Monday, March 13, 2006

A History of Heathen Living: The Early Years

Heathen, "savage." From the O.E. "heath," untilled land. Before that, from the Indo-Eur. root "kaito," forest, uncultivated land.

Let's start with the Christians:

Never baptised, I was. Mother was a quasi-Presbyterian, and I was fathered by a Jack Mormon. That's a term for one who strays. In his case, it was worse - he was excommunicated for some jiggery-pokery. My father was a bit of a rake, really. But he was charming.

Her parents weren't religious. She went to church with Grandmother Bessie, high school friends, then for a few years to an Indiana Christian college. That fell away when she left Wichita and met my father. God did not reside in our house. There was bourbon and Coke and prescriptions and probably some coke. There were other women. There was an underage babysitter. There were other men. All for Dad.

My sixth year brought with it a new step-father; this is when God entered the picture. What karmic or psychological patterning led my mother to wed and divorce two ex-communicated Mormon attorneys from The Great Salt Lake is beyond me. Joe was a direct descendant of The Prophet, Joseph Newt Licker Smith. No foolin'. They were the only family in Mormondom with an inherited role in the church hierarchy, "the actual (performing) Lineal Patriarch." Primogeniture dictated that Joe would assume the throne, as he was the first born son.

That is, until certain proclivities of his daddy's (whose name was precisely that of the prophet's), came to light. That's a sad story, really. His father, undoubtedly a gay man, was born to be an actor and, well, gay. He attended King's College in London. He studied and befriended the likes of Lawrence Olivier, who remained his friend for the duration of his lifetime. There is suggestion they were more than mates. A building is named for him in a college up in the Canadian Rockies, where he taught dramatic arts in the summers for more than a decade. Joe, Jr. flew us there in his little bush plane and onto a feral landing strip, so he could participate in some sort of ceremony honoring the old man.

This was a man who "knew" people. Humphrey Bogart visited their home in SLC, a fact which disgusted my erstwhile step-grandmother. A lot of things bothered her that way, but then, if you've ever heard any stories about Bogie, you could see how he would discomfit a pious woman. There were rules and more rules. What a disappointment this man, her husband, must have been to her. She was righteous, steely, commanding, powerful. Mother to seven, and buttressed with few resources, like most Mormon women I've known.

Ruth was the sort of woman who would tell you, in all your seven-ness, a-fidget there in the droning tick-tockness of her doilied sitting room, that if you were bored, you were boring. Their home was dry, staticky. The tap water tasted of dust; it tasted like Utah. Morning cereal was hot porridge. "Mush" they called it, a term which always made me shudder. Then there was the powdered milk.

There was not so much television for entertainment as there was an organ, piano, and books. I have a sensation about that place something akin to a bland uneventful death. I remember her telling me this: as a little girl, when she lay her down to sleep, her hands were crossed, palms flat to the chest. Like an effigy on a saints tomb she rested, in case she was taken in the night to heaven.

When it wasn't being so painfully quiet, there were swarms of children, cousins. Everywhere. Back in Portland we even had one passel of them. Hiram's kids. The Bishop's kids. Six, were there? They had a swimming pool, the site of my first remembered initiation into the world of religious bodily shame. I wore a bikini, whereas Mormon girls wear a one-piece to conceal their diabolical belly buttons. My cousins happily informed me that my "body was a temple," and to bare my navel was an act of dishonor. I don't know what about my skinny grammar school physique would have inspired lust, but one rightly can place the umbilical portal into the category of "orifice." Maybe it was too graphic and confusing a reminder of the naughty bits, the place where ontogeny and the scatological live side by side. A physiological Scylla and Charybdis. The holy is holey. The profane is sacred, the sacred profane. That's too much for a good Mormon to abide.

Oddly enough, I recall becoming perfectly terrified of the water in that pool if I was the last one out of it. Sharks, I was sure, would appear from nowhere to eat me, and me alone. My sin, my soul, Lolita.

Hiram's progeny taught me about the Golden Plates, the Lost Tribes, Moroni (it's true, that is the name of the trumpeting angel atop the Tabernacle. A celestial halfwit Seraphim in the school marching band), and The Holy Ghost. They were really worried about me. I think I was too wrapped up in my classical studies to take their personal mythology as gospel. The Greek gods and their antics were just so much colorful. The cousins taught me about the The Holy Ghost, and I taught them how to wad up Kleenex, fashioning it into one. A toy spectre with which one could run around the house in abominable swimming attire shrieking, "Holy Ghost." My wretched celebration. My rebellion.

An aside: This reminds me of a story about my elder sister who, for her thirteenth birthday, desperately wanted a Skipper doll. Instead, she got Skipper's older, more buxom sister, Barbie. Renate's response was to take a hammer from Dad's shop and flatten Barbie's tits. A most sensible girl she was, my sister - the kid who was wise enough to reject what she wasn't ready for.

Anyway, Joe and Mom got really interested in "exploring" all sorts of religions. All sorts of Christian ones, anyway. We sat in Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mormon and Episcopalian pews. My favorite was the black Baptist Church, woefully underrepresented, and by far the most enlivening. I think mostly we went there to further Joe's political career. It seems he pursued politics to compensate for his lost place in the anointed church hierarchy.

For awhile, they got into this somewhat cultish group called Creative Initiative Foundation (later on it was Beyond War). They were concerned with the environment, nuclear disarmament, and spreading the love. It was post-Hippy Christian meets Carl Jung and Dr. Helen Caldecott. Mandalas were drawn, dreamwork analyzed and illustrated, relationships counseled, groups picnicked, sung-a-long, and hugged. (In retrospect, I finally have some understanding about my aversion to the on-campus presence of the Leo Buscaglia Society. I literally ran across the College Green and away from some well-meaning Sophomore.) Someone selling Shaklee products, rainbow stickers on back windshields, and one little girl, still trying to get over her forced weekend away with Life Spring (like est, like the Forum), and wondering what she ever did to get dragged into all of this.

