Thursday, August 7, 2008

He Could Be Jesus!

It was Christmas 1954 and Jesus's birthday was being heralded big-time in downtown Richmond. On every streetcorner Salvation Army workers rang bells or gathered in small bands playing Christmas carols in the hopes that it would inspire generosity from the passersby.

Christmas lights (the ones with the big colorful bulbs, not the skimpy little things we have today) curled around traffic lights, snaked up the tall buildings, and hung from every tree that hadn't been cut down to make way for Richmond's recent growth spurt. Not a single thing, living or dead, along the wide boulevard that was Broad Street escaped being decked out with holiday cheer. It was all very magical for a six-year-old who had been looking forward to this shopping trip for weeks.

Every nickel, dime and quarter that I had managed to get my hands on over the past few months was now tucked inside a pink patent-leather purse that I clung to with a death-grip. Staring, wide-eyed, at the enormous Thalhimers display windows, I held my grandmother's hand tightly and felt like the richest kid in the world.

Thalhimer's Department Store was a Christmas tradition for Richmonders. The store's wonderful window displays drew holiday shoppers from all over Virginia. It had been one of the first stores to use animated displays and that year the windows had been skillfully decorated to look like a miniature UN. Within each 'nation' happy little animated children, dressed in their finest native costumes, danced, swayed and blinked to their native music. Every nation was represented...England, Germany, Mexico, Japan, Africa...all populated by little caucasion children singing their traditional (Christian) songs. Not exactly politically correct, even for the times, but the business-savvy merchants, most of whom were Jewish, would not waste a minute of the busy holiday season on political correctness. That would come much later after white flight had caused most of the stores in downtown Richmond to pull up stakes or go belly up. But in 1954 no one had ever heard of the word 'diversity', and the only color that mattered was green.

Thalhimer's always had the most beautiful Santa, too. If there was ever such a thing as a prince of Clauses, it would be the Claus at Thalhimer's. He was magnificent with his perfectly white beard, his spotless velvet red coat and his spit-polished boots that were so shiny you could see the Christmas lights reflected in them. It was the easiest thing in the world to believe that this Santa was the "real deal", that there was no such thing as human suffering, and that the world was a kind and benevolent place.

Over the next several hours, Nanny and I immersed ourselves in everything the season, and Thalhimer's, had to offer. After having my picture taken with Santa, we lunched in the elegant Tea Room, then shopped for presents. Two dollars went a long way in 1954. For 35 cents I purchased a glass perfume bottle for my mother (which Nanny promised to fill later with some of her very own 'Evening In Paris'), I spent 20 cents on a pack of cigarettes for my father, 10 cents for a big lollipop for my little brother, and 50 cents for a soft green scarf for Nanny (I fibbed and told her it was for my teacher). After spending another 50 cents on a half-pound of Thalhimer Fudge, I was delighted to find that I had enough money left over to buy a big bag of penny candy at Happy's General Store! It had been a good day.

Tired, but looking forward to our ride home on the warm city bus, Nanny and I made our way back through the long lines of shoppers and out the huge Oz-like exit doors of the department store into the chilly winter air. It was fast approaching evening and the streets were even more crowded than they had been earlier as everyone rushed to get home. Hurrying to our bus stop, I suddenly felt something bump into me roughly causing me to lose my balance and fall painfully onto the concrete sidewalk, my packages flying off in all directions.

No one seemed to notice as I sit on the pavement howling at the top of my lungs, but Nanny was there right away, doing the best she could to help me to my feet and gather up my packages.

"There, there, no harm done" she reassured me, but I was inconsolable. The scrape on my knee hurt like Hell and some of my packages had been stepped on by the crowd, ruining the pretty bows I had been so proud of.

I looked around angrily to see what had caused my misfortune and spotted it in the form of an odd little man sitting in the middle of the sidewalk shaking a tin bucket at the crowd. Covered with dirt and grime, he was not in the least concerned about my fall and he rattled his bucket rudely at everyone who dared come within a few feet of him. The few coins in his bucket made a horrible racket and drowned out the happy din of holiday noise. He shouted curses and obscenities at the crowd but few bothered to acknowledge him. Like a river that divides itself when it encounters a big rock, the crowd swiftly and expertly diverted itself around the beggar as though he were not a person at all, just another annoying obstacle to have to deal with in the holiday rush.

