I always had a hard time paying attention in church. When I was young and attended a Baptist church not far from the Marine Corps base where my father was stationed, I would sit next to my mother on one of the unforgiving, straight-backed pews and twirl my fingers. My father wasn’t there because he was deployed overseas to Vietnam. Even when he returned, my only memories are of my mother in church. I know he came, but I don’t remember him being there. It was her presence— quiet, dignified, and calm—that stands out the most.
Anxious for the worship service to be over even before it began, I’d sit there, trying to get comfortable in the pew, noticing how other kids were squirming in much the same way. We didn’t have children’s church in those days. Kids were expected to worship as adults—sitting erect, eyes fixed on the preacher. I never could manage it. Instead of looking toward the front of the church, I’d glance around the room as the preacher bellowed.
There was the old couple next to me who smelled of dust and Chanel No. 5, but they always held hands. I wondered what it must be like to grow old with someone and feel their skin change from warm and supple to the parched stiffness of old age. Did they notice? Did it make them sad and long for days past? Or did they rise above such things, loving each other all the more, not in spite of time’s passing, but because of it? As I stared at their entwined hands, the sagging skin and pronounced veins, I hoped that, one day, a man would love me enough to hold my wrinkled, spotted hand and never let it go.
Just in front of me and to the right was another old woman, but her husband had died years ago of suicide. It was her third husband. She came home to find him dead from a gunshot wound to the head. All three husbands had died, although the first two were from natural causes. People used to laugh about her surviving three husbands, but I didn’t think it was funny at all—just sad and lonely. I’d watch as she would burrow through her purse every Sunday for a peppermint and work really hard not to make any noise unwrapping the crackly cellophane (though she always did). It took forever. I wondered at the time if she was using the peppermint to distract her from not having a hand to hold.
Not Like Those Other Kids
Across the aisle, there was the girl who always wore pink lace and whose golden curly hair fell down her back. I wanted hair like hers. Mine was short and dark, cut unevenly above my ears (compliments of my dad’s barber). I felt unattractive and boyish. What would it have been like to wear pink lace and have long, bouncy curls?
Just once, I thought, I would have liked to go out to a restaurant with my parents and my brother and not have the waitress ask my mom what her sons would like to order. But, then again, if I wore pink lace and white patent leather shoes, I wouldn’t have been able to climb trees, ride bikes, wade through creeks looking for crawfish, and race through tobacco fields with boys from the trailer park on hot, sticky summer days. I still wanted long hair, though. But my mother wouldn’t hear of it. Too much of a bother, she’d say, and off to the barber we’d go.
Sitting farther down the aisle was a boy in bell-bottom pants drawing on the visitor cards. I wanted to draw on them too, but my mom wouldn’t let me, so I’d just look longingly at the pile of cards in their slot and the little pencil beside them with the name of our church engraved on it, and I’d imagine what I’d draw if I could. Sunflowers. Dolphins. Butterflies bursting from cocoons. Monkeys hanging from a vine. Mermaids with long flowing hair.
I leaned over to see what the boy was drawing. Stick figures shooting other stick figures. He glanced over at me and seemed irritated that I was looking at him. He crumpled the visitor card and dropped it on the floor. He pulled out the bulletin and started drawing on that instead. This time a hangman, but it wasn’t a man at all. It was a girl with short hair and big eyes. I leaned back in the pew next to my mom and crossed my arms, making a mental note to outrun him in the fields after church.
Something Wrong With the Taste
On communion days when church had been let out, I’d hang around the sanctuary and stick my finger into the tiny shot glasses and taste the last drops of grape juice left there by the adults. I wasn’t allowed to partake because I was too young and didn’t know Jesus, so I’d wipe away the leftovers and lick my fingers. It was Welch’s, watered down and not very sweet. The “bread” was small, flat, square wafers.
I’d watch hungrily as the adults would pass hand over hand the silver plate full of little crackers. The plate would slip under my nose, and I’d want to grab a handful and stuff them into my mouth. I’d watch with longing as my mother would pick up a tiny single wafer and place it on her tongue. I always wondered how she got the wafer down without chewing.
