That Oldtime Religion
Another major input, philosophically, in my childhood is religion. I have in my ancestry both drunks and unofficial Baptist preachers, not an uncommon pattern. My great-grandfather is said to have been a chaplain in the Confederate Army, though no records support the chaplain part, and to have been a “circuit-rider” hardshell Baptist preacher during the rest of his lifetime in central Florida, “hardshell” meaning extremely fundamentalist.
I cannot remember a time when I was not taken to church at least twice a week and, as a teenager, three or four times, counting choir practice and business meeting. My mother was as active as she could manage in the church, given that she worked hard and had an hour and a half bus ride each way to work every week day. (People think of Miami as Miami Beach, but I’m here to tell you that its a long way, in more ways than one, from Miami Beach to the unincorporated area we lived in between Opa Locka and Hialeah.)
The very first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a preacher, but when I told my mother this, she instantly quashed it by telling me that the only female preacher she ever knew of was Amy Simple McPherson. Wouldn’t I just as soon marry a preacher or be a missionary or a music director? That is how religious my family was and, incidentally, how sexist.
However, the religious fervor was all through my mother. My father refused to ever go to church, except for one of the two times I was baptized and only then because I begged him. He was considered by my mother and her churchy relatives, one of whom was a performing gospel singer, to be an “atheist.” This intra-household religious schism was the source of great conflict in my family, as each of us children, at around the age of 13, questioned the need to go to Sunday School and church each and every Sunday, when my Dad never went and spent his Sundays— after the unions came in—fishing.
My brother succeeded in establishing the right to not go to church, but my sister and I did not, despite our persistent efforts to gain this right, more than likely because church was more important in the bringing up of females, central to the preservation of their virginity until marriage (it failed in my case, at least, and I presume, in my sister’s, as it failed in my mother’s.) In my adult years, during which I have spent an enormous amount of time processing my Christian upbringing, I realized that, technically, my father was not an atheist. He was an agnostic, but the Christians in my world did not, and still do not, make such subtle distinctions. If you were not a member of a church, if you did not attend church, you were an atheist, even if you simply said, “I don’t know.”
My father’s position on religion, I believe, offered to me something most of my friends did not have–the example of an atheist who was basically a good man. The lesson intended was that not all good people go to church, but the ones that do not will certainly go to hell. When my father died, the greatest cause of my mother’s grief was that he would not go to heaven and she would, therefore, never see him again. The lesson I actually got from his agnosticism was that maybe good has nothing to do with religion.
War and peace
As an adult, I put it together that, in spite of his many good qualities, my father was a drinker and alcohol might well explain, at least in part, why my childhood memories are infused with so many episodes of what would nowadays be called domestic violence. I never saw my father hit my mother and I, myself, was only beaten once with a belt, the non-buckle end. But, I heard it. I definitely heard it. And, an undercurrent of violence was rarely far below the surface when my father was at home or, even when he was not. On one memorable occasion, I also saw the aftermath when my father brought me home from church on a day when my mother did not go. He, so tense with anger that I dared not speak to him, dumped me at the house without parking and took off again, burning rubber. I went inside to find my mother crawling on the floor holding together the incision from her recent hysterectomy, which he had caused to come open by some act of violence. My memory stops there, but I assume I must have, as usual, run to the neighbors for assistance.
Psychologists have pointed out that the child of parents who fight all the time is going to grow up rebellious, so there is a thread to add to the others, in terms of rebellion. My parents could fight more or less continuously from Friday night to Monday morning. Once, when I was 12 and trying to screen out the fighting with my omnipresent book, there came a lull in the screaming followed by the sound of my father in the bathroom on the other side of the bedroom wall. I was sitting on my bed, leaning against the wall perpendicular to the shared wall. A few seconds later, my father’s fist came through that wall about two feet from my face. He had punched it so hard that his fist broke through two sheets of drywall. I wonder now what would have happened had his fist hit a stud. I looked up from my book, regarded the huge fist covered with red hair and freckles and thought, “I’m so glad he hit the wall instead of my mother.” That’s how accustomed I had become to the fights.
Because such stories abounded in our working class neighborhood and the fights overheard happening at our next door neighbor’s house in Spanish were as bad or worse, I did not consciously realize until I went to college that all families were not as violent as mine. But, I must have subconsciously realized something because I can remember praying hard that my parents would just go ahead and divorce and get it over with. It has taken me most of my adult life and a failed marriage to an alcoholic to completely acknowledge the role of alcohol in my frightening childhood. Booze of any kind, including beer, was not allowed at our house, until my sister married a Marine and the rule was relaxed to allow beer in the backyard. The only other alcohol I ever saw in my childhood was the bottle of brandy I found hidden between boards in our boat.