"Nanny!" I tugged angrily on my grandmother's worn coat to get her attention, "Why is that man sitting there? Did you see him trip me up?" I couldn't understand why someone would sit in the middle of a crowd of people and make such a fuss.

"Shhhhush!" Nanny whispered sharply. Then her tone became softer as she looked at the ragged man and said, "He could be Jesus!"

To me, the dirty old man with one leg, filthy clothes and an eye that seemed permanently swollen shut, looked nothing at all like the picture of the beautiful blond-haired smiling Jesus that hung over my grandmother's bed. To my dismay, instead of yelling at the man for tripping me, Nanny pulled some coins out of her purse and dropped them into the man's bucket, causing him to stop shaking it for a moment and look up. As their eyes met, the man tipped his ragged hat in her direction in a manner as grand as any that I had ever seen performed by a wealthy gentleman. In response, my diminutive grandmother smiled and nodded, looking every inch the lady. And for a brief moment it seemed as though the two knew each other, or, rather, had known each other, perhaps in gentler times. At that moment, our bus arrived. Still angry, and not understanding my grandmother's actions at all, I gave the man my best frowny-face as I limped aboard. But he never saw it, he had already turned and was rattling his bucket fiercly at the crowd once more.

On the ride home, I pouted and asked my grandmother how that dirty man could be Jesus. She tried to explain that sometimes Jesus comes back to Earth in the form of a beggar or some other kind of desperate human being as a way of testing the good hearts of His followers, but it was hard to wrap my six-year-old mind around such a concept. I wasn't buying it and I said so.

"Why can't Jesus just watch everybody from Heaven?", I insisted. But Nanny was tired now. It had been a long day.

"Because that's just the way He does it!" she snapped, weary of fielding theology questions from a child, "Now hush up!"

I have thought about that beggar many times in the decades since. In my mind I can still see his desperate, dirty, worn face as clearly as though it were yesterday. I have often pondered where Nanny got the notion that Jesus comes to Earth wearing strange diguises, but I have never heard a sermon preached about it, nor have I ever been able to find a reference to it in the bible.

Recently, I took my own little granddaughter shopping. I love these outings and so does she. It is fun to see things through a child's eyes. It gives you a fresh perspective and reminds you of the important things in life. For a special treat, I took her to a restaurant. As she devoured an ice cream sundae, I noticed her staring rather intently at a lady sitting alone in a booth across the aisle.

"Grandma," she whispered, "that lady isn't beautiful at all. She looks like an ugly witch," Observing the disfigurement in the woman's face, probably the result of a stroke, I had to admit that she was pretty unattractive from a human perspective. Suddenly the lady, perhaps feeling some kind of psychic nudge, looked up and caught us watching her. She smiled at us and we smiled back.

"See, Sweety Pie," I whispered, hugging my granddaughter for the millionth time that day, "the lady is beautiful after all (I pointed to my chest), in her heart." I then went on to explain to her how we should always try to be kind to everyone, no matter what they look like.

A little while later, I found myself thinking about Nanny and the beggar while I gathered up our belongings for the trip home. And when we waved good-bye to the lady in the restaurant, she suddenly seemed oddly familiar and I couldn't help but wonder, as I have with so many of the people I have met during my life...could she be Jesus?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ticket To Heaven

Nanny always said, "you will never get a ticket to Heaven if you don't get forgiveness on Earth." I think what she meant by that was that a person should try to make up for all of the wrongs they had done to others before it came time to meet their maker. Today that would be called 'karma', but Nanny loved trains and she was good at spinning things her own way.

