As some of you might guess, my relationship with God has been, um, complicated. When you grow up with a mom who frequently converses with The Lord, and those conversations often lead her to pack up all your shit and move somewhere overnight, you might occasionally want to give God the finger. And not the You’re Number One finger. Now, before you go condemning me to Hell, try walking a day in my Childhood’s shoes. Try living in Steubenville, Ohio, a place Mom moved us to when I was four, in order to join a cultish community of Charismatic Catholics. Try having a mom who dressed like a nun for a year. Try also living with a nun, random families, and/or hippie college students who were coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs over Christ Our Lord. Everything anybody did in my childhood was guided by God, and you better believe no one took a shit in those days without praying about it first. Anywho. That being said, it was a long, long time before I would question my mother’s choices or God’s role in them.
I was a devoutly Catholic little child, albeit an ornery one. I got into all kinds of trouble, from teaching innocent home-schooled children to curse creatively, to shoplifting boatloads of candy from Treasure Island (Steubenville’s 1980s version of Walmart), to perusing my friend’s single mom’s stash of Playgirl magazines. No matter what I did, though, I always knew God had my back. And besides, being Catholic, all I had to do was go confess to a priest, and poof – it was like all that stuff never even happened! Even though I’m flip about it now, the little girl I was back then actually earnestly believed everything she saw and heard. People speaking in tongues were actually speaking their own language that only God could understand. People being slain in the spirit were actually becoming inhabited by the Holy Spirit and falling unconscious to the floor. My mother was actually able to hear God and see him too in various “visions.”
Pretty crazy, right? That’s what I think now, but back then I bought all of it, hook, line, and sinker. I can’t even imagine what my father, who divorced my mom when I was one and was raised a North Carolina Baptist, was thinking back in those days, when he’d come to pick up his two daughters and was greeted by all sorts of nuns, holy rollers, and an ex-wife wearing a nun’s habit. Back then, I was such a mama’s girl that the tears would just roll down my face as we drove away in my dad’s silver sports car for the weekend. As a sort of talisman, I would cling to a small Mother Mary statue, and I would weep as quietly as I could in the back seat.
Even by the time I was around 12, I was still really sucked into my religious culture. I remember watching a documentary on Fatima. In case you’re not familiar, Fatima is a town in Portugal where three children vowed that Mother Mary had appeared to them. The kids stuck to their story, even after being jailed and their lives threatened. I wanted to be those kids SO badly. Every night for weeks after that, I read books on miracles, saints, and apparitions. I knelt on the floor and said the rosary (which takes a helluva long time, if you don’t know), and I begged the Virgin Mother to appear to me. She didn’t, of course, and I finally gave up. Maybe that was when a small crack began to form in my previously solid beliefs.
By the time I was 15, my mother was re-married and we were no longer living with nuns and college students. Although Mom was still a devout Catholic and still communing with God on a daily basis, she had 4 other kids besides Alyson and I now. There was no longer time to attend Mass every SINGLE day in order to live, breathe, eat, and poop the body of Christ. My mom and step-dad had lots of financial struggles, and with 4 younger siblings, my responsibilities around the house quadrupled. After some major arguments with Mom (a long story for another time), Alyson and I decided to go live with our dad and new step-mom, who lived 10 hours away. For several months, we made an effort to attend Mass on Sundays. After awhile, though, those efforts just faded away, as did my relationship with my mother. One day I woke up to realize my Old World, fraught with visions, miracles, and belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, had permanently fallen away.
Twenty years later, I had a better relationship with my mother but no beliefs whatsoever. In coming to terms with the strangeness of my upbringing, I felt the wool had been literally pulled over my eyes for years, and when I finally pulled it off, I left no remnants. There was no God, there was no son of God, and there was no Heaven, and I felt defiant towards anyone who tried to tell me differently. I was a mother of three sons by then. One night my oldest son, at 5 years old, clutched at me and cried, “You’re going to die someday, Mommy. What will happen to you when you die? What will happen to ME? What-what-what about when I DIE?”
I felt the room spinning and my heart pounding, and as he gasped for air, I did too. What should I tell my child? That there is nothing more than this, and that there will be no comfort for him to cling to when I die? That when I die, or he dies, he will be cold and lifeless and buried in the ground, and that will be the end of him? I held him and rocked him, and I searched for an atheist’s words, but they didn’t come. I told him, for the first time in his 5 years, about the existence of God, about a place called Heaven, about his soul living there forever and ever. I didn’t get into Jesus, resurrection, the saints, Mother Mary, speaking in tongues, apparitions, rosaries—all of the noises from my own childhood that had ended up finally deafening me and distracting me from what was in my heart. Because what was in my heart as a child, when the lights were out and I was left alone in the silence of my room, was a presence, comforting and calm. Someone who had always been with me, keeping my fears and worries at bay. Someone who was there, no matter which house we moved to, no matter what chaos each new day could bring. Maybe that someone was still there.
My eyes filled with tears, and I taught my son an old and simple prayer – the Our Father – and after we practiced it a couple times, I went out of the room and brought back a cross I’d inherited from my grandmother. I didn’t go into the meaning of the object, only that it was known worldwide as a symbol of God’s love. I placed it on my son’s nightstand, tucked him in, and kissed him goodnight. The last thing I saw was his little hand reaching out to pat it for reassurance just before I turned out the lights.