The night the Devil chased my Mom, I was six-and-a-half years old. We were living in a crumbling part of downtown Steubenville, Ohio, in a rickety two-story house with paint so peely I could pull it off in strands. The house had three bedrooms: one for my sister Alyson and I to share, one for my single mom, and one for Sister Helen, the nun who had been hop-scotching from house to house with us for the last two years. Downstairs, there was a kitchen, a dining room, and a small living room, which Mom and Sister Helen had turned into a chapel. This was the first of many chapels in many houses to come, so its novelty to me at the time made me especially attuned to its aesthetics. It had bench seating that lined two opposing walls, and an altar on the back wall, complete with Sacred Heart of Jesus and Virgin Mary statues. Flickering red votive candles just like you see at Mass were set up around the altar, and a dish of real holy water, blessed by priests, was set at the room’s entrance so people entering could smack some on their foreheads.
Every morning, noon, and night, if we weren’t at school, Mom and Sister Helen would drag us into the chapel, and we’d have to sit there for an hour while they chanted from these Latin prayer books called breviaries. This, by the way, is exactly what nuns and monks do in monasteries and convents. In the morning, these prayers are called Matins; in the afternoon, Vespers; and in the evening, Lauds. My sister and I were mostly completely insane with boredom during these times, but sometimes we would join in, reading along and sounding out the words.
So what does all this have to do with the Devil in hot pursuit, you ask? I’m getting to that. But first I need to explain why it would even occur to a kid that the Devil COULD in fact take earthly form and try to bum-rush her mom. I mean, would your kid even dream about something like that? I know mine sure as hell wouldn’t. Maybe a Minecraft creeper or a particularly scary-looking Skylander, but the fiery pitchfork-carrying dude that lives in a lava-house and comes to claim your soul if you’re BAD and DEAD? Um, no. I try to keep those kinds of reassuring thoughts away from my kids. They need their fucking 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. Anywho, my mom thought about these things differently. There was no Good in this world without Bad, so it was important to remember that Satan and his evil spirit minions were always flying at us, trying to tear us away from doing the right thing.
So how was this lesson illustrated in our daily lives? Well, let’s say my sister or I were experiencing an ornery phase and acting like little assholes. Naturally, my mom would then just rally the troops to pray over us, exorcism style. Mom, Sister Helen, random freaky religious college students hanging out with us, or sometimes priests and monks would all put their hands on our heads at the same time and pray that the evil spirit would. . . BE GONE! In these cozy prayer sessions, holy oil was used instead of water (more moisturizing, better permeating?) and was crossed over our heads as part of the process, which was called “anointing.” Unlike my sister, Alyson, who would always close her eyes along with everyone else (probably in an effort to transport herself out of the land of fucking OZ), I would always open mine and study the faces that surrounded me. With their eyes closed, the adults looked like different people, in the way people sometimes do when they sleep, except it wasn’t peace but ferocity that transformed the lines of their faces. Pretty creepy.
Speaking of creepiness, along with this spiritual package of warding off evil spirits came Mom’s constant warnings against childhood dalliances in the occult, like effing around with Light as a feather, Stiff as a board, Bloody Mary, or Ouija boards. These games were considered sacrilegious, and playing with them could open up a door to the spiritual realm that you did NOT want to open. Back then, that was enough of a warning for me. We were already in Evil Spirit Overflow, so was I about to willingly creak open a door to another dimension, peek out at the general spirit population, and wave them on in? HELL NO.
At some point my mom could see that all the evil spirit, demon, and Devil chat was scaring the shit out of us at night, so she took great pains in reassuring us before bed that we were safe. I said my bedtime prayers fervently, hoping that if the Devil ever did show up, he’d have to go through Mom before coming for me. She prayed 10,000 times more often than me, so I was sure she could take him down. As it turned out, that is more or less what she did.
Mom had something called a macramé hanging in her room, which was a popular home décor item in the 70s. After my sister and I had gone to bed one fateful night, I guess mom went back to her room and had the genius idea of lighting some candles right next to where this highly flammable object was hanging. The door to our bedroom was open, and just before I dropped off to dreamland, I heard pounding footsteps and screaming. I shot up in my bed and looked towards the door, just in time to see Mom running down the narrow hallway with a fiery beast behind her. I scrambled out of the covers and ran out to find my mom, who’d bee-lined for the bathroom. (Of all places to go at a time like this, I thought confusedly. I mean, damn, Mom, this situation gives me the runs too, but deal with the Devil first, woman)! Her plan became clear a second later, when I saw that she’d thrown the Devil into the bathtub and had turned the shower on him much like you’d turn a hose on a feral cat. Almost too afraid to look, I parted the shower curtain just slightly and poked my head in, realizing slowly that not the Prince of Darkness, but Mom’s charred and smoking macramé had been vanquished.
Obvi, it wasn’t the Devil who’d chased my mom that night, but because I had been SO SURE that it was, this event marked the beginning of an eventual disillusionment that would continue into my young adulthood. It dawned on me that there could be discrepancies between what I learned as a kid (things I’d accepted about religion, evil spirits, God, and the Devil) and what was actually happening in REALITY. I realized that it was up to me to sort out my beliefs, and what I eventually decided is that I still believe in God, but not so much the Devil. I know evil DOES exist in the form of fucked up people who do fucked up things, but not in the form of flying spirits and demons and Black Magic.
Last weekend, my 7 year old son wailed to me one night at bedtime, breathless and almost unable to tell me what was freaking him out. He’d heard about good ol’ Bloody Mary from the kids on the bus, and he was scared shitless. I remembered that feeling all too well, and it really pissed me off. So the next morning, we lit a red candle, turned off the bathroom lights, looked into the mirror, and chanted “Bloody Mary” three times, something my mother would probably have rather died than do with me when I was a kid. When nothing happened of course, my son just beamed from ear to ear and walked out of the room. I stayed behind, still gazing into the mirror, remembering the days when I would’ve shit my britches at the prospect of Bloody Mary coming through the glass to pull me over to the Dark Side. I smiled, shook my head, leaned in close to the mirror, and said, “Bring it, BITCH.”