I thought about my grandmother's words on the day of my father's funeral. I did not attend my father's funeral. It was a promise I had made to myself decades earlier and it was a promise I kept. And I don't regret it. While his cold dead body was being lowered into a hole in Virginia, I was sunning myself on a beautiful beach a thousand miles away, proud that I had remained true to my promise. Funerals, after all, are for mourning the loss of a loved one, and for paying last respects, and my father deserved neither my love nor my respect. What he did deserve, or rather, what he needed, at least according to Nanny's theory, was my forgiveness, or else, as she had so eloquently put it, he would never get his ticket to Heaven.

The speculation that I was the only thing that stood between my father's entry into the Pearly Gates or his plunge into the depths of Hell was...totally awesome. I enjoyed the delicious feeling of power that it gave me. But with power comes responsibility, and deep down inside I knew that I could never live with myself if I thought I had kept a soul out of Heaven. I knew I should try to find a way to forgive him, but there was an awful lot to forgive.

My father was terrible and terrifying. Beatings were commonplace in our house. My brother and I were beaten regularly with belts, sticks, fists, and anything else he could get his hands on in the heat of the moment. And there were a lot of heated moments. You didn't really have to 'do' anything to warrant his heavy hand. All you had to do was annoy him (asking him to pass the potatoes qualified, as did taking the last biscuit) and you would likely go flying through the window.

My father was 'old school' and dealt with any form of disobedience swiftly and, depending on his mood and his current blood alcohol level, often cruelly. He didn't care about the welts and bruises he left on little backs and legs, and he cared even less about the scars he left on little hearts and souls. He had never heard of 'time-outs', but if he had, I imagine he would have sneered at the notion. I can picture it now, my father towering over the the unfortunate teacher or counsellor who had dared to suggest such a thing, yelling, "Time-outs are for pussies! I'll give you a time-out! I'll knock you on your f-ckin ass, you walleyed, buck-toothed sonofa..." Well, you get the idea.

My father's odd attitude towards corporal punishment was made even odder by the fact that he never got beatings as a child! How he learned to be so cruel to his own children will always be a mystery to me. His childhood was generally a happy one. He and his eight siblings grew up on a houseboat in western Kentucky. Even though the family was poor (he was born the year of the 1929 Stock Market Crash), he spent his childhood doing everything he wanted to do...he fished and trapped in the Green River, he hunted deer, and he built forts and tree houses with his brothers. He loved his mother and his father and he adored where he lived. He ran wild, this boy of the woods, and he loved every minute of it.

But sometime between there and here, he got all messed up inside. As soon as he could afford to, he moved his family to the country where we were isolated and had little contact with our other relatives. It was there, in rural Virginia, where he began his reign of terror.

My father considered his children, like everything else in his house, his possessions to do with as he pleased, and it often pleased him to do terrible things to us. Beatings were just one of frequent horrors we suffered. He would tie us to fence posts and leave us for hours in the sun. He delighted in using us for his own entertainment and he especially enjoyed humiliating us in front of the rare visitor to our house. Sometimes he would make us strip naked and streak through the house in front of total strangers. He thought that was funny. Once, to show off his skill with a bow and arrow, he forced my little brother, who was nine at the time, to hold an apple in his teeth so he could shoot it out of his mouth, like William Tell. When my little brother fainted from fear before my father could draw his bow, he got a terrible beating with a belt for embarrasing my father in front of his 'company'. The company never returned. Another time, we were forced to watch, in grief and horror, while our father killed our dog by shooting it in its head. The little dog's only crime was getting in the way of this insane man.

Such was the stuff of our childhood. By the time I was a teenager I had been beaten, tortured and sexually molested repeatedly by my father. My mother never once stepped in to do a thing to stop him (but I will save that for another story). By age 15 I had a pronounced stutter, I flinched whenever someone came into a room, and I was failing miserably in school because my parents hated to see me studying. They considered it a waste of time. I should be cleaning the house, or washing dishes, or taking care of my youngest brother, or doing the laundry. Embarrassed to tell my teachers that my parents didn't care enough to look at my report card, much less sign it, I secretly learned how to forge their signatures. Eventually, I became quite good at that and I would even give myself 'compliments' from them from time to time such as: "We are very proud of Gail's work", "Gail studies very hard", "Gail spends a lot of time studying", and so on. The teachers never had a clue. No one ever knew the misery we endured.

