pulled into two pigtails. I remember the smell of wood chips and the hot steel of the monkey bars on the playground. I remember the looks on the kids’ faces when I asked them where they were going when they died.
Do you know for sure? I asked when one girl, maybe around six years old, with chocolate smeared around her mouth had answered, Heaven.
There were two boys who were ignoring me, which I had found to be very detrimental to their spiritual well-being. It had been Missionary Month at church and school, because I went to the church’s school. I had heard about the communists in Russia and the few people that smuggled Bibles through the Iron Curtain. The words had made me tingle when I rolled them like marbles around in my mouth. Communists. Russia. Iron Curtain. It sounded so cold and thrilling. I had heard about Amy Carmichael, who had been alive when my great-grandmother was interceding for her sons during World War II. Amy had rescued orphans in India and saved their mortal souls as well. In my fourth grade class, we started writing letters to children in Haiti to tell them about our personal Lord and Savoir, Jesus Christ. I had asked my teacher for more than one child to write to. I wanted to do my part. I would lie awake at night, thinking about all the souls of children who were dying of starvation and sickness and going to hell, all because no one had told them about Jesus.
This burning desire in me to save souls was countered by my extreme fear of speaking out loud. I was terrified of talking to people, especially strangers. I had been going to this playground every day all summer, watching the other children: Toby was the bully who picked on the little girls, Sarah and Holly were little princesses (snobs I called them because they made fun of my Maid Marion costume, which I liked to wear on a regular basis), and Johnny was Toby’s redheaded sidekick who laughed at everything he said. Mary was the oldest girl at the playground. She also had the darkest skin of all the children. She never laughed and carried a heavy backpack, never putting it on the ground even when she hung from the monkey bars. Tiny was the fattest boy I’d ever seen and he carried an inhaler with him, using it sporadically throughout the day. There were several others whose names I didn’t know. Every day I thought about what I should say to them. How I should tell them about Jesus. I brought home-baked cookies that my brother and I had made with Mom’s guidance. The kids scarfed down the cookies, but then ignored me. I brought my illustrated Bible one day and sat quietly; reading for over an hour, but no one asked what I was reading.
So, I decided that I should just blurt out the question: If you were to die today, do you know where you would go? I stood frozen, waiting to be made fun of, which was worse than dying.
Toby finally said, what is funnier than a dead baby? He was a good looking kid, maybe a year older than me, with spiky brown hair and a cute smile. His smile at that moment was not cute, though. It was just plain mean. A dead baby in a clown costume, he said deadpan.
The other kids laughed and said, Ew, gross, encouraging him to tell another joke.
What is the difference between a baby and an onion? No one cries when you chop up the baby. The laughter rose from the crowd of brightly colored children and hit my body like the stench of the egg farm we drove passed when we visited Grandma’s.
I ran across the playground; hot tears burned my eyes, filling my plastic-framed glasses and blurring my vision. A piece of broken sidewalk sprang up—it seemed—out of nowhere and I fell, skinning my knee. I sat there, feeling persecuted for the cause, and bawling my eyes out. Suddenly, a hand tapped my shoulder. I turned around, wiping my snotty nose on my sleeve and rubbing my eyes red raw. It was my mother with her calloused hands, dirt under her nails from working in the vegetable garden. I couldn’t tell her what had happened. She held my hand and we walked home in silence. In the bright kitchen we ate big bowls of Breyer’s strawberry ice cream.
Mom told me a story just the other day on the phone. She had called collect, long distance, but I didn’t mind. I’d work an extra shift at The Olive Garden if I had to to pay the phone bill. Mom told me that when she was eleven and Aunt Minnie was nine, my Aunt Gayle, who was sixteen, had a boyfriend. Mom and Aunt Minnie always hung around the two of them while they sat on the hood of his ruby red Thunderbird, drinking Cokes. Gayle was the beautiful sister with thick, licorice hair and long eye lashes. Her boyfriend, Kaleb Green, was a football player and while his father was a deacon at Jubilee Baptist Church, his mother was the head of just about every charity organization in Delaware, Ohio.
My mother said that one afternoon Kaleb came over when Aunt Gayle wasn’t at home. She was at cheerleading practice. She and Aunt Minnie ran out to greet him and brought him the last cold Coke in the fridge. All grins and giggles, Kaleb led the girls down by the Olentangy River and told them it wasn’t a sin if they weren't naked. It was just playing around.
I had asked Mom if they told anyone and she said, No. Daddy hadn’t much use for girls and the quieter we were, the better he liked us. We just didn’t want to cause any trouble.
As I sit here now, cross-legged on the edge of the Pacific Ocean smoking a Camel Light, I wonder about this little invisible girl I used to be. I wonder what would have happened if the children at the playground had listened. Would I have become a hands-on missionary or a Christian self-help writer or, even worse, an advocate for the Bush administration?
How can I make you understand what it was like to be there?
Religion is about heaven and hell, but that’s not the whole story. Religion is about strength of will and faith and fear and guilt. Religion is about knowing a secret that you simultaneously want to tell everyone about and feel arrogant when you meet someone who doesn’t know your secret. Religion is about amazing grace and wayward sinners and great heroic tales where the good guys always win.
Religion is also about oppression. And in my religion, it was about female suppression. It was about not being good enough to preach or be the head of anything or make decisions alone. It was about submission and obedience and conformity.
Religion made me feel safe, but it also made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. It made me feel lonely, insecure, and sad. It also gave me great purpose and the eternal security of my soul.
I was told that religion was the great Love Story between God and His people. I fell head over heels when I was old enough to talk and sing songs in Sunday School and understand colorful pictures in my Children’s Bible. I fell hard and fast and long. I wanted to live happily ever after.
I had my heart broken by a two thousand year old religion.
I was only nine years old. Someone should have told me that the weight of mankind’s eternal resting place was not my job to carry. My job was to make up stories for my Barbie dolls and play dress-up and watch Shirley Temple movies. My job was to pretend, laugh, play, cry, and not worry. You could blame my dad, I suppose, since he is a pastor. Or you could blame my mom, who never ever contradicted my dad so I didn’t know, until recently, what she really thought about anything.