|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
just as i am
My parents' radical faith in God persisted through hard financial times and even the illness that befell my father when I was a child — devotion they expressed by attending church services every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, and, often, prayer meeting on Wednesday night. If you looked up Baptist fundamentalism in the dictionary, the definition would probably start with, "Thou shalt not," as it related to any form of physical pleasure, or even the occasional delight in a sideways glance at the beauty of the human form. There was no drinking, no dancing, no smoking, no card playing, and certainly no touching of another person by anyone for any reason other than by accident, maybe in an elevator.
Our pastor, Reverend Mitchell, was in his early fifties, and his snow-white hair (flowing back in waves, parting in the middle like the Red Sea) made him look to my young eyes like God himself in a business suit. He was a handsome man of average stature, with a booming voice that rose to the ceiling, bounced off the rafters, and reverberated down the aisles as he bellowed from behind the solid oak pulpit. His consistent message included three main themes: Christ died for your sins and would be back to reclaim his own; you had a choice between heaven and hell; and you should accept Jesus today to wash your sins away. Each point was hammered home with a force that made me fear God might strike me dead before the service was over. I wondered how it was possible to be in this much trouble just for being born.
This view made it hard to reconcile stories of a loving God with someone who would have you burn in hell just because you snuck out of the house to see Bambi at the Atlas Theater with the neighbor kids or put a blotch of ink on the back of Annie Stanel's sweater when you sat behind her in fourth grade. I remember my nervousness when I went home that night after the sweater blotch, fearful that God would call the principal himself, resulting in my banishment from Coolidge Elementary School forever. In the Baptist church, it seemed that every unfortunate thing that happened to you was linked to sin — my father's illness, losing my favorite ring, coming in second in the Bible School poster contest. Anything that didn't work out the way I had hoped was most likely due to a moral failing on my part.
Those damning images seared their way into me and became a part of my religious DNA.
Reverend Mitchell ended every service by imploring people to repent. "Now is the time to accept Jesus," he would say softly as the organ music played "Just as I Am" in the background. I hated this part; staring at my best patent leather shoes, my toes tapping impatiently inside my best Sunday footwear, I wanted to dart down the aisle in the opposite direction and bolt from the building.
A hush would come over the congregation, and heads would bow as the music director led us in this closing hymn — a final entreaty for lost souls to come to Jesus. "Who wants to be saved today?"
Once in a while a couple of people would make their way to the front of the church.
"Yes, yes," the reverend would say, raising his Bible in his right hand and greeting the sinner, then putting his left arm around him.
I wanted to be saved. Saved from the endless threat of punishment and a life of fear and anxiety.
As I entered fifth grade, I considered the Catholic religion. They seemed to have more personal freedom around things like smoking, drinking, and dancing. But they had the nuns to contend with, who were pretty scary themselves.
My friend Michelle Davies went to Our Lady Gate of Heaven parochial school, and she asked me to come with her one Saturday to help Sister Mary Martha Caprice catch up on her paperwork. I was elated, and I dressed up in my favorite red Scottish plaid skirt with the oversize decorative gold pin, my cream-colored sweater, and my black-and-white saddle oxfords. I felt bad that they were scuffed on the toes and that the laces were dirty, and I tried to shine them by spitting on my fingers and rubbing the toes while riding in the back seat on the way to the school. My efforts only made things worse, leaving just dark wet spots behind.
Sister Mary Martha Caprice swung open the large-paneled cherry door and greeted us. She wore a black habit with a stiffly starched white cloth that framed her face and squished all the extra flesh toward the center of her forehead, making her wince, even when she smiled.
She welcomed Michelle and her dad and asked if I was there to help too. Suddenly I had the urge to flee across the graveled playground and down the grassy slope onto the sidewalk and fly the eight blocks back home to my own frightening God. But before I could act on that fleeting thought, I was encircled by the long arm draped in black and guided down the hall with Michelle in silence.
The floors glistened, and thin slivers of light streamed in through high windows and bounced off of the linoleum, casting long shadows as Sister Mary Martha Caprice floated down the hall in her costume of black and white — two small figures scurrying behind her. I glanced at my shoes with dried spit on the toes and hoped that Sister Mary Martha Caprice wouldn't notice. The whole time I was there I was worried she would ask me if I was Catholic or make me say a Hail Mary if I didn't do things correctly. I didn't really know what a Hail Mary was, except Michelle said they had to say it in school sometimes when they were bad. Jesus was hanging on a cross in every room, flesh pierced with nails and red paint dripping down his side. I wondered if they didn't know he had risen from the dead, but I wasn't about to ask. I couldn't wait to get out of there and was glad when our work was finished and we glided back down the darkened hallway through the ominous black gate out into the sunshine. Becoming a Catholic didn't appeal to me either.
