I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
My mother believed in miracles. She believed that faith could move mountains, that there is a divine plan for the universe, that Jesus never fails. My mother believed that if she was the best little girl in the world, nothing bad would ever happen to her. Most of all, my mother believed in creation — not just that God created the world, which went without saying, but that God’s followers could create their own world in the midst of this one, like the one she created for herself and her family, a mighty fortress where “they” could never hurt us.
In the 1960s it seemed to us that “they” were taking over the world. The perceived threat made our microcosmic community ever more vigilant and separatist. Over Sunday roast-beef dinners after church, the grown-ups complained about “rabble-rousers,” but I had only a vague idea who they were talking about. I may have grown up in the sixties, but the sixties were not a part of my childhood. “We are called,” said my mother, “to be apart.”
During my grade-school years, my little brother Danny and I went to the dentist in Seattle’s university district, which teemed with faded, unisex teenagers, long-haired and glassy-eyed, clad in torn jeans and foreign-looking jewelry. On the bus, Mom would point out the window and mutter, “Oh, good night, what’s wrong with that fellow? Be sure you never look like that.” We never went to the university district for any other purpose, and seeing these unkempt people, these bad people, made going to the dentist a cheap thrill.
It didn’t take much to thrill us. Mom thought The Brady Bunch was “nasty” because it showed a husband and wife reading the newspaper in the same bed. In later years, Mom would rage against the racy lyrics of John Denver, who sang, “Let me lay down beside you.”
One day our second-grade class was sent home early because somebody named Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. I had no idea who he was. Grandma told us he had something to do with the black children who had arrived at our school by bus on the day I’d started first grade. Before that, the only black people I’d ever seen in our neighborhood were the men who came every Tuesday morning at seven to pick up our garbage. I surmised that King had something to do with the new kids and the garbagemen, and I knew that we were supposed to love them, as we had to love everybody, because Jesus did: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” We should love King, too, Grandma said, and pray for his soul, even though he was a “card-carrying Communist.”
My operative definition of a Communist — gleaned from sermons, news broadcasts, and Sunday-dinner conversations — was “somebody who doesn’t believe in God.” I always pictured King holding a little card saying, “I don’t believe in God.” I was confused when I heard a reporter refer to him as “the Reverend.” I felt bad knowing he had gone to the lake of fire and brimstone. Being shot to death seemed like punishment enough.
So the sixties happened, but not to me. “We are in the world,” Mom said, mantra-like, “but not of the world.” We were different. And we liked it that way. We liked being special, the salt of the earth, the city on a hill, the light that refused to hide under a bushel. We were proud of not belonging. For in our hearts, we knew we were better than “they” were. They might pursue shallow goals like color television sets and “keeping up with the Joneses.” We knew better: Store up for yourselves not treasures on this earth. They could be easily led into Satan’s endless labyrinth of lies: women’s lib, world peace, free love. We remembered our roots, our heritage, the sacrifices made by those who came before. “It was good for our mothers, / and it’s good enough for me,” we sang. We sang a lot. Sometimes it seemed all we did was sing. But we never moved while singing, which would be dangerously close to dancing, one of the worst sins of all.
It was easy to differentiate “us” from “them.” They danced, smoked, drank, swore, and went bowling and to the movies. They played cards, listened to popular music, and watched television. (Debates occasionally erupted within our congregation over whether merely possessing a television set was a compromise with the devil; the intensity of these disputes was equaled only by that of the annual discussions of whether a Christian Christmas celebration could properly include Santa Claus.)
I was devastated the day I discovered a neighbor girl shuffling a deck of playing cards. Such cards, I was told, contained occult images; even to touch a deck made it possible for demons to enter your body and possess you.
“You should witness to your friend,” my Sunday-school teacher advised me.
But I was uncomfortable inviting classmates to church. I knew their eternal salvation hinged on whether I had the courage to invite them, but how could I possibly reveal to outsiders the strange little world I inhabited?
