I was raised in a semi-Christian household. That is, we were told that we should believe in God and Jesus but nobody really explained the Christian religion to me. All I knew was on Sundays Papa turned on the TV early in the morning and we listened to the Happy Goodman Family’s Gospel Jubilee, and then watched Davey and Goliath. We went to church at the Trinity Baptist Church in a town of roughly 15,000 people. The Trinity Baptist was a big building with lots of long uncomfortable wooden seats and pretty glass windows all around. There we sat toward the back of the pews and listened as an apparently disgruntled man shouted at us from a small barrier. I don’t recall what he said because I was only four. All I had to do was keep quiet and find ways to amuse myself. I ended up telling myself stories until the Shouting Man finished and we sang another song and left.
Just behind the Shouting Man hung a portrait of a kneeling long-haired bearded man caught in a searchlight. “That’s Jesus,” I was told. Well, how do you do, Jesus! Do you need a flashlight?
The fact that he was the Son of God meant nothing at the time since God was a mystery as well. Eventually I realized God was supposedly responsible for the light emanating from behind clouds on Christmas cards. God from God; Light from Light – oh! God was the one with the searchlight!
In the summer we went to “Bible school” where I was forced to memorize and parrot select phrases from the Bible. Memorize and parrot, kid; we’ll give you a shiny little New Testament without bothering to tell you whatever happened to the Old Testament.
Was it a New Testament because it was a new book? Was there something wrong with the old version? Why was there an Old Testament AND a New Testament in the family Bible? Why am I only getting half of a book disguised as a completely new unabridged book? Why were some of the words in red? What were all the tiny sized maps and colorful pictures about? What did it all mean?
That’s the thing about being a little kid. Nobody explains anything to you. Perhaps they are afraid they will ‘damage’ you somehow by putting ideas in your head. Or perhaps they want to believe you are in a natural state of innocence guided by cherubs and protected by archangels. Instead a kid is left with trying to figure this odd existence out all on his own, and likely as not will get everything wrong.
Mama wanted nothing more than to raise her babies in peace. Papa wanted to raise their babies to be world-beaters: educated, technologically savvy super-beasts hot on the trail of enlightenment and academic godhood. Ever since the cradle I heard “you kids are all going to college” until it became a family mantra. Not a word about our souls. I suppose it was presumed that when I was older I would understand.
I developed a fear of dying after watching a special program on our small black and white television. “The Littlest Angel” was a musical that caught my youthful attention, but the heavy subject had me scared nearly shitless. Angels; I heard about those at the Trinity Baptist Church! They were special creatures that flew around looking after people for some mysterious reason. In the story, a kid only slightly older than me lived a humble life in a village. The boy died and became an angel and told he could never go home again. He apparently had to earn his wings, proving nothing was easy even in heaven. Then bluh bluh bluh special twist to the story, bluh bluh he did something wonderful, then he was given wings and they all lived – correction, they all… existed, happily ever after.
But were there really angels? Was there really a heaven? After all, television also showed Kukla Fran and Ollie, and I knew Fran was the only human being in the bunch. The others were puppets; playthings like the ones we had in our toybox. The Twilight Zone was full of fanciful tales (at least I hoped so!) so who was to say this story wasn’t just another spooky story too? Maybe there weren’t angels or Gods or an afterlife. Maybe we just die and then I’m gone forever and would never see my loved ones again. Suppose there’s a black void out there. Suppose the days of want and hunger and weariness we knew, were not going to be rewarded with pretty white angel wings playing harps on clouds, but would cumulate into nothing more than some scriptwriter’s best guess?
I was absolutely terrified. I couldn’t sleep. I barely ate. No amount of questions to the adults in my life brought forth answers. My mother was too busy trying to make ends meet and taking care of six growing kids, to try to wax eloquent about the afterlife. My father worked hard in the oil fields all day, came in tired and dirty and didn’t want to answer a scared little kid’s questions.
“Sure there’s a heaven,” he told me one time, a little too hearty to be blindly trusted. “The Bible tells you so, remember like the song says?” We sang it together and I suppose it comforted me to a degree, but I still had a nagging fear. I could not read when I was four so I wondered if the Bible really truly said so.
Thanks to the Trinity Baptist Church, I knew a few Bible verses by heart. While my brother and sisters were in school and it was just me at home in the day with Mama, I lined up all our stuffed toys in rows. I preached to them using the most impressive verse I knew: Psalm 100, the psalm the church teachers liked because it was short and the number was comfortably easy to remember. I preached to my toys with the same fervor utilized by the Shouting Man.