I honestly don't know how I survived. My two brothers became alcoholics and perpetuated our father's legacy by beating up their own families, subsequently losing everything. But, somehow, by the grace of God, I managed to survive and even go on to lead a decent life. By sneaking off to study under the covers with a flashlight I graduated from high school with average grades, and with the help of a teacher, I eventually taught myself how to speak without stuttering. I didn't make it to college, but I never did drugs, or drink too much, or become promiscuous. And I didn't get pregnant until after I was married. I became successful in my chosen career field and I have lived my entire life without beating up a child. I consider that the epitomy of success. Today I have a good marriage and a wonderful relationship with my daughter and my grandchildren. Life is good, my father is cold in the ground, and the horrors of that terrible time are long past. Yet, there was still that forgiveness thing hanging over my head.

How do you forgive someone who has hurt you so badly? That was the question I grappled with on the day of my father's funeral. I would continue to ponder that question many times over the next few months, always coming back to the same thing...what, exactly, does it mean to forgive? By forgiving him, would I be throwing myself away and discounting all of the pain I had suffered at his hands? He had never suffered any penalties for the things he had done to me and I had received no justice for his deeds. Shouldn't there have been penalties? Shouldn't there have been justice? My emotions alternated between self-pity and justifiable anger. Yet, a little voice, way in the back of my head, kept whispering over and over and over, "Forgive him".

Almost three months to the day after my father's funeral, I am shopping in Wal-mart when my eye is suddenly drawn to a large blue helium balloon with a ridiculous, but very happy-looking, beaver on it. The grinning beaver is wearing a fishing hat and sitting in a small boat. Above its head, in huge letters, are the words "Bon Voyage". Perfect, I thought, my father liked to trap beavers.

Back home I scrawled out a note and taped it to the balloon, then I walked to the beautiful stretch of beach that had become my favorite go-to place whenever I needed solitude. The sun was setting and the beauty of the crimson and orange sky moved me to tears as I thought, "I am so lucky!" Bowing my head, I gave thanks to God for all of the wonderful things, and people, that I now have in my life, and I prayed for the little girl who had been so badly hurt so many years ago, that she would one day heal. Then I prayed for all the little girls, and boys, who are still being hurt today.

I opened my fingers and let the string holding the balloon slowly slip away. As the wind carried it upwards towards an evening star, I stared after it until I could no longer make out the words that I had scribbled on the note: "God, please forgive my father for all his sins and consider this his ticket to Heaven. Signed, his daughter, Gail." As soon as the balloon was out of sight, I turned towards home, feeling a bit relieved that my father had finally gotten his ticket to Heaven. And I thought, perhaps, so had I?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You don't belong here!

"You don't belong here! Get back to your section." The words stung all the more because they came from Beautiful Girl.

Beautiful Girl wore a white starched dress covered with cherries. Little cherries even dangled from her collar which was also starched. Her two perfect braids were held together by bright cherry-red ribbons that had been tied into perfect bows, and on her feet were the shiniest patent leather maryjanes I'd ever seen. She was a princess and I wanted to know her very much. I imagined us having tea parties and playing with our dolls. But all I knew about Beautiful Girl was that her name was 'Pearl' because that's what I had heard her mother call her.

I shuffled back to my section on the bus and slumped against my grandmother who promptly slapped me hard on my leg.

"What makes her so special?!" I demanded, "Why does she get to sit there and not me!?"

"Hush up!" Nanny whispered sharply, "You don't belong there!" Then she reminded me that if I was 'good' I could have all the ice cream I could ever eat when we got to Thalhimers. That cheered me up. I spent the rest of the ride on the bus thinking about all the banana splits and chocolate sundaes I would consume. I hoped Nanny had brought enough money to pay for them all. She would need it!

I loved riding on that big city bus even if I wasn't allowed to sit in the 'Princess Section'. I loved the smell of diesel as it pulled up to our stop. I loved being lifted up those high steps by Nanny. I loved hearing the clink clink of the coins as I dropped them into the token box (a special treat that only I got to do because my little brother had run away with the coins once too often).