I wasn't overly fond of this man, Joe Smith. Not only had he taken his client as his lover, he was a skinflint. He kept the house mercilessly cold, and when we went out to dinner, which was rarely more than a cheap pizza parlour, you couldn't order a lousy soda pop. You could have the two cent novelty soda water, but no 7Up, no Coke. It wasn't about the sugar, it was about the expense.

In his quest for economy, he surely put us to work, my mother and me. She became his legal secretary, and so began a long dichotomous period of labor and isolation for me. They worked quite late routinely, so I learned to cook for myself. My mother kept an immaculate house, so Saturdays were for cleaning. Every summer, as was normal in Mormon households (though were weren't), was devoted to storing food. We picked strawberries, cherries, blueberries, plums, peaches, blackberries, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and in the Fall, apples. We pickled, stewed, canned, dried and froze the fruits and vegetables. I don't know if any of you have any idea how much work all that is, but I can tell you it's an up in the morning and work till eleven kind of thing. It doesn't happen in just one day. Let it never be said they didn't teach me to work.

For all this, starting at the age of six, I received a paltry allowance of twenty-five cents a week. Each year, on my birthday, it was raised another two bits. I saved quarters until I had enough money to walk eleven blocks to the record store and buy my next Beatles' album. That went on for years. It was not the same world it is now. Though I was rather alone, the beauty of it was, I had freedom. I could roam as far and wide as my legs or bicycle would carry me. In second grade, it was permissible for me to go it alone for twenty miles in the March of Dimes Walkathon. The next year, I did it again, but no one remembered to pick me up. So I walked thirty blocks back to our empty house. It was Joe's fault.

This was the man I was forced to call father; he wouldn't acknowledge me at the dinner table until I did.

As to his political career, I must admit, he did do some good. As District Attorney of Umatilla County (this bit predated us), he kept chemical weapons out of production in his sovereignty. He failed in his bid for state Attorney General (by the way, I spent a lifetime's worth of child slave labor working on various political campaigns in the six years they were together), but did become Chairman of the Oregon Democratic Party. Sen. Alan Cranston slept in our home, Walter Mondale visited. I met Jerry Brown back when he was still fooling around with Linda Ronstadt and she was fooling around with the Eagles. We had a joke that Joe could not bear to let the phone go unanswered because, as my mother put it, "Jesus might be calling." One day he did, it was Jimmy Carter - they were working on anti-MX missile legislation.

From this man, I learned about a Spartan existence, I learned to reduce, reuse, recycle. Quite a difference from the extravagances of my reprobate yet repentant, Republican father. But for all my father's shortcomings, my dad had a genuine warmth that Joe lacked. Joe was trying be iconic in some way. Both men had big egos, but I think my father, trainwreck that he was, had a real emotional connection with people and things. Joe was a do-gooder, but he always seemed to float a little above it all. Detached.

We did go to the Mormon church quite a lot over the years. As much as we were accepted into a community of really lovely people, I never took to their spiritual protestations. Maybe my sensibilities were already too formed, but I couldn't see the emotional logic of a holy system that left women so far out to the equation. Especially when they seemed to be doing all the work. I don't quite understand how I could have been so insulated from all the dogma, but it never seeped in. As emotionally vulnerable child as I was, and I surely was, to this religion I was impenetrable. It must have been largely due to my mother's private conversations with me. She repeatedly let me know we were here for a sense of community, not for the salvation of our souls.

In the end, Joe probably cheated on my mother as much as my father did. Ultimately what broke them up was the twelve grand he stole out of my savings account to pay his taxes. My money for private school. I got bumped out for a year of high school. Would have been two, but for the charity of my institution. He was very thrifty.

But those Mormons, they came to our rescue, my mother, my aunt, and me. As the saying goes, by the time I was in eighth grade and away from Joe, we didn't have two pennies to rub together. My mom worked as a secretary at a lumber yard, making a whopping few hundred a month. We were eligible for welfare, but she wouldn't take it. Still, the Mormon ladies got us set up in a house on a street with the second highest rate of prostitution in the city. We paid no rent, and in exchange, managed the apartment building next door. Therein lived the requisite crazy old woman, Berniece, and her four cats; a welfare mother of three, with her felon husband in jail (her eldest became my best friend. Corny girls, we tied a yellow ribbon round the eighty-year-old tree out front when Lenora's Daddy finally came home); a legally blind and bearded mute; a rather trashy twenty year old, undoubtedly on drugs, but with enviably feathered hair; a former tenant, who briefly lived in his station wagon in the parking lot; I forget who else. Oh! and all the hamsters that got loose from Lenora and David's Habitrail.

Our house, which in its day must have been quite lovely, was a decrepit old three-story Craftsman. When we moved in, windows were missing, pigeons were roosting in the sleeping porch, there were old crates of fruit rotting in the basement. When it rained, it poured into the kitchen sink from the ceiling above. It took months, but we got it better than habitable. There was never any heat, except for a kerosene space heater we kept in the entry hall - just to keep the pipes liquid on the infrequent freezing days. When you got up in the morning, you could see your breath. There was no shower in the bathroom, just a tub, and the lath was exposed where the plaster had finally despaired. Sometimes you just can't hang on any longer. Finally, the city condemned the building. After they got us out and actually saw the insides, someone else moved in.

That was the poorest I have ever been. No movies, no heat, and for part of that year, not always money for meat. But the Mormons brought us supper, and the Mormons brought us warm socks. The Mormons taught me my body was a Temple,
I just allow for more parishioners than they would like, but that's my right. God bless the Mormons.

1 comment:

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