“Make a JOYFUL NOISE unto the Lord, ALL YE LANDS,” I commanded my sawdust-and-cotton congregation. I held my little red Testament firmly in my left hand so I could shake my other index finger with holy righteous fervor. I marched back and forth before those glass-eyed sinners, railing at them with every ounce of conviction I could muster until I completed the entire psalm. Of course I had a rag in my pocket so I could take it out and swab the nonexistent sweat from my brow. I was nothing if not exacting.
My mother looked on in amusement from the kitchen doorway, her dark eyes dancing and the black curls framing her face. She never interrupted me but she never discussed this mysterious ritual we attended every week, either. She simply nodded and said, “That’s a fine job, baby.”
One Sunday we rose early and the entire family was decked out in Sunday best. Mama put a little brown dress on me, a dress with red zigzag edging. I remembered the mystery of why some stranger arrived at our house to measure my body, and then reappeared with this outfit. She was from Trinity and offered to make an outfit for me. To this day I do not know whether it was out of the goodness of her heart or if it was simply because I looked needy. I was skin and bones, and even my grandmother assumed I would probably die any day. I was simply skinny; my metabolism burned at a blistering rate.
When we returned from church, my parents decided to preserve the moment in pictures. Heaven only knew when they would find us so neat and clean all at once again that year. With the sun blazing overhead, my brother Joe Francis stood with my older sisters Annie and Ginny. We called Joe Francis “Domio” since people around us already called Papa “Joe.” Ginny’s real name was Virginia but I did not know her as that for a very long time, nor did I know in my early childhood that Annie’s name was really Jane Ann.
Nobody told me!
Domio and Annie stood still, lined up at the side of the white-washed cinder block house we called home. True to her playful nature, Ginny leaned her slender arm against Domio’s tall shoulder and assumed a jaunty stance; one leg crossed over the other, the toe of her shoe stuck in the grass and her other hand on her hip.
Lela and Buddy and I posed against the house. We were the youngest sisters, the most opposite of natures. Lela was tender-hearted and very girly. Buddy was a hard-headed, outspoken tomboy a year younger than Lela. And there I stood between them, straining my eyes against the white sun, trying not to squint but losing the battle dismally.
After all the family Easter Photos were taken outside our house with all the children in our finery, Papa loosened his tie and popped the front of his hat back and said to Mama, “Here Georgia; take a picture of this!” and struck a weaving kind of pose. Mama laughed and took the picture. He also had my brother take a picture of him and Mama. With his happy proud children looking on, my father leaned a bent elbow on mother’s shoulder and with his other hand on his hip, he struck a jaunty pose and smiled for the camera. The apples did not fall far from their tree.
The ironic thing was it was Easter morning, a day when Papa DID NOT drink. Somehow a copy of that silly photo of Papa eventually found its way to the members of the Trinity Baptist Church. I don’t know how. To us it was merely another photograph, so it was possibly simply among the group of Easter photos Papa might have had on hand to show off his grand family. To the members of the staunch and judgmental Trinity Baptist Church it was damning evidence that Joe Watson drank and therefore should no longer be a member of the Lodge, and in fact should be dismissed from attending the mighty Trinity Baptist Church.
Papa swore and vowed he would never step foot in a Baptist Church again. “I have a right to drink. Jesus turned water into wine; when did that become a crime?”
We stopped going to church since Papa was the family driver. Mama did not care to go through all the rigmarole of getting ready to pose for proper church behavior, if they wouldn’t let Papa attend. She knew how to raise her children. The fact that no one ever explained anything to me so I could understand it was lost on everyone, not just her. I wondered who church people were trying to save, if not Papa. At any rate, I didn’t like the Shouting Man and always got into minor trouble with my sisters for being bored and showing it. There weren’t enough church bulletins in the family for me to draw on until it was time to go home.
Papa loved education and learning, but he was not a good teacher. He did not teach me why we had to trust in a Good Book simply because someone claimed it was fact, nor did he explain why people died and what he thought might happen when they did. He did not teach us our native Muskogee Creek language despite people of our tribe living just around the corner from us. Most of the Creeks he knew and grew up among were already in a vicious cycle of want and he was determined for us to have something better. It would not be done through Better Living with the Trinity Baptist Church, however.