Chapter 7 • “To Hell, or Not to Hell? That is the Question”
I forgot to mention that my father, and all four grandparents, died within a space of about 4 years of each other, from my fourth to eighth grades. I loved all of them, except maybe, my dad’s father, the farmer. I was mostly scared of him, because he never smiled, that I can remember.
When I look back on it now, I suppose my concept of what God was like, at that point, had come from what I had learned from watching, and trying to relate to, my father and my two grandfathers. They were all very serious, no-nonsense types of people.
My father, and my mother’s father,
went to church, but I never saw my father actually pray, unless I were to count seeing him bow his head down, and close his eyes, when the priest said, “Now, let us pray.” I could hear other voices reciting the liturgy, but my dad’s deep voice wasn’t one of them.
My father was a plain-spoken, no-nonsense alcoholic workaholic. I can’t really recall him eating, or doing anything but work on things at home, except during family get-togethers. (We were always asleep by the time he got home from work.)
I don’t ever recall him playing with me, per se. He used to sometimes let us kids climb on top of him, when he would come home drunk (unbeknownst to us), and pass out on our living-room floor, if that counts. And once, he had thrilled me by asking me if I wanted to walk with him to his parents house. But then, on the way, he tried to show off for me, by stomping a beaver (a “varmint” to farmers) to death, right in front of me, who had sacrificed my nose for a kitten! I fought back tears and said, “That’s great, Daddy!” Somehow, I sensed that he didn’t know any better way to show me that he cared for me. At least, I knew he cared.
As for my dad’s stern father, I mostly remember feeling “tolerated,” when I’d go to stay for a couple of days in the summer, with him and my grandmother, at their farm two or three miles down the road from our house, before my parents had separated.
My friendly, but stern grandmother would let me help her bake (watch) custard, or stir Jello, a common family “treat” back then. But she would always remind me that my older cousin, her favorite, I sensed, did a better job than me.
Only two particular experiences with my dad’s father stand out in my mind:
1. He once let me follow him, and his yellow tiger cat, out to the old barn, to watch him milk his golden brown Jersey cow, Bessie.
I guess I was fidgeting around, because he gruffed at me, and I was near tears. So, to make up for it, I guess, he suddenly said “Watch!” And I knew I’d better do what he said, or else! And the tears started to spill down my cheeks.
But, he surprised me, and just squirted some milk from the cow’s udder, right into the cat’s mouth! I laughed, and thought I could, and should stop crying. But then, the moment of fun was over, just like that, and he went right back to being his old glum self.
2. He once told me to eat my breakfast toast, even though it had lots of black on it, from being cooked in a rack, on top of my grandparents’ iron, wood-burning stove. He said, “It’ll put hair on your chest,” and I knew not to ask why I needed that!
My mother’s father was a sometimes-kindly, sometimes-stern, French farmer and finish carpenter. He owned the tenement house we went to live in after my parents separated. He had had a heart attack, so he stayed at home, and used his carpentry skills to fix up the vacant apartments in his building. It was nice that he was always around.
He and my grandmother got along really well, and never raised their voices at one another, that I can remember. They used to hold hands when they thought no one was looking, and they’d call each other Mr. and Mrs. Cook, since they both liked to share the cooking chores. My grandfather showed me how to make crepes once, using orange juice, instead of milk, in the batter. And, he helped me to learn French when I went to the parochial school.
Well, up to that point, my concept of God the Father, from the father-figures in my life, was that He was a sometimes stern, sometimes kindly, but pretty much emotionally-inaccessible being, Who might help me out, or show me things sometimes. And, maybe there was someone better than me, or more deserving than me, that would get His first and best attention.
As to the matter of what was beyond death, I remember wondering after each death, whether that person had gone to Heaven, or not. I remember that, as a very young child, I had thought that if your funeral was in the rain, it meant you were going to Purgatory, or worse, to Hell.
But then, my Dad’s funeral was in the rain. So, I decided, right then, that I must be wrong about that. And sure enough, I remember that, immediately after this realization, the sun came out for a few minutes, and it felt like God was shining it just for me, to show me that He approved of my conclusion. (A child-like faith!)
Now, as an eighth grader, I still wondered about the Heaven or Hell question. Where did each of my dead loved ones go? Where would I go? I, who had such a shameful secret? Surely, Hell would be the only place where I could hide the horrible person I was.
Chapter 8 • “The Showdown”
The summer after my eighth grade year, my step-father decided that maybe it would help ease some of the strains in our family, if we all started going to church. We weren’t practicing Catholics anymore, because of something that happened right before my mom & step-dad got married. It’s a funny (“strange”-kinda funny, not “funny”-kinda funny) story.
It seems that, way back when my mom & step-dad wanted to get married, my mom went to her church to ask the priest if it was ok for her to re-marry, since she had divorced my father, but he had died before the two-year wait had ended for it to become final. That meant, to the Catholic church, that she was technically a divorcee and not a widow. The priest told her that, in order for it to be ok for a divorcee to marry, the first marriage would have to be annulled.
That would have made all five of us children from her first marriage illegitimate, “bastard” children! So, we left the Catholic church, so my mom & step-father could get married without hurting us kids! (Ha! That’s a laugh.)