The only alcohol I ever saw in the house was the bottle of apricot brandy my siblings found in Daddy’s closet after his death. They were working on this bottle when I arrived from California for the funeral and joined them in the odd, ad hoc ritual, a tacit acknowledgment among the three of us that our father had indeed been a drinker. My mother was too busy grieving to enforce the no-alcohol rule and we were too busy grieving to care about enforcing it ourselves. I was processing the thought that, when I had started buying booze to drink—in very modest amounts—I had for some strange reason chosen apricot brandy. Had it been a nostalgic smell?
Combining the household teetotal rule with stories overheard at family reunions about how rowdy my father and uncles were in their youths, and with the information that my grandfather made pineapple moonshine during and after Prohibition, I speculate that my mother made the teetotal rule at some point in my parent’s marriage, just because my father drank and became even scarier when drinking.
Throughout my childhood, he was completely unpredictable, displaying the Jekyll-and-Hyde personality I learned about years later when I went to Al-Anon meetings as the wife of an alcoholic. In his Dr. Jekyll incarnation, my father was the most honorable of men—kind, funny, honest, tolerant and hard-working. But, Mr. Hyde might appear at any time and that man was so terrifying that I spent hours in my childhood hiding in the washhouse or the grapefruit tree next to it to stay out of his way. The washhouse, which had been remodeled from a chicken coop, was full of harmless saucer-sized Miami “house spiders” and I was very frightened of them, but my father in a rage was much, much scarier.
One of the earliest subjects of such fighting that I remember was about my brother, Jackie, and in my mind the root of all these fights was what happened to him when we moved into a two-bedroom house in Miami. My sister and I were to share one of the bedrooms; my parents, the other. I saw the problem immediately and asked my father, “what about Jackie? Where is he going to sleep?” It turned out that Jackie was the odd man out in terms of having a home, for the year or two before he graduated from high school at 16 and left us. He slept on the convertible couch in the living room and had no closet for his clothes or space for his belongings or privacy of any kind. I cannot imagine, even now, where his clothes could have been but I do remember thinking to myself how very unjust it was, in spite of the fact that I experienced him often as a bully.
He should have had a room, especially since he had chores to do at home, as did my sister and myself. When he left home to work on Miami Beach and live in his own room, he became the subject of furious and long fights between my parents. I would hie, as usual, to the wash house, far back in the back yard and hide in the rinsing tub during these fights. I remember being there one day for hours, listening to my parents accuse each other of having “chased Jackie away” while I sobbed and sobbed and crooned to myself, “Jackie, come back. Jackie, come back.”
I was young enough to think that Jack’s return would slow the fights, at least remove one apparent reason for them. But, I also thought, during the fight that confined me to the rinsing tub, that both of my parents were idiots if they thought either one of them had driven him away. It was clear to me that they both did. By not making room for him, by making it obvious that they were looking forward to his leaving home, by insisting that he go to a vocational school after having skipped a grade in an accelerated program and, the final blow, I’m sure, by having the effrontery to ask him to contribute some of his pay, when he started working, toward the family, they had both chased him away. He would have been a fool to essentially pay them rent when he could afford to pay someone else rent and actually have a room to live in. I knew that, even then.
I watched these dynamics closely and made mental notes and resolutions on the basis of the fights. When my sister graduated from high school, the fights seemed to shift to screaming female ones between her and my mother. My sister had had a very bad time as a teenager. I knew more about her situation than my brother’s, not only because we were closer in age, so that I was older when the crisis hit, and because we were both female, but also because we shared a tiny bedroom. Neither of us could hide anything from the other.
She had had to wear braces, something I probably should have had as well but did not get because, as my father said, “Well, she can close her mouth over her teeth, so it doesn’t really show.” My sister could not close her mouth over her teeth, so she wore braces for a long time. Then, when the braces had not yet come off, she was nearly killed by a drunk driver who hit her as she walked along the sidewalk-less street one evening, on her way to church choir practice, after Daddy refused to drive her. My mother did not drive, so my father had complete control over who got to go anywhere, anytime. Some deal had been made before I was born about church–he never refused to drive us to church, but if he did not drive you somewhere else, you were going to walk, ride the bus or give up on going, even if it was church choir practice.