There were other, more subtle signs that someone wasn’t saved — like singing off key. “When you’re saved,” Pastor Bob said, “the Lord gives you the gift of song.” The salvation of anyone lacking in musical ability was highly suspect. No problem for anyone on Mom’s side of the family. She sang and played the organ; my older half-sister Amanda sang and played piano and violin. Mom’s brother Milton directed the choir. My four cousins sang in close harmony worthy of a barbershop quartet. As for me, I played my first song on the piano by ear when I was three, picking out the notes with my pointer finger after listening to Amanda and my cousins rehearse for a church performance: “Surely goodness and mercy / shall follow me / all the days / all the days of my life.” I liked the song so well that when Amanda gave me a pair of identical dolls, I named them Shirley Goodness and Ann Mercy.
Dad, on the other hand, was tone-deaf. When my father sang, the sound resembled the chanting of medieval monks. He chose to stay silent, knowing he brought enough ridicule upon himself simply by existing. You see, my father was foreign.
“You can’t help what you’re born with,” Grandma would say, “but you can help what you die with.” This must have come as welcome news to my dad, who could not help having been born in India, one of those countries so lost that we were obligated to send missionaries to it. Dad had been raised in a family of mismatched half-castes: people of mixed British and Indian ancestry. His father was an Anglican, his mother a Catholic who visited Hindu astrologers on her way home from confession, paying them to remove the curses from her jinxed half-breed family — “just in case those Hindu fellows turn out to be right about Shiva,” she said.
No, Dad could not help any of that. But at least he’d had the good sense to convert to our church after falling in love with my mom, and to become an American citizen. “Becoming American is just like being born again,” Mom said. “You can wipe out whatever you were before and start fresh. You don’t look back.”
Old things are washed away. All things become new.
I memorized a lot of Bible verses. Every year, our Sunday school gave a prize to the child who’d memorized the most, and I collected prizes. This didn’t make me popular with the other kids in church, even though the party line was that there were no cliques in our church, because “there are no cliques in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I followed the rules of our world well, probably as well as anyone did — until the day of the big revival meeting when I was eight. I remember the evangelist demanding that we bow our heads and close our eyes: “Every single one of you. No one looking around. No one.” He can’t tell you what to do, I thought to myself. He’s not your dad. I opened my eyes and looked around the stadium. Thousands of grown-ups had all bowed their heads, just because this man had told them to. All except my father. His eyes were open.
Dad never told Mom that he’d caught me peeking during prayer, and I never ratted on him. From then on, whenever the congregation prayed, I’d keep my eyes open. Logic told me I couldn’t get in trouble, because the only way people would know I had peeked was if they were peeking, too.
My next act of mutiny was to stop singing. I would hold the hymnal and mouth the words soundlessly. “I don’t know what’s gotten into that girl,” Mom would say. “We know she’s musical.” The relatives marveled at my failure to sing. Since I could play virtually any tune by ear, I was obviously not tone-deaf. At least I hadn’t inherited that from my father’s side, though they believed I had inherited almost everything else from him: my stubbornness, my inability to remain silent, my distaste for religious fervor, my tendency to bronze quickly in the summer. (“You might want to keep her out of the sun,” I’d hear from time to time. “We wouldn’t want people to think she was from somewhere else.”)
My list of vices lengthened as I grew older. Our Sunday-school teachers told us tales, illustrated with felt cutouts stuck to an easel, of heathens in hot, faraway lands, and of the missionaries who labored heroically to save them.
“Millions belong to false religions,” said Mrs. Hubbard. “Their children are brainwashed. They don’t even know the Good News about Jesus! If we don’t tell them, who will?”
One day I raised my hand. “Mrs. Hubbard?”
“Yes?” she said, beaming. I was her prize student because of my ability to memorize Bible verses.
“If they don’t know about Jesus in the first place, then isn’t it kind of mean for God to send them to hell? And what about the people who were born before Jesus even showed up? And what about the ones who died before the missionaries got there? How could it be their fault if they didn’t even know?”