Once in our seats, I loved staring out the window at all the marvelous sights going by as the bus slowly made it's way to downtown Richmond. There was Hollywood Cemetery with all the wonderful statues. There were the steepled churches and the shops and the townhouses where the rich people lived. There were the people that constantly got on and off the bus at every stop. I loved it all. But I coveted the 'Princess Section'.

In the Princess Section was the very best seat on the bus. It was the longest and it had the biggest window I'd ever seen stretching all the way along it's length. But the main reason I wanted to sit there was because it was the bounciest. Oh my God how that seat could bounce! With every bump and turn and jerk the bus made that seat would bounce high up in the air, then land back on the floor with a BANG.

I turned in my seat and watched with envy and resentment as Pearl and her mother bounced up and down in that seat. At one point, they bounced so hard that Pearl's mother's hat fell off her head and rolled down the aisle. Both of them giggled as Pearl retrieved the hat and plopped it back on her mother's head. When the bus got to their stop, Pearl took the opportunity to stick her tongue out at me and grin as she passed my seat. I returned the favor but it was clear that Pearl had won the day.

That was the first time in my life that I remember feeling 'second class'. And it didn't feel very good. But it was 1953 and I was 5 years old and, because I was white, I wasn't allowed to sit in the bouncy Princess Section at the back of the bus. But Pearl was.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Sweet Jesus!

Growing up in the South, I always felt that I was privy to inside information on God that church-going city kids never got. For instance, I knew that God could be afraid of mere mortals. How did I know? Well, he was afraid of my grandmother. Really afraid.

My grandmother had a real relationship with God. Not a white-gloved-Sunday-morning-pious pretending-that-I-can-do-no-wrong kind of relationship, but a real honest-to-god (sorry) one. She really knew God. And he knew her. Sometimes they got along. Sometimes they didn't. I remember one time, in particular, watching her give Him Hell after she got a letter saying that her pension was going to be cut. Now, that was quite a blow to someone living on a small fixed income and Nanny was furious.

"Dammit, God, I'm not taking it anymore!", she yelled up at the sky. [God responds with shamed silence.]

"I mean it! I've done my part. I put up with that no-good redneck son-in-law (my father) and all his bullshitin' relatives coming down here (to Virginia) demanding this and demanding that and making more work for me and nobody does a damn thing to help and I'm just worn down to the bone (she shakes her fist up at God) and I'm so tired I can't see straight and now you are going to let them cut my pension???!!!!! You know what I had to do for that friggin pension???? Hell, yes, you know! I had to sleep in that fartin, burpin, snorin, scratchin, nasty Booza Lieb's bed for 14 years to get that measly little widow's pension. And now you're gonna let 'em cut it? God, you do something about this right now, you hear! If you don't...(Nanny paused, then nodded her head vigorously as if making up her mind to something)... I'm going to the other side! I mean it. Satan can't do any worse to me than this! I've had it!"

The next day, a letter showed up from the pensioner apologizing for the mistake. It turns out, instead of cutting her pension by 10%, Nanny was going to get a 10% increase. God had backed down.

"Sweet Jesus!" she cried after reading the letter. Throwing up her arms to the heavens, she sobbed over and over, "Thank You, thank You, thank You" while big fat tears rolled down her cheeks. Then she composed herself a bit, patted her hair back into place and said, "Now, God, you sit right down here at the table, I'm gonna make you something to eat." And she did. At the very head of the table, she placed a plate full of corn cakes, country ham, and eggs. Then she went about her business.

That plate stayed on that table for two days. Flies came and went, the dog sniffed at it with curiousity, and the rest of the household watched warily as the food grew more and more rancid with each passing hour. But no one dared touch it. And on the third day it vanished. Just like Jesus after the crucifixion.

Some people used to say my Nanny was a nut. Some said she was an alcoholic (although I never remember seeing her drink or get drunk). I just think she had this awesome relationship with God.