My mother took us to church when I was a kid. My father did not attend, except for C&E, but preferred to stay home alone to read the paper, drink his coffee and smoke his Winstons in peace. My brothers and I would lay around the living room in our pajamas, draped over the furniture, watching TV and ignoring my mom’s pleadings for us to get dressed for church until my dad would finally yell “Goddamn it. Get in your rooms and get dressed NOW!” He hung on to the chance for Sunday morning solitude like grim death. Once in the car, Mark and I would continue our sulk, complaining during the entire 3-mile drive: “Why do we have to go? We hate it. We’re tiiiiiired.” Mom would grit her teeth, grip the steering wheel tight and ignore us.
Mother only seemed to be able to face the Sunday morning pre-church horror show at home about once or twice a month, so we weren’t one of the “regular” families, and I intuited that our lack of enthusiasm for God and Jesus was apparent to the real church people. First was Sunday School. Sunday school was a horror for my brother Mark and I. Our other brother Paul was too young to notice, but Mark and I knew we were the odd kids – the ones who didn’t have a clue what was being taught or why. Other kids seemed to be right on top of all the Bible stories, asking and answering questions, drawing appropriate pictures to go along with the week’s lesson, but we didn’t have a clue. Abraham and the sacrificial lamb? Jacob and the ladder? These stories didn’t make sense to us, not in the way ScoobyDo and The Jetsons did -THAT we totally got – but it seemed the other children were enraptured by the Bible stories and understood their deeper meaning in a way we just didn’t get. Next was real church, which was another of nightmare of confusing stories, coupled with open-mouthed yawning and butt-numbing boredom. “Stop slinking. Sit up straight! my mother would hiss at us under her breath. We were an absolute embarrassment to her and I didn’t care one bit.
At age 12, I joined the church youth group and my mom couldn’t have been more pleased. Finally, one of her wayward children had seen the light and was choosing to walk the path of God! All her-hard fought efforts had finally paid off. I wish I could say this were the case. Instead, my main interest in the church’s youth group was not a newfound dedication to God, it was a pre-teen crush on the youth group director – Youth Minister Mr. Smith. Young, handsome, single Mr. Smith. Hunky, golden-haired, smile-like-a-rock star Mr. Smith. No, I wasn’t interested in forming a personal relationship with Jesus, I just wanted some face time with the church’s new heartthrob.
Now my mom didn’t have to nag me and my dad didn’t have to work up a few choice curse words for me to get ready for church. I was ready on Sunday, and every Saturday afternoon when youth group met. I joined the church choir. Any chance to be around the object of my heart’s desire I took. Of course I was coy about it, or I tried to be. Not like the other girls who were soooo obvious with their flirtations. They made me sick with their “That’s a nice tie Mr. Smith” and “Isn’t there anything else I can do to help you Mr. Smith??” Losers. I spent a lot of time fantasizing about Mr. Smith and our fabulous life together after we were married – studying the Bible a little and studying each other A LOT. I could imagine him kissing me long and hard, then sliding his hand up my shirt and then….well I wasn’t real sure what happened next but it was bound to be way cool. Yes, Mr. Smith and I were going to be very, very happy together.
That fall, Mr. Smith decided that the youth group would go trick or treating for UNICEF. Oooookay. I guess. It’s a well-known fact that only losers go trick or treating for UNICEF. But if Mr. Smith wanted me to do it, I was by-God going to do it. Instead of going on Halloween night, he decided we would go the Saturday afternoon before Halloween. Which meant I would probably be knocking on the doors of some of my own classmates, who would probably be home, setting me up for merciless teasing for the next few days. “Ha ha. Karen came to my house to trick or treat for UNICEF!” “Did you have fun with your little church group??” Blah, blah, blah. I felt like my mom, just gritting her teeth and willilng herself through the ordeal.
That day I dressed with the utmost care, knowing that I’d be spending a lot time in close proximity to Mr. Smith. The event was going to last all afternoon and he’d be driving us around in the church van. I looked as hot as a 12-year old girl could in home-sewn clothing and decidedly unsexy black-framed eyeglasses. I decided to not think about it – “Pretend you’re one of the girls on American Bandstand” I told myself. About halfway through the afternoon, after ringing doorbells and, yes, facing some of the sneering 6th grade boys from my class at school, my enthusiasm started to flag. Instead of being out there with the rest of us, Mr. Smith stayed in the van, following our little group slowly up and down the neighborhood streets. “I’m sick of this” I muttered to one of my girlfriends. “Yeah, well I know the only reason YOU’RE here and it’s not because you care about poor kids!” she said snidely. “You have a crush on Mr. Smith and it’s soooo obvious.” “I do not!” I yelled. “Oh you do too, so stop pretending.”
Were my feelings that transparent? Being a naturally shy girl, I was humiliated and embarrassed beyond belief, as if all the others had read my mind and knew about my secret fantasies about Mr. Smith. And if they could tell, then surely Mr. Smith could too. I slogged on and finished the afternoon, then waited impatiently for my mom to pick me up at the church. During the next few weeks, my enthusiam for youth group and Mr. Smith deflated like a week-old balloon. The party was over. Mr. Smith and I were not going to get married and live happily ever after. He would never move his hands over my body and whisper into my ear how he loves me just as much he loves Jesus.
Just after the new year, Mr. Smith was suddenly gone. “Moved on” was the reason given when I asked where he was. “Why?” I wanted to know. “People do that, they move on.”
We all quit going to church around that time. Mom was tired of forcing God on her obviously atheist/agnostic children and we were glad of it. Sleeping in on Sunday mornings became the norm. The usual sugared-down cereals and toasted breads with margerine would be consumed in enormous quantities by myself and my brothers in front of the television set. Dad read the paper, drank his coffee and smoked his Winstons alone in the kitchen, and no longer needed to shout “You kids get your asses up and dressed for church now, Goddamn it!”.
It’s as close to God as our family was going to get.