After a pause, Mrs. Hubbard responded, “Well, some people who study the Bible believe that those who haven’t heard the Good News get a second chance right after they die. But those who hear the truth and reject it are most certainly condemned.”
“In that case,” I said, “wouldn’t they be better off if we didn’t send missionaries in the first place?”
That was the first time a Sunday-school teacher sent a note home to my parents.
The notes multiplied along with my sins:
“Today your daughter said that if God looks only on the inside, not the outside, we should be able to come to church in our swimsuits.”
“Today your daughter said it wasn’t fair for Anne Frank to go to hell, because it’s not fair for the Nazis and their victims to end up in the same place.”
“Your daughter has been reading parts of the Bible that are inappropriate for children and telling the other kids about it.” (“The king desires no marriage present except a hundred foreskins of the Philistines.”)
At my grade school, I encountered a different dilemma. Science forced me to learn falsehoods: that dinosaurs existed, that the world is billions of years old, and so on. I was confused, because I knew my mother expected me to get straight A’s and resist the devil’s lies. I asked her how I should handle science class.
“Memorize it,” she said, “but don’t believe it.”
I thought my mother was a genius: some things can enter your mind without penetrating your soul.
One advantage of being raised fundamentalist is that it makes the task of adolescent rebellion much less dangerous. Whereas my classmates had to drop acid to get attention, all I had to do was insist on going to the prom.
“Can’t you just go out for a nice dinner and come back home?” Mom begged.
I thrust my camera into her hand. “Take the picture, Mom.”
“But I don’t want to remember this!” she whined.
“Most moms like taking pictures of their daughters dressed for the prom,” I said. “Why can’t you just be normal?”
Mom reluctantly snapped two pictures and spent the evening praying for my soul while my boyfriend and I danced to “Disco Inferno.”
Two years later, I walked down the aisle of the family church, wearing a long white gown and holding my father’s arm. The boy in the prom pictures waited for me at the altar. It must have appeared a conservative ceremony to anyone watching, but I knew what it really was: an insurrection. Entering into the sacred institution of marriage was the only way I could escape the smothering restrictions of home. My husband and I ran through a shower of confetti into a van covered with toilet paper and shaving cream. We drove off, toward a life of choices and freedom.
Emotionally, I had left the church long before. It had happened incrementally. I never had the kind of religious experience that everyone around me seemed to be having — and, I must admit, I wanted it. I came to believe that everyone was faking it, fooling the world, but most of all fooling themselves. Mom wondered if my defection was the fault of Dad’s relatives: English and Indians, Catholics and Anglicans, agnostics and drug smugglers. Or perhaps, she thought, it was the Pastor Paul scandal: during my senior year of high school, nude photos were found of Pastor Paul and his secretary, spanning five years and numerous sexual positions. (The last we heard of the pastor, he was performing quickie marriages in Vegas.)
Mom’s speculations were all wrong. Even before poor Paul was caught in flagrante delicto, I was no longer surprised that Christians had genitalia and the urges that accompany them. There were enough other inconsistencies to keep me awake at night, such as why we didn’t give coins to street people when the Bible clearly states, “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor.” Or why we had to sit still when the Psalms say, “Dance before the Lord.” Or why wives had to submit to their husbands when the Bible says, “In Christ there is no male nor female.” I wonder at times whether I left the church because I didn’t believe its teachings, or because I did.
I never resented my parents for staying in the church. It was who they were. I knew something of the complex forces that had attracted them to this seemingly simpler world.
Mom was born with cerebral palsy, and all through childhood she struggled with a weak right side and a shortened right leg. (By adulthood her handicap was noticeable only as a limp.) Her right shoes had to be retooled and her right eyeglass prescription adjusted. When she was small, a doctor recommended piano lessons to strengthen her weak hand and tap-dancing to build up her leg muscles. Her parents allowed the piano but prohibited the dancing, worried what folks at church would think. (My mother may have eagerly embraced fundamentalism, but she was also one of its victims.)