As a result of the accident, my sister sustained a compound fracture of her tibia and a concussion. She was in a cast from her hip to her toes for six months. About the time she graduated from high school, maybe sometime before that, she came out of both the cast and the braces and turned into a gorgeous, sexy, blonde bombshell. At least, that is how she looked to me. She was suddenly dating a lot. I watched matters closely. When she did graduate, there was instant pressure on her to get a job and, like my brother, pay what was essentially rent, to share a bedroom with her little sister.
She did get a job as a telephone operator and everyone seemed very pleased about that. But then, there was a strike at the telephone company and she was unable to work there or get a job elsewhere because prospective employers would know she was on strike and might leave them for her old job when the strike was over. My father had explained strikes and unions to me at an early age and I certainly remembered all the talk in Cleveland about how he would have to take a non-union job if we moved to Miami. So I was quite startled when, instead of being supported, at least, by my very “union” Dad, my sister began to be relentlessly abused by both parents for “not working.” What the hell is she supposed to do, I thought, be a scab? Once again, I now figure, it was because of sexism—loyalty to the labor movement only applies to men, since women’s jobs are not important.
One day stands out vividly in my mind during this period. Among the possible causes of my PTSD, this one is a biggie. My sister had become quite popular when she emerged from the braces and full-leg cast, much like a butterfly from a cocoon. It seems to me she always had dates on weekends, often Marines she met at USO dances, which she and her girlfriends frequented. One Saturday, it has to have been a Saturday because my mother was home and we had not gone to church (my father sometimes had to work weekends, even after the union came in), my mother and my sister went at it for hours. She was lazy, she was not working, she was staying out too late, she was secretly smoking cigarettes, she was skipping church. She was not behaving like a lady. Underneath it all, I knew, was the suspicion that she was engaging in more sexual behavior with her dates than was acceptable for a good girl. Sometimes that accusation was explicit, sometimes it wasn’t, but I was pretty sure that when it wasn’t, it was still there. My mother should know, I thought, listening to them, since I had long ago figured out why my mother married at 16, other than that all my female ancestors had married at 16 or younger and, who knows, maybe for the same reason. My sister was then probably 18.
Eventually, there came a pause in the screaming. My mother was in the backyard, I was hiding in the wash house. I ventured out, kept my distance from my mother in the yard, went into the house and heard strange noises in the bathroom, behind the closed door. Was she crying? It did not sound exactly like my sister crying. I called her, “Audrey, I need to get into the bathroom.” No answer. I pushed on the door to see if it was locked. It opened and the first thing I saw was a vision of blood, more blood than I had ever seen. It was pumping up like a fountain, then falling into the bathroom sink.
I was 12, but small for my age. It seems to me that I could just barely see over the sink and that the blood was, for me, at eye level or higher, but that is probably a memory distorted by PTSD. I opened the door wider. My sister was bent over the sink and her hand was drooping strangely at an angle while the blood pumped upward rhythmically from a huge cut on the inside of her wrist. She was saying something I could barely make out. It was, “I’m a failure and I’ve failed to even do this right.” I did not learn until much later that she was supposed to have made the cut up and down, not across, her inner arm. Instead of “slitting her wrist,” she had cut both her veins and her tendons.
I never saw what she did it with, I only saw the blood, a sight that returned to me long after I had repressed it, on an acid trip sometime in the 60s. The movie “The Fisher King,” starring Robin Williams, was only seen by me once because I could not bear to see the blood scene twice. It evoked for me, too much, the blood pumping from my sister’s wrist over the bathroom sink.
I ran screaming into the back yard. “Mama, Mama, Audrey cut her wrist and she’s bleeding.” My mother ran into the house and I followed her. During World War II, my mother had taken a first aid course that was part of the civilian war effort. Maybe because of that, she did not dissolve into panic, but grabbed a towel and my sister and sat her down on the bed in our bedroom and attempted to stop the bleeding with pressure, but the cut was too deep. My sister’s hand continued to fall backward, opening the cut wider. My mother handed her hand to me and told me to hold it so that the cut would close while she applied pressure with the towel. I failed. It was too horrible. Her hand was slippery and I could not seem to get a grip on it. My mother made a frustrated sound, said “oh, give it to me” and then snapped at me, “Go get Norma, hurry.”
Norma was our next door neighbor, who had at one time been a nurse. She was a huge, overweight woman with whom both my sister and I had spent a lot of time. I often came home to Norma after school to spend the two or three hours until a parent or my sister returned from school or work and she was usually more of a mother to me than my mother was, at least until she had her own little girl and her affections shifted from me to her own child.
