When I was a kid, I not only imagined that my bedroom was its’ own world, I also worked to make sure that it was. Surviving the red-velvet clutter and “Chuck Wagon Gang” gospel music that assaulted you at the front door and making it to my bedroom was, in my mind, akin to surviving Mordor on your return to the Shire, or making it through the rest of *Texas to get to Austin. Even at a young age I was deeply embarrassed by my simple, unrefined parents and, much to their frustration, I took every opportunity to accentuate our differences. In fact, I thought we were so different from each other that we couldn’t really be related at all. I was filled with new hope as an adolescent at the idea that I must have been adopted. My determination culminated in an exhaustive, but futile secret search through my parent’s boxes and drawers, looking for papers that would prove my adoption. Years later, at my high school graduation, I would take great satisfaction when adult friends would comment to me that they couldn’t believe Mom and Dad were my parents. Now, other people; adults, suggested that perhaps I was adopted and I couldn’t have felt more . . . proud. In a room full of people, a stranger wouldn’t connect me with my parents; not by looks, or speech, or demeanor. My determination to be as different from them as I could be, had paid off.
Of course, my adult perspective of my parents is more seasoned; they’re not complete scapegoats to be sure. While I don’t remember an exact moment of such a decision, I think that maybe, at some point early on, I made up my mind even as a child, that I didn’t want a relationship with them. Some of my embarrassment was certainly typical of most all of us growing up: floundering for independence and embarrassed by our dependence. Like every child and adolescent, like every teen, like every human, I wanted to be and to belong. But there were other factors that grew the need in me to retreat to my imagination; to cocoon in my room. When my refuge was ruined, when my retreat was destroyed, I would eventually rebel. But, before there were clearly drawn enemy lines, before I defected, it’s true, I fought for the cause.
If Mom and Dad had a “cause”, or purpose, or a life at all it was the country church we drove forty-some miles to attend. Every Sunday morning and every Sunday night; every Wednesday night, and at frequent week long revivals, the piano and tambourines were banged, people “spoke in tongues”, desperate altar calls were given, and “sinner’s prayers” were repeated. Best of all, my Sunday school teacher, Sister Opal, would routinely amuse and frighten me by “shouting” the vast number of bobby pins out of her carefully constructed, pinned, and sprayed hair. If the old joke about Pentecostals, “the higher the hair, the closer to God”, is true, Sister Opal surely must have touched the nail prints in His hands. At home, Dad didn’t allow a television in the house for years. No secular music was allowed in the house at all, none; not jazz, not country; only gospel. This was, for the first part of my life, the only world I knew. I knew nothing else, so I emulated what I knew, certain that it would please Mom and Dad; and ‘pleasing Mom and Dad’ if nothing else, had to hurt less.
An aunt of mine is still fond of recalling how at five-years-old, I would take my little wooden chair and stool that Dad had varnished and painted with my name, “Jimmy” and turn that little chair into a pulpit for some of the fieriest sermons stuffed animals never heard.
The “prayer hanky” came from my favorite family friend at church, Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams was round and happy and chocolate brown and had the very best laugh and I loved her. I reckon I believe that if anybody ever did know anything at all for certain (and most of us don’t), Mrs. Williams knew something for certain and from the very first time that I had special permission to sit with her in church, I just wanted to be like Mrs. Williams. So it was only natural that I had to have a prayer hanky in my belt, just like Mrs. Williams kept in the belt of her dresses to dab her eyes or mop her brow, but it wasn’t the female accessories, it wasn’t the belt or the hankies that was alluring. “Pentecostal drag” is frequently gender-neutral: soaked hanky, dry hanky, Bible, and lotsa perspiration. What I wanted to be near; what was magnetic, what I wanted to be like was what folks like Mrs. Williams were like. I wanted what they had, or what “had them”, to know what they knew that made ’em move like they did -real sure and real humble; to know why Mrs. Williams always did seem like a calm sky and a solid place, no matter what, when everybody else felt like hard rain.
Deepest the deepest convictions of my pre-Evangelist trail-five-year-old-self, I was still only five, so even I eventually grew impatient and restless in church services. As a result of my talking and squirming, I became so accustomed to being taken out of church and into the Ladies Room to get switched, that one Sunday on the way into the church I simply looked up at Mom and said, “We might as well go in now and get it over with before church starts.” Now, I imagine the resignation that must have been in my little boy voice, knowing that this, violence, was just a fact of my day, and it makes me sad for a moment, to know that at five, I felt beaten. I felt so beaten in fact, that I soon gave up the continually prophesied big calling on my little life to be a preacher. Soon, I hardly spoke at all. Ever. People began to inquire aloud as to if I was mute. “Can’t your little boy speak?”, people would ask my Mom, their voices offering pity even before she could answer.