Reverend Mitchell's Sunday condemnations were intermixed with daily thoughtful messages from my parents, whose passionate belief in God helped them see practical miracles in regular life. For instance, they would give generously to the church by tithing but would never ask for help from others. Instead, they would pray — especially when my father made repeated trips to the hospital with unexpected seizures. Insurance always fell short of covering the bills, and he could not be released without full payment.
On one occasion my mother needed more than two hundred dollars to get him out. She relied on God to provide and didn't tell a soul. A few days later, an envelope arrived from a friend with a heartfelt message and a hundred-dollar check. Then one of the men from the steel mill where my dad had been a supervisor showed up at the door with a large piece of butcher paper folded like an oversize envelope. In it, along with messages of hope for my father, was a stack of bills that added up to $127. This was proof for them that God was real and that he was listening. I wasn't so sure, but I thought I had better get myself saved just in case. My brother, Jim, who was two years older, had already accepted Christ and been baptized; so if we all died in a car crash on the way home, I would end up in hell by myself while they all floated off to heaven. With that thought as motivation, I marched myself down to the front of the church during one of those agonizing closing ceremonies and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I was twelve years old and I was fine, mostly, until I developed my first crush.
I first noticed Gina in the hall at school when I was fifteen. She was hard to miss at five foot ten with her blond ponytail; crisp, white short-sleeved shirts with the collar turned up; and spotless white tennis shoes. The sweet smell of Jean Naté perfume floated behind her and made me want to follow the scent. I introduced myself at O'Shea Park, where we both were wandering around with softball gloves, hoping the boys would let us play. It was the summer of 1963, and for the first time the director of the recreation center announced they would sponsor an official girls' softball team. Gina played first base and could stretch halfway to second to catch a wild throw from the shortstop or race far outside the foul line to grab a ball on the fly. She made me look good at third base, snatching balls in the dirt or ones that flew far above her head. We quickly became a twosome and hung out much of that summer and the next. Most days I would walk down to the park in the late morning and meet Gina. Our ritual was to wear sleeveless shirts and Bermuda shorts, slather ourselves with baby oil laced with iodine, and lie out on picnic tables to tan for a couple of hours before going down to the recreation center to play a few rounds of handball until softball practice at 5:00 p.m.
Lying side by side, the sun beating down on our skin, we talked about high schoolers we knew, about plans after graduation. She wanted to get a job and buy a Corvette. I said I did too, hoping she'd think I was cool like her. Something about being with Gina was special. I'd always had friends, but she seemed different — older, worldly, which wasn't that surprising given my sheltered existence. Being around her gave me feelings I didn't have with anyone else, feelings that made my stomach flutter and that sometimes made me feel self-conscious.
Gina was raised a Catholic, and where my mother was Doris Day, Gina's was a Mae West who smoked, drank, played cards, and even went dancing. She had dyed blond hair that she wore pulled tightly back in a French twist, revealing deep lines on her forehead that she filled with pancake makeup. Large oval clip-on earrings framed her face and made her look like a walking cameo. Bright red lipstick accentuated her mouth, and she wore flamboyant colors that surely got her the attention she was seeking. She also wore stiletto heels with straps that criss-crossed her feet — shoes I could never imagine my own mother wearing. Her hands, though thick and rough from her hard days' work, sported polished nails in shades that matched her lipstick. Gina's dad didn't seem to mind her going out with girlfriends. He was bald, stout, and handy with tools — an introvert who seemed to find greater joy in fixing the gutters on the house or trading out the storm windows for screens in the summer than going barhopping with his wife and her pals in their black 1960 Plymouth Fury that resembled a Batmobile.
Gina went to church occasionally and to confession when she felt like it. It seemed that if you could already drink, dance, smoke, and play cards, there weren't many sins left to confess. Religion was not a big part of Gina's life, but having fun was. One day when we were out at the park, she casually pulled out a pack of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes and offered me one. I had no idea how to smoke and wasn't quite sure what type of punishment God would mete out for taking a few puffs, but it was the most exciting moment of my adolescence, and I wasn't about to miss it. She carefully unwrapped the cellophane around the package and unfolded the foil on top. Then she slapped the pack against the edge of the picnic table until a couple of cigarettes jutted out. She offered me one first. I pulled one out of the pack; then she took one and provided instructions.
"Put it between your teeth like this," she demonstrated. "Then, when I light it, suck in on the end of the cigarette." Gina lit the match and pulled it up next to the cigarette while she cupped her hands around the tip to keep the match from blowing out. Then she inhaled and effortlessly blew a thin stream of smoke out of her mouth as though she had been smoking all her life.
I sat on the edge of the picnic table and crossed my legs, trying to look sophisticated. I followed her directions, first watching her, then trying it myself. I failed to notice she had inhaled lightly, and when it was my turn, I sucked on it like it was a straw bringing me the last few drops of a delicious milk shake.
As I gasped for air I acted like I enjoyed this new activity though my throat stung all the way to my navel. I secretly hoped this was not going to be a regular part of our ritual, as I was sure it would kill me. I asked if she smoked all the time, and she confessed she had stolen this pack from her mom's carton, assuring me they wouldn't be missed. I couldn't imagine stealing from my mother. I was pretty sure she would know and that there wouldn't be a happy ending to that story.