She was married for the first time at twenty, to a handsome man she’d met in Bible school. His proposal thrilled and surprised her. She’d thought no one would ever want her: lopsided, limping, scrawny. My half-sister Amanda was only two when doctors discovered her father’s malignant brain tumor. When my mother was widowed at twenty-four, she became an anachronism: a single parent in the 1950s.
And she had a guilty secret, one that I would learn only as an adult: One night, en route to the hospital to visit her dying husband, Mom’s slow-moving right foot didn’t make it to the brake in time to stop for a pedestrian, who died at the scene. The police left my mother to linger in jail for a couple of days. The pedestrian had been drunk; the driver had never taken a drop of alcohol in her life.
© Dion Ogust
My mother believed in miracles. She believed that Jesus never fails us, and that if she was the best little girl in the world, nothing bad would ever happen to her. Somehow she managed to keep believing this despite her cerebral palsy, despite the fatal accident, despite her first husband’s tragic early death.
She went to church, where she played her beloved organ. Unbeknown to her, my father was watching. Knowing almost no one in Seattle, he’d come to church with his landlady. He was entranced by my mother’s smile, and by the cute little girl, my half-sister, who left with her after services. There was no husband, he noticed.
Was it the smile that did it? Or was it the fatherless daughter? (His own mother had been a widow with eight children.) My father mustered the courage to arrange for an introduction. It was a whirlwind courtship. My father joined my mother’s church the Sunday before their wedding.
It wasn’t until the honeymoon that my mother found out he was part Indian. He told her this as they drove through southern England in a rented car, on their way to my Roman Catholic grandmother’s house in Hampshire. Mom consoled herself, as always, with the thought that God had a plan; perhaps God had brought them together so she could witness to my father’s hopelessly heathen family.
She never managed to convert her in-laws, but Mom kept on believing: through my father’s first heart attack at age thirty-nine, through the recession in the early 1970s that nearly sank our family, through a freak accident in which Dad broke his neck two weeks after I finished high school. (That he broke the vertebrae without severing the spinal cord was, to Mom, proof of God’s mercy.) Mom kept on believing right up to the day in 1992 that Dad was rushed to the hospital with searing headaches. Once again, my mother would hear the news that her husband had a malignant brain tumor. Inoperable, chances of survival nil.
At first it was harder for me to understand my father. Unlike Mom, who rarely ventured far from her neighborhood, Dad had resided in four countries, on three continents. The racist, xenophobic treatment he received from some church members and relatives was appalling. Yet for years he was the chief enforcer of their rules. It was a mystery to me why a cosmopolitan man of the world would choose such a narrow slice of it.
Later in life he managed a provisional escape. After I moved out, he and I developed a friendship and shared much that had been forbidden to us before: movies, intellectual discussions, spicy ethnic meals. Because he was still devoted to my mother and knew that to leave the church would mean leaving her, my father continued attending services on Sunday mornings.
Once, I was riding with him in his smooth, sable-colored Oldsmobile with the luxurious leather interior. A big-band tune played on the radio, and he said the music reminded him of his boyhood in India. Then the song changed to Tony Bennett: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Dad sang along in a lovely tenor, completely in tune.
“Dad,” I said, “I thought you were tone-deaf.”
“Don’t tell your mother,” he replied. “If she finds out, she’ll have me singing in the choir.”
I began college late, at age thirty, and that’s where I discovered that my father’s Anglo-Indian family wasn’t an isolated fluke but part of a postcolonial phenomenon. The books I read described the Anglo-Indians as a “marginalized minority” who suffered psychological ill effects from “self-directed racism.” Most Anglo-Indian families were flung far and wide. Many who looked European chose to pass as white. Darkness was shameful.
You might want to keep her out of the sun.
My grandfather had died in 1947, shortly after India gained its independence. My seventeen-year-old father witnessed his death. My grandmother was pregnant with number eight at the time, and my father financially supported all of them. He left for England alone, then worked to bring the rest of the family over one by one, only to leave for Canada as soon as they’d all made the crossing. From there, he made his way down to Seattle.