Anyway, I was very touchy, easily angered, and upset all the time. I guess it was my way of passively rebelling against the role I felt I had to play with my step-dad. My resentment had grown so obvious to everyone in the house, that I guess, he thought that church might be a way to get me to calm down, before something blew the lid off the whole thing.
But, my mother was leery about going to the Baptist church that my step-dad wanted us to start going to. Even though she hadn’t kept up being a Catholic, my mother had been taught by them since she was a child, that theirs was the only true religion. Yet, she went ahead and visited a few times, long enough to hear a message that made sense to her.
I think that that confused my mom, or troubled her. She decided to ask the minister, and our old priest to meet with her, so she could ask both of them some questions.
When everyone met together, the priest began every one of his answers to my mom’s questions with, “The tradition of the Church says…” or “The Pope says… .” But, he seemed to get more flustered and unsure with each question.
On the other hand, when the Protestant minister answered a question put to him, he actually pointed to the verses in the Bible that were the source of his answers. The assurance that the minister felt in his faith was evident, as was the lack of assurance of the priest, in what was supposed to be his area of expertise: the Word of God.
Chapter 9 • “I Don’t Want to Go to Hell . . . If There is One”
(Note: There may be a rather noticeable and disconcerting shift in viewpoint, from time to time, in my personal narration, from a first person [child], to a third person narrator. The only explanation I have for this is that, during much of the time that I was experiencing the abuse, I was unable to really “connect” with what was going on around me.
My mind was consumed with thoughts about how to manage my situation: I had to try keep my step-father paying just enough attention to me, to keep his attention off of my younger sisters. At the same time, I didn’t want to draw my mother’s attention, nor did I want to allow myself or my siblings to get into situations where any of us would be alone with him. This kept me under constant stress.
I was twelve years old and hated myself. I was tormented by a secret shame that whispered accusations at me, constantly, everywhere I went.
When I was at school, shame was with me. When I went home, my shame was replaced by anger. Then, alone at night in my bed, despair and hopelessness also crowded in. And, in the morning, when I woke up, exhausted from wrestling with all my torments, I would get up with depression hovering over me like a stifling fog, which kept everything and everyone around me, except my tormentor, out of focus, off in the distance.
And these horrible companions crowded out any opportunities to experience normal friendships. I couldn’t risk the possibility that my secrets might be exposed. That left me feeling very lonely and unhappy all the time.
Consequently, I have ended up with some jumbled time frames, and blanks consisting of months, and even years of my life, as the abuse and its aftermath took its toll.)
That summer after eighth grade, my step-father had begun taking us to that little Baptist church, and something was about to change my life forever.
The first thing I noticed, was that the inside of the century-old stone building was unadorned and simple, with nothing but a large wooden cross behind the altar, and a stained glass window above that, with a picture of Jesus as The Good Shepherd.
As the service started that first Sunday morning, everyone sang selections from hymnals placed in each pew. The songs were in plain English (rather than the Latin of the Catholic church I’d known), and had words like “Amazing Grace,” “Oh! How I love Jesus!” and “Blessed Assurance.”
When the singing stopped, the preacher asked if there were any visitors. We all meekly raised our hands: my mother, my step-father, and all five of us kids. The next thing I knew, everyone started getting up out of their seats, or turning to the person next to them. They were all shaking hands and greeting each other and smiling. It was nice to be around so many smiling, friendly people, especially the pastor. He seemed to have some kind of inner glow that shined out from his kindly eyes as he smiled. (He was the same pastor who had spoken with such assurance when my mom had met with him and her priest.) This man knew something that I wanted to know about.
After three or four weeks, they made an announcement one Sunday morning that they would be conducting what they called a Vacation Bible School for young people. I wanted to learn more about this openly friendly church and what they believed. So, we kids were enrolled.
But then, my step-father announced one day that he had to go out on a sea cruise. So, people from the church said they would take us to the Vacation Bible School, as well as to Sunday morning services, while he was gone.
I liked it when my step-father was away. That meant that I could relax for awhile, and pretend that it was just Mom and us kids again. There was only love among all of us, no fear or dread.
Well, during the week of Vacation Bible School, we all had to learn Bible verses or selections, for the program to be held at the end of the week. I still remember my Mom rehearsing the verses my middle sister, aged 10, had to learn. It was about the lilies of the field, and how God takes care of them (Matthew 6:25-34), just as He was taking care of us, now that we were on our own for awhile. And, I remember a particular verse jumped out at me at the time:
33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness;
What was the Kingdom of God? I wondered. And how could someone be righteous?
Well, by the end of that week, all of the previous weeks of preaching, added with those lessons from our Vacation Bible School, had combined to convince me that ‘Sin’ was the problem in my life, and that Jesus was the answer. Jesus had been crucified, had suffered and had died, to pay the price for not only my sin, but for the sins of the whole world.
I knew one thing: if ever anyone was a sinner in need of saving, I was. I wasn’t sure if this Jesus was real or not. But, I knew that, if there was a hell, I deserved to go there. So, just in case, I’d better get “saved” by confessing all my sins to Jesus, and asking Him to come into my heart.
So, I was baptized that Sunday night. I was 12 years old, and I had been given “a new life in Jesus.” I wasn’t completely sure what that meant, but I knew that I wanted it more than anything else in the world.