Gina handed me another cigarette, and in spite of my fear that I would choke to death, I lit up again, struggling less this time, but surely not enjoying it. Thankfully we stopped after a couple, and she promised to save them for the next day.
On another occasion, she talked the maintenance guy at the recreation center into doing her a favor. I was stunned when Stanley waved us over to the tool shed at the back of the parking lot one day and invited us into the musty tin building. Stan- ley was a soft-spoken black man with graying hair and sweet eyes. He was always friendly and nice to the teenagers who hung out at the center, unlike the gruff older white guy, Ralph. Most neighborhoods in Detroit were segregated, and Stanley was the only black man I had met at that point in my life.
He glanced both ways to make sure no one was watching, then hurried us inside. It was clear he wanted us to hustle, and we obliged. Quickly he closed the door behind us.
The room was lit by the power of a single overhead light bulb that dangled in the center of the shed. He searched for something under the workbench as we stood looking at each other. When he rose and turned toward us, we saw he had a six-pack of Budweiser beer in his hands. I'm sure my wide-eyed expression revealed my shock, though I tried to contain my disbelief. I loved the racy feeling of doing something out of bounds, despite my concern that the cops would burst into the shack and arrest us. For a moment, an image of Reverend Mitchell flashed before me, his wavy hair curling away from the sides of his face, his brow furrowed. I pushed him from my mind before he could speak and concentrated on the scene before me.
There was no room to sit down, so we stood leaning against the workbench. Stanley pulled out a bottle opener, popped the tops, and handed each of us a brew. So unschooled in the truth about alcohol, while being completely indoctrinated into its dangers, I had no idea how much you had to drink to get drunk. I took one sip and waited. The stuff tasted awful, but I swallowed instead of following my urge to spit it out. The way the Baptists talked, surely a small bit of this potent juice would send me reeling. Nothing happened. So I just kept going forward, taking another sip and then waiting — still no effect. Three sips, four sips — still nothing. I wondered what the big deal was. This was like drinking water. Except water tasted much better. Maybe the effects would take hold later, I thought, so I had better not overdo it.
Gina bragged about how she liked different kinds of beer as I listened, shocked she had drunk any beer before, let alone enough to know the difference between one and another. I said nothing, not wanting to expose my lack of knowledge on the matter. I just leaned against the workbench and held the bottle to my lips long enough to appear that I was taking a big swig, when I was just sipping a little. Stanley sat his beer on the work- bench and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes from his shirt pocket, unwrapping the cellophane and ripping open the end of the pack. With one good slap against his hand, a few popped out. He took one, lit up, and then offered the pack to us. Gina reached over casually and took one, put it between her lips, and leaned toward Stanley, who held a match to light it. I didn't really want one but didn't want to be left out, so I reached for one too, put it between my lips, and waited for Stanley to light it, trying to remember not to suck on it like a straw, but to inhale gently.
I kept sipping my drink and taking a few puffs. I was beginning to learn how not to inhale, and it became easier to look cool without seriously harming myself. By the time we left, I had probably finished a third of a bottle of beer; Stanley no doubt ended up drinking the rest of the six-pack himself. I was not remotely aware of the incredible risk Stanley was taking — buying beer for two underage white girls and drinking it with them, the three of us alone in a toolshed in the middle of the afternoon in the 1960s.
I made sure no one was in the living room as I slipped through the front door and back to my bedroom, where I took off all my smoke-filled clothes and put on fresh shorts and a clean shirt. I could feel my face turn red as my dad rounded the corner in the hallway, all the guilt racing from my heart up to my head in flashes. I went directly to the bathroom and brushed my teeth three times before my mother got home and then washed my arms and legs with soap and a washcloth. In spite of the anxiety they created, I reveled in the secrets Gina and I shared. Hanging out with her was like flying on the wing of an airplane.
Excerpted from "You Can't Buy Love Like That"
Copyright © 2017 Carol E. Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
chapter 1 just as i am, 9,
chapter 2 the diet, 23,
chapter 3 first broken heart, 31,
chapter 4 the blood drive, 41,
chapter 5 over my head, 51,
chapter 6 pain, pleasure and confrontation, 61,
chapter 7 in the wilderness, 77,
chapter 8 will you marry me?, 90,
chapter 9 road trip, 104,
chapter 10 crossroads, 113,
chapter 11 women's liberation, 131,
chapter 12 white lilacs for the soul, 141,
chapter 13 breakfast at big boys, 151,
chapter 14 finding freedom, 160,
chapter 15 who wants to be normal?, 168,
chapter 16 belonging, 179,
chapter 17 the struggle, 184,
chapter 18 alone and free, 197,
epilogue you can't buy love like that, 207,
about the author, 215,
selected titles from she writes press, 217,