My father spoke quietly and with a stutter, though one of my uncles told me he had not always been that way. My father, he said, had been outgoing until the day his father died, after which he’d stopped speaking for some time. He eventually regained his voice, but he was never the same. He stuttered at church, around my mother’s family, when talking with the neighbors. But when he felt at ease, his speech flowed as if from some hidden source. I could see a spark of the boy he’d been before he’d watched his father die, before he’d become responsible for a widowed mother and seven younger siblings, before he’d undergone three changes of nationality and several religious transformations, finally remaking himself in the American image of a born-again Christian.
Sometimes I would chide him for “selling out.” He would shake his head and say quietly, “There is much you don’t understand.”
After my father’s diagnosis, he talked more, and faster — the way he used to, my uncle said — as if he knew time was running out. Shortly before he died, my father told me, “Sometimes people want to forget.”
From my reading I learned that the Anglo-Indian community has traditionally kept to itself. Unpopular with British and Indians alike, Anglo-Indians tend to intermarry, losing track in the process of who has how much Indian blood or exactly what kind of Europeans are in the family tree, not surprised when the firstborn has black hair and olive skin and the second is a freckled redhead. Anglo-Indians have always lived together in a protected enclave where no one could touch them. In India, but not of India. As my father lay dying, it came to me: when, after journeying from one side of the planet to the other, my father had married my mother and joined her church, he felt he had come home.
My father died in a Seattle hospice on a below-freezing January night. He was sixty-three. His youngest brother, William, was at his bedside, having flown in from England a few days earlier. He volunteered for the excruciating task of making the phone calls. My job was to calculate time zones: subtract two hours for Hawaii, add eight hours for England, eighteen for Australia. After a dozen painful conversations, voices bouncing off satellite dishes from countries where it was still yesterday or already tomorrow, my exhausted Uncle William said, “The sun may have finally set on the British Empire, but it never sets on our damn family.”
Three days later I borrowed his line (minus the damn) to conclude my father’s eulogy. I used terms like “Anglo-Indian” and “mixed race.” I mentioned my father’s other life: before he’d become American; before he’d become fundamentalist; before he’d become one of us, but not one of us. I didn’t care what anyone thought.
It was my first time back in the family church since the day I’d run through the confetti shower with my new husband. Thirteen years had passed. People I’d once known appeared and disappeared like apparitions, with little to say to me, the apostate. The Scriptures were still indelibly etched in my memory. I still knew the words to all the songs.
Yet much had changed since I’d left the church. The sanctuary, always large, was even larger. On the platform, next to the pipe organ my mother used to play, stood the trappings of a nightclub combo: Korg synthesizer, speakers, electric bass, full set of Ludwig drums. New wings had been added to the building, and an elevator had been installed. The basement now housed a huge “multipurpose room,” used for Christian basketball, Christian banquets, and Christian aerobics classes. (No Christian yoga, which was still associated with false religions.) There was a day-care center, a senior center, a soundproof rehearsal room for Christian rock bands. The foyer had sprouted an espresso cart, and signs met one at every exit: Go ye therefore and teach all nations. Love one another, as I have loved you. Please finish your espresso before entering the sanctuary.
It was the early nineties, and the fundamentalists were no longer marginalized. The rise of the Christian Right had taken a lot of people by surprise, none more so than me. If someone had told me in my early teens that coalitions would be formed among born-again Protestants, conservative Catholics, Mormons, and secular conservatives, I would have suspected the messenger of socializing with Timothy Leary.
Perhaps one has to have come from a background like mine to understand how revolutionary it was for Christian fundamentalists to put aside doctrinal differences to pursue a common goal. In my childhood, we were not allowed to play with Catholics, and secular types were hell-bound whatever their political persuasion. My mother was distressed when she realized that our cocker spaniel’s puppies had been fathered by the fluffy white Samoyed that belonged to the Mormons across the street. (“Oh, dear, not the Mormon dog,” she sighed.) Mom would welcome Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons into our house — then produce her largest Bible and proceed to point out their theological errors until they were squirming and apologizing for taking up her time.