My parents were quite ambivalent about Norma and her family, her Cuban husband, her two boys from an earlier marriage. She was suspect simply by being a divorcee, and her New York accent did not help matters. Their house was dilapidated, the yard a sea of gray sand full of old tires and other forms of junk. They were clearly beneath us, but Norma, herself, took care of me after school and they, grudgingly, appreciated that much. Lonely and neglected as I was emotionally, I loved her dearly.
She, at least, would have a normal conversation with me, tell me about all the places she had been, New York City, Cuba, Europe, and she answered my questions honestly, as far as I could tell. The fights at her house were as bad or worse than the fights at my house, so I had no reason to be ashamed of my family in her presence. I might have learned something from her fights if they had been in English, but the Mesas always fought in Spanish. What my parents most feared, I gathered from my eavesdropping, was her possible negative influence on my sister. A model for the ladies we were being trained to emulate, Norma was not. And, nobody in Norma’s house went to church, a fact which, alone, would make her suspect to my mother.
Now, however, I ran as fast as I could next door, not a long run, since the houses were only about 8 feet apart and I only needed to run around the field fencing between them to get there. I ran into the living room containing Norma’s husband and the two boys, screaming, “where’s Norma? where’s Norma?” They pointed to the darkened bedroom, where Norma was on the bed enduring one of her many migraine headaches. I ran in and yelled, “Norma, Audrey tried to commit suicide and cut herself and she’s bleeding.” I had no idea Norma could move that fast. She was out of the bed, throwing me aside to get out the door, telling me to stay here with Stevie, her youngest son and my best friend, and out the front door almost before I could process it.
My memory stops there and my only explanation for that is PTSD. I do not remember an ambulance, but my father was not home, so I cannot explain how my sister got to a hospital or a doctor. Probably Norma drove them to the emergency room. The cut was stitched up somehow, leaving a lifetime scar to match the one on her leg from the hit and run accident. I was left with a lifetime tendency to faint at the sight of blood and an ironclad resolution that I would leave home the very instant I thought I could manage it.
It was not long after the suicide attempt that Audrey became engaged and got married at 18. Once again, I heard long, loud fights between my parents over who had chased her away. Neither parent approved of the groom, the Yankee Catholic Marine. But, he was more like a brother to me than my own brother had been and I liked him a lot. My mother objected most to his religion, which seemed quite absurd to me since he told us he had been raised Catholic but never went to church. If he did not go to church what did it matter what his religion was? You could fault him for not going to church, but then, neither did my father. Why should my brother-in-law be any different?
I leaned toward blaming my mother more than my father this time, although I figured the only reason he had not verbally abused my sister the way he verbally and physically abused my brother was simply that his job kept him away from home more than my mother’s job kept her away. Now that I was alone with them and expected to be for another four years, I formulated my plan to avoid such goings on when I graduated from high school. I would get the hell out of there at the earliest possible moment but I would not do so by getting married and hoping my husband would take me as far away as possible.
Obviously, that didn’t work for my sister because my sister only moved a few blocks away after her marriage. For a while, I could even walk to see her. Then, they moved closer to the base and we saw her slightly less than before. But, throughout my adolescence, I saw nothing in her marriage that convinced me it was a viable route out, only that now if any fights started while she was at our house, she could walk out the door and go somewhere else. I was not convinced the somewhere else was better or would be better in the long run. I determined that I would go my brother’s route and get a non-union job so that there would be no strike. When asked for rent, I, too, would get my own room or apartment instead, like my brother.
It was at about this time that I made my second attempt to run away from home, this time much more serious. I thought I was merely being a friend to my friend Glenda, who had even better reasons that I did to run away. It was her idea, but it was not that hard to talk me into it. The plan was thwarted when police spied me us trying to hitchhike out of town at about midnight, having each sneaked out our bedroom window. We avoided possible incarceration when one of the officers opened up my bundle and found a Bible and the other one found out that he knew Glenda’s mother. We were returned to our homes and I was not beaten because my mother answered the door, my father did not wake up and she never told him, as far as I know. That escapade may well have figured into their decision the following year to move to central Florida, however, part of the rationale for which was to remove me from the influences they thought had ruined my sister.
When my brother joined the Navy, I realized I could not do exactly what he was doing—I could not see myself in the military—but when he went to music school with insurance money from an accident he was in that nearly killed him, I began to think about college. It seemed an impossibility financially, unless I, too, were nearly killed in an accident and got insurance money, but it did demonstrate to me that college was not completely out of the range of possibility. Whatever happened, I was determined not to allow either parent to drive me to either a suicide attempt or an early marriage. If there was some other way to leave home, I would bide my time, lay low, and find it.
© Jentri Anders, 2016