When I was in kindergarten, I attended a private Catholic school. I couldn’t believe how much larger their wafers were than the kind we had at our Baptist church. The Catholic wafers were big and round and soaked in real wine. I wanted to taste those, too, but I wasn’t allowed because I was Protestant. I didn’t stay long at the Catholic school. My mom said she took me out and put me in the public school when I came home one day insisting I wanted to become a nun.
When it was time for me to have my first communion at the Baptist church, I was disappointed by the bland taste of the wafer and how it felt gritty in my mouth. I complained to my mother, but she just patted my arm sympathetically and said the food at the Lord’s Supper was to be enjoyed not by our bodies but by our souls. I asked her what our souls were, and she said, “The real part of us.” I sat there waiting for the real part of me to taste the wafer, but it never did. I thought maybe there was something wrong with that part of me.
The Tastiest of Southern Baptist Traditions
I didn’t worry about it, though, because after the service, we’d have a feast waiting for us outside—the tastiest of Southern Baptist traditions: dinner on the grounds. As soon as church ended, the men would set up long tables on the lawn, and the women would file out of the church kitchen and load them up with pecan pie, green jellies, string bean casserole with fried onions on top, spinach soufflé with big squares of cheddar cheese, syrupy baked beans, fried okra, glazed ham, corn bread, crispy chicken, mounds of ambrosia, giblet gravy, steaming chicken and big fat dumplings, buttermilk biscuits, sticky pig-picking cake, lemon cream pie, sweet iced tea dressed in mint leaves, and more varieties of pound cake than you could count. I couldn’t wait until after the service to head outside, breathe the fresh air of freedom, and eat until my stomach swelled.
As the adults got the food ready, we kids ran wild. Up and down stairs. In and out of bushes. Scaling oak trees with massive, low-hanging limbs. Running across fields. I was always faster than the boys, and I loved passing them as wind blew through my hair and sweat beaded across the freckles on my nose. My face would get all red and my eyes would shine, making me look positively wild—or at least that’s what my mom said. When we got too hot, we’d scurry inside to cool off until the deacons told us to go outside.
Sometimes we’d take a detour and head back into the sanctuary, where it was dark and cool. I was always fascinated by the sanctuary when no one was in it. It seemed holier, more sacred, with no people there. One time, while the other kids stayed in the kitchen, I sneaked my way to the sanctuary and walked down the center aisle. I imagined I was the bride of Christ and he was waiting for me at the altar, his arms open.
When I got to the table engraved with “Do this in remembrance of me,” I turned around and looked out at the empty pews, seeing what the preacher saw as he stood in the pulpit. I spread my arms, and in as deep a voice as I could muster declared just as the preacher did, “The grace of Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen!” My voice echoed in the empty hall and sent a shiver up my spine.
Behind the pulpit was the choir loft and then the baptismal pool. It held a certain allure for me when I was younger. As the preacher pounded the lectern, I’d look past him and gaze at the red velvet curtains that framed the pool; the gold tassels that hung to the floor; the mural of a waterfall sparkling, falling into a blue river that meandered through a sun-dappled meadow at the base of golden mountains.
On a hillock stood a shepherd dressed in blue and white robes, a lamb at his feet sleeping peacefully, another in his arms, nuzzled into his neck. The picture was cheesy—the kind of Christian art that would make sophisticated artists cringe. But I loved it. I spent my Sunday mornings lost in it, playing in the waterfall, swimming in the coolness of the river, laughing as the sun warmed my face, nestling into the neck of the shepherd.
Not Much Preaching During a Baptism Service
I could hardly wait until it was my turn to be baptized. I’d seen others do it, of course. The pool would be filled with water. The lights over the baptismal would be turned on, illuminating the shepherd’s picture and making the gold tassels of the curtains glitter. The baptism services were always better than any other, even better than communion with the grape juice and square wafers.
There wasn’t much preaching during a baptism service. When there was, the preacher didn’t pound, or shake the Bible in the air until I thought it was going to fall apart, or threaten the congregation with hellfire and damnation. During a baptismal service, he was quieter, more reverent, inviting. The congregation sang more hymns, ones like “Softly and Tenderly” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and everyone seemed happier.