“I don’t know why they have to go around knocking on people’s doors like that,” she would say.
“Yeah, right,” I said, as a surly adolescent. “Like we’re not sending missionaries out all over the place, too.”
“But that’s different,” Mom said.
“We have to tell people the truth,” she said, “because we’re right.”
Because we’re right. How much easier it must have been to live with that blessed assurance. It gave my mother’s chaotic life solace. For a while.
In the days following Dad’s death, my mother ceased to speak. She refused to grieve or cry. If asked, she would only point skyward and say, “He’s in heaven.” She lost weight, forgot where and who she was, hallucinated that she had married a widowed congregation member. Doctors thought she might have Alzheimer’s, but it progressed too quickly for that. Medical tests revealed nothing.
Mom became aphasic and grotesquely skinny. She lost her ability to walk and could only sit in a wheelchair, hunched up, empty-eyed, and quiet, children’s clothes hanging from her seventy-pound frame.
My mother died on a late-June afternoon. She was sixty-eight. The coroner found no explanation for her death, nor for her rapid deterioration.
I had a harder time writing my mother’s eulogy. All her friends and relatives were of the church, while I wasn’t anymore. I wanted to tell these people what I thought was the truth, but when I saw them gathered together at the funeral to seek the Lord’s blessing, I understood how much they still needed to keep believing. I had been able to question, to leave, and to try on different creeds for size, eventually putting together the scattered pieces of something you could call faith.
These fragments have I shored against my ruins.
But the church members, having sacrificed everything for a faint hope, needed to believe they would see my mother again someday, not as she was when she’d left us, but as she’d been before, when she’d taught Sunday school, made a joyful noise unto the Lord on the pipe organ, and served elegant roast-beef dinners on Sunday afternoons, greeting her visitors with a beaming smile that belied her lifetime of pain.
In my eulogy, I didn’t say what I thought was true: that my mother had died because the belief system that had given her life structure had finally collapsed.
In college I majored in literature and sought meaning through metaphor and myth, only to discover I was in a post-deconstructionist era in which nothing was supposed to mean anything anymore. Theorists taught me that finding solace in a line of poetry or inspiration in a fictional character’s quest was the province of the “naive reader” — so quaint, so outdated.
I explored leftist political stances and occasional activism, convinced that such causes were more aligned with Jesus’ teachings than the right-wing political agenda. Yet in my new circles I often found a recycled version of the same orthodoxy I’d heard all my life: “We have an obligation to force our views on others, because we’re right!” Different ideologies leading to similar places. And with my social convictions came the intriguing realization that much of Christianity still made sense. For love of money is the root of all evil. Sometimes I wish I had been able to accept the simple songs of my childhood: “It was good for our mothers, / and it’s good enough for me.”
But then I think of my mother and the simple, black-and-white answers that turned out not to be answers for her. Where could she go when she felt punished by a God who, for all her best efforts, had found her not good enough?
And I think of my father, who once told me he felt as if he lived on a rope bridge, swinging precariously over a chasm between worlds. I did not know then whether he was talking about being too English in India, too Indian in England, or Anglo-Indian in America. Or was he talking about his marriage to my sometimes incomprehensible mother? His problematic relationship with our demanding church? The huge gulf between his family and the family into which he had married? Perhaps he meant all of it. He has left me, his daughter, swinging on a precarious bridge of my own.
Is there a place where my father could have fit in without having to erase his past, his family, his identity? Is there a faith that can survive religion, a way to belong to an “us” without creating an evil “them”? Can our circle remain unbroken, even when some within it break ranks with orthodoxy?
The world in which I grew up became mainstream years ago, but today I am still on the outside looking in. I’ve always been out of step: a fundamentalist in the sixties and seventies, a leftist in the eighties and nineties, and now, in our post-modern, post-structural, postcolonial, post-everything world, someone who knows firsthand the dangers of dogmatism, yet still holds out hope for something worth believing in.