Now, I was born in 1966 and unfortunately for me, any changing with the times my parents might have done stopped a decade before my arrival. Looking like an extra from “Peggy Sue Got Married” surprised by the 1970’s, even Mom’s best Sunday dresses were worn with the ever-present white bobby socks. Our modest home felt like a time warp. Mom alternated between secret shopping trips and illness. Dad always stank of the burning rubber he molded into tires at Cooper Tire and Rubber. When he wasn’t breaking his back at work, Dad would sometimes sit and read his Bible and write early in the morning and sometimes late at night. Sometimes he would lose himself in the garage, which was so full of stuff, that getting lost was actually possible. And sometimes to break up that routine up, he’d beat the daylights out of me. As I grew older I became more ashamed of my parent’s simple, poor, country folk ways and “old time religion” fervor. In a world in which I increasingly felt I didn’t belong, these two characters were apparently sent the long trip down Walton’s mountain to be certain that I never would. In our family’s defense, it should be noted, that there was not a velvet oil painting of Elvis over our couch. Appropriately enough, the velvet oil painting over our couch was of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a kind of a morbid marquee:
“Now Playing, In It’s Record Breaking Twelfth Year: “SUFFERING.”
In the picture, Christ is kneeling at an altar of rock, arms outstretched, hands clasped together in prayer, His face pained and pleading, as He and I ask that this bitter cup pass from us.
My bitter cup, as I saw it, was to survive, not only my father’s welts and blows, but also the crushing embarrassment of my Mom’s elastic-waisted polyester pants and incessantly cheery habit of answering the phone, “Hello! God loves you!” I imagine myself as Carrie White in the Brian De Palma directed movie and Stephen King story, “Carrie”. I can see the scene now; although, unlike Carrie, returning home from gym class where she was terrorized by her first period and tormented by the other girls, I am returning home from a church youth group gathering where the very people that I saw in church each Sunday played records that, to my serious horror, were not (gulp), gospel!
Imagine, me, twelve and Piper Laurie as my mother:
“I can see your dirty little Top 40 music, Carrie.”
“It’s not dirty, Mama. It’s just pop music. It’s just Anne Murray. Even the folks at church like her, Mama.”
“Heathens and Hypocrites. First sin was secular music. Say it.”
“No, Mama. Why didn’t you tell me? They all laughed at me ’cause I was so surprised they weren’t afraid of going to hell for listening to “Daydream Believer”. You shoulda told me Mama.”
“First sin was secular music. Say it child!”
“Go to your closet!”
And so, I did go to my closet. I could be found, but it bought me time. Sometimes just a few minutes could give mom enough time to calm Dad down a little. So, in the cramped, smothering hiding place in my bedroom closet I continued to learn the value of retreat; the safety of invisibility. If my bedroom was going to be my safe haven to retreat to it must be guarded and insulate me from all that was frightening, painful, and tacky just across the its’ threshold. However things might be outside the four walls of my bedroom, they would be as opposite of that as I could make them within.
Since the rest of the house was unkempt and cluttered, my room would be immaculate: no clutter, no dust, no wrinkles in my bedspread. In my room I countered the harsh light the living room picture window cast on my reality by creating indirect lighting with night lights and desk lamps hidden behind the removable speakers of my 8-track stereo. Since the only music in the rest of the house was country gospel, there would be classical music in my bedroom. I won the battle to play classical music as an exception by emphasizing its’ lack of lyrics and syncopated beats. Just by being thought about in my room, the lowly fiddle became a violin. There was a cork board that hung over my desk that I decorated to celebrate each season and holiday. My “desk” was actually a carpenter’s workbench. Of course, I had stored away all of the ridiculous carpenters’ tools and now imagined it to be a roll top desk.
Perhaps the most stark cultural contrast between the world inside my room and the “outside world” of the rest of the house was during the Christmas holiday. One of my more vivid childhood memories is of the annual Christmas conflict over whether or not we could have a Christmas tree. Dad saw it as an unwieldy arm of evil meant to replace Christ with commercialism. Mind you, I didn’t necessarily disagree with him, it was just confusing and embarrassing when he threw the Christmas tree into the front yard. If there would be no Christmas or only Christmas conflict outside my room, then it would be a Christmas-effin’ wonderland in my room. It began at Thanksgiving with a huge roll of colored paper from school on which I would create a Christmas mural. By the time the holiday arrived I would have a wall-size chalk depiction of the nativity. Garland and evergreen lined my dresser, bookshelf, and windowsill. Scented candles burned while Christmas carols played softly on an 8-track loop. From the ceiling I painstakingly hung hundreds of individual icicles, for what I saw as a tremendous effect. By just the streetlight from my bedroom window, when the furnace kicked on blowing warm air through the floor vent, all I saw were dancing flashes of silver light; stars in the low-slung heavens of my very own room. Here, it was a little easier to believe that I was somewhere else. Here, maybe I could find that hope again, that hope I use to have when I was sure I must have been adopted. Here, maybe I’ll find hope while I ponder the question posed by the quietly playing carol, “What Child is This?” What child is This, indeed.
In the end, I retreated to my room so frequently that my dad, the enemy, began to infiltrate my camp, even in the daylight. It became a rule that my bedroom door had to be left, not only unlocked, but open all the time. I broke no rule more consistently. As a result, my bedroom door was unhinged and removed by my Dad, as I would be very soon. It was sort of a cocoon C-section, and yet there would be wings; tattered and atrophied, but still, wings – wings that I could flex and extend, strengthen and bend – wings that could heal and mend and, for now, wings that would keep me warm while I learned to walk.
– PreetamDas Kirtana 2004/20014
*sorry, Texans, but well, you’re in Texas, you’d better have a sense of humor.
**a slightly different version of this story first appeared in the chapbook, “Growing Up Jimmy: Tales of Bible Belt Survival on the Yellow Brick Road”, at http://www.sematikon.com, and in “Dayton City Paper”.