One of the Sunday school teachers had asked me when I was eight years old whether I wanted to get baptized and I said yes without a moment’s hesitation.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I love Jesus,” I said. I thought baptism meant that it was my turn to show everyone that I loved God, that I wanted to become a part of the shepherd’s flock, and that I’d finally be able to play in the river with Jesus and bask in the sunshine like the lambs in the mural.
She just looked at me. That didn’t seem to be the right answer. “But, Denise, why do you need to get baptized?”
I thought for a moment, searching for an answer that sounded right. “Because I’m bad, dirty, and I need to get clean. Is that right?” I remembered a guest evangelist saying something like that during a revival service and the congregation bellowing a fervent Amen.
The teacher smiled and patted my head. “Good girl,” she said.
Dying During Baptism Would Be So Embarassing
The next month, I found myself in line to be baptized. I stood at the top of the ladder that led into the water, my white dress hanging to my knees, my short dark hair swept back behind my ears, my blue eyes big. The preacher stood in the middle of the pool wearing a white robe that floated up with air bubbles around his waist. I had to suppress my giggles because it looked to me as if he was farting and the gas was bubbling up around him just like it did when I farted in the bathtub.
When it was my turn, he motioned for me to come. My heart raced as I climbed down the ladder into the water. It wasn’t as warm as I’d expected, and goosebumps broke out on my skin. I stepped from the ladder to the bottom of the baptismal. The water reached the base of my neck, and I pushed my way to the preacher.
I glanced up at the painting and imagined myself in the river and the preacher as the shepherd. It was a stretch, because the preacher didn’t look anything like the shepherd; his eyes were harder, his jaw stiffer. But all I saw was the shepherd, with the lambs on the shore and the fish swimming around us in the river. I imagined swimming with them and my long hair fanning out in the water like reeds swaying in the river’s currents.
I stood beside the preacher and he put his arm around me. He spoke some words, but I don’t remember what they were. I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking about the shepherd holding me, the water on my skin, and how my dress bubbled up around me. The preacher stopped speaking and looked down at me. He placed a cloth over my nose and mouth. Slowly, he dipped me back into the water until my head was covered.
I felt the coolness flow over me, the water in my hair, in my eyes, soaking the cloth over my nose and mouth. For a moment I was afraid. I didn’t know what I was afraid of. Maybe drowning. That the preacher would hold me under the water too long, that I’d flail my arms but he wouldn’t notice or, worse, wouldn’t care. That the water would seep past the cloth and into my nose, my throat, my lungs, and I’d die. Right there in front of everybody. It would be so embarrassing.
No Running For Me That Day
But I didn’t die. The preacher pulled me from the water and declared me born again, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Forgiven. White as snow. I thought I’d feel different, that I’d feel some deep change within me. I told myself I did. But as I climbed out of the baptismal all I felt was wet.
Dripping water on the carpeted floor, I made my way back to the changing rooms where my mother had left my dry clothes. I was supposed to leave my wet ones in a plastic bag and return to the sanctuary where I’d slip into the pew next to my mother and sit for the rest of the service. Then there’d be dinner on the grounds.
I pulled off my wet clothes and rummaged through the bag for my panties. I searched and searched. No panties. We had forgotten to pack them. I stood in the middle of the changing room, uncertain. I couldn’t wear my wet ones. Just the thought of damp, drooping panties under my short dress made me shiver.
Still, I didn’t want to go without. Someone might see up my dress. I thought for a moment, but knew I had no choice. I pulled on my dry dress and left the changing room with dripping hair and a bare bottom.
The rest of that day was spent trying to sit so my dress wouldn’t creep up and standing still at a table during lunchtime, eyeing the fried chicken, the carrot salad with its dark raisins, and the lemon meringue pie with its toasted tips of topping. All I could think about was not exposing my bare bottom. I didn’t run around or climb the trees with the boys. I didn’t play hide and seek in the bushes. I couldn’t. I’d been baptized, and I’d